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Keep Your Garden Out of my Face
updated: Aug 04, 2012, 10:30 AM

By Billy Goodnick

It was a dark and foggy summer night. Biff the Wonder Spaniel and I set out for our last neighborhood stroll, green poopy bag at the ready. It's a good thing I didn't have my nose buried in my iPhone, catching up on the four games of Words With Friends that Lin and I usually have going. If I had been distracted, I'd probably be sporting stitches, or worse yet, a ripped cornea.

Through the mist, I realized I was one step away from facial lacerations from a thorny rose branch arching across the sidewalk at eye level. That's what can happen when someone plants a Cecile Brunner climbing rose on a picket fence that butts up against the sidewalk.

Seems to me, you'd have to be either stupid or heartless to think you can plant a 25-foot climber a couple of inches from your property line, then neglect pruning it. Good thing poison oak isn't a popular garden plant.

Thorny plants are the worst-case scenario, but it seems everywhere I look, somebody's fuzzy bush is in my face. I've got no beef with someone planting this stuff along their own walkways, but when half of a public sidewalk is blocked by some thoughtless, lazy gardener's weekend project, I get pissed off.

One block from my house in the opposite direction, there's a wall of ivy climbing something (it's so dense I have no idea if it's an old chain link fence or remnants of an ancient civilization) and taking up more than half the sidewalk. Up on Los Olivos, between De la Vina and Chapala, crimson bougainvillea sporting inch-long spiky thorns spills out from a raised wall. Pretty? Yes. Neighborly? Hardly. Legal? No way. Arrogant and lazy? In the words of Sarah Palin, you betcha.

Assuming that the owners of these properties are aware that their plants are blocking public right of way, I can only assume that they rationalize it by thinking "I can get past, so why ruin my weekend doing chores?"

What about a mom with a stroller? What about someone like my dad who uses a walker and is legally blind?


Here's a two-for-one special: Brazilian skyflower in the parkway (some varieties reach 20-feet high and wide) and rosemary creeping in from the garden. Great for an Olympic slalom course, but maybe a bit much for someone with mobility problems.

Two blocks away, on De la Vina, where I'm sure curbside parking is at a premium, some numbnut who won't clean out their garage left their big fat tail end blocking the walk. All that's missing is a middle- finger decal over the wheel.

Bonnie Elliott is a friend who spends much of her waking days in a power wheel chair. She's also been active on the City of Santa Barbara's Access Advisory Committee, reviewing submittals that go through the Planning Commission and making recommendations to make new projects safer and more livable for a wider cross-section of the community.

"That overgrown crap shouldn't be there," Bonnie told me, as we sipped ice teas and devoured divine pistachio macarons on a warm afternoon at Renaud's. "Some hedges make it impossible for drivers to see anyone on the sidewalk when they pull out of their driveways. You can't see them and they can't see you. There's no way you can achieve ‘escape velocity' when a car suddenly appears."

As long as we're talking about public sidewalks, what about those trash/recycling/green-waste cans? This morning, I hauled one filled with brush and bamboo and a blue recycling bin off the sideway, left there, no doubt, by the homeowner in indifferent haste. Sometimes they're empty, meaning that an in- a-hurry MarBorg guy dumped the load and ignored the company policy laid out for me by Tito Escarcega, supervisor: "We hammer the guys: do not leave the cans near mailboxes, near driveways, or on sidewalks. But I'd be lying if I said that a few of our guys don't slip up once in a while." I know these guys are generally on top of it and do awesome, back-breaking work, but there are a few slouches who need to appreciate the bigger picture.

If you're in a wheelchair and there's no way around an obstacle, many times the alternative is a detour down a sloping driveway and out into the street. Bonnie recounted a recent incident near Cottage Hospital where she was almost hit, the driver slamming on the brakes just in time.

While I'm at it, what about sprinklers that go out of whack, showering passing pedestrians (and hydrophobic cocker spaniels)? It's bad enough all that water is missing its target and flows to the gutter, but no one should need a snorkel to take their exercise stroll.

Am I getting through? I love gardens. I make my living designing, teaching, writing, and ranting about them. But your right to grow a garden ends at your property line. Any time you buy a plant you intend to grow near public walkways or streets comes with a duty to know its potential size and either give it plenty of room to do its thing, or be conscious and considerate enough to keep it the hell out of everyone's way. If that means giving up a few hours on the weekend, or increasing your gardener's hours, bite the bullet.

If you're as fed up as I am with this stuff, do as I do and rat out your neighbor. I don't start by calling out the big guns. In the case of the errant rose bush, I left a note on their door (including my phone number - I'm straight up about it) and the next day I got an apologetic phone call and the rose was pruned. Encroachments into public right of way can be reported to the Zoning Division for the City of Santa Barbara (in person at 620 Garden Street or by calling 805.897.2676), and I'm guessing that other agencies have similar policies.

But I'm making one exception. On the 400 block of East Islay Street is a magnificent specimen of Australian Tea Tree (Leptospermum laevigatum) slithering across the sidewalk in all its muscular glory. There's no way around it, so the thoughtful owners have constructed a stairway leading down to the street so neighbors can get around. I'm cool with that.

NEWS FLASH! I'm writing a garden design book titled, "Yards: Turn Any Outdoor Space Into the Garden of Your Dreams." It's the garden design book you need to read before you read all the other ones. You'll learn the thought process that professional designers like me use to create gardens that aren't just drop dead gorgeous, but also serve as an extension of your home, while treading gently on the planet. Here's what Amy Stewart, New York Times best-selling author of Wicked Plants has to say: "Billy Goodnick delivers the most laid-back, user-friendly and entertaining garden advice you'll ever read. Invite him into your backyard - now!"

The book comes out in March 2013 (cuz I'm still writing it) but you can pre-order today at
and listed soon at Barnesandnobel.com.


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