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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.

Comments in order of when they were received | (reverse order)

 EZ2 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-08-04 10:41 AM

one of my neighbor who is a landscape architecture has his whole sidewalk blocked with his lavish plants..and there is no sidewalk on the other side of the street !


 COMMENT 304719 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-08-04 10:45 AM

On my morning walk I usually carry garden clippers. It is easy to clip a few branches here and there so eventually the walkway restrictions are reduced. Sometimes a homeowner will challenge your right to prune their plants but clearly they are running risk of a lawsuit if there is an injury.


 COMMENT 304738 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-08-04 11:35 AM

What? No advance copies as a special to us Edhat fans?
Looking forward to your book, Billy!


 COMMENT 304753 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-08-04 12:09 PM

Sometimes I break off a piece of a plant intruding into the sidewalk and leave it on the offender's driveway or walkway -- not enough of a clue for most of them however.

Trash cans on the sidewalk should be moved to block the offending driveway.

As for the cars blocking the sidewalk, best move is to mess with the passenger-side mirror so that it has to be realigned. This works for the heroes in parking lots too.


 COMMENT 304754 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-08-04 12:11 PM

Thank you Billy. Pictures are worth a 1000 words. And friendly notes on the offenders door are worth waiting for city enforcement to ever show up. Good neighbor policy in action.


 COMMENT 304771 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-08-04 01:03 PM

I'm one of those "wrong plant, wrong place" people with a bougainvillea in my front, but I am diligent about pruning the offending branches, both on the sidewalk side and the street side. There are enough long branches on the rest to get the raspberry flowers to show, so it works. My pet peeve is the cars that park across the sidewalk. I also mess with the mirrors, shame on me!


 COMMENT 304786 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-08-04 02:12 PM

There is an inconsiderate homeowner living along Barker Pass Rd. with his untrimmed, wildly growing hedges jutting out into the bike lane/walkway, or shoulder, adjacent to the curb. There is no sidewalk and it's the only place pedestrians or bikers can safely use so they now have to walk outside of the white line on the road. Making it even more dangerous, or potentially deadly, is the fact that the property is on a dangerous curve where many speed while cutting close to the hedge.


 COMMENT 304798 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-08-04 03:01 PM

What's up with all the passive-aggressiveness? Messing with car mirrors and leaving branches on doorsteps? Take a lesson from Billy and leave a note with your phone number or knock on the neighbor's door. Grow some huevos and get to know your neighbors.


 COMMENT 304824 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-08-04 04:34 PM

Wow. I feel compelled to comment on this article and the ensuing readers' comments. A pedestrian has a responsibility to him/herself and others to watch where the heck they are walking, for pete's sake! Ripped cornea? Puh-lease!

This article is only saved from complete nanny-ism and outright crabbiness by the good wishes for the Leptospermum to stay as is.

What a bunch of obsessive-compulsive baloney re: overgrowth of plants! I walk miles and miles, all over town. How is the greenery and lushness a problem for you prissy-britches querulous downer people?

More growth, the better. This obsession with keeping hedges trimmed to within a millimeter of their lives is just plain silly. More flowers=more bees & butterflies.

If you have a such a problem with hanging twigs and branchlets, leave a NICE NOTE on property owner's door. Then happy up in your life. Recycle/trash bins? One day a week? Can't believe this nonsense.


 COMMENT 304827 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-08-04 04:50 PM

Take a deeep breath......


 COMMENT 304838 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-08-04 06:15 PM

Since everyone prides themselves today being un-churched, it is fascinating how enduring old sunday school lessons were: do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.

In other words, property owners clean up your sidewalks. Your property rights stop at the public right-of-way. Make it right.


 COMMENT 304851 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-08-04 07:35 PM

Aside from the tree blocking the sidewalk, I don't get all the vitriol over plants. For someone who claims to love plants, Goodnick gets really worked up about those plants that don't fit into his personal aesthetic. I find some of these pictures wild and lovely.


 NEIGHBOR agree helpful negative off topic

2012-08-05 01:08 AM

Your pictures show great examples Billy. I look forward to your book. Any chance there will be an ebook version when it is released?


 COMMENT 304901 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-08-05 07:58 AM

Billy, you just gotta watch out for the hydroponic gardener set and their unique style of posting babbling responses. Don't let them get you caught in their ...weeds.


 COMMENT 304919P agree helpful negative off topic

2012-08-05 08:49 AM

I called the city (Goleta) one time when a neighbor let weeds grow so high on both sides of the sidewalk it was like walking through a field. I made the call because we have a blind couple who walk the neighborhood twice a day and I figured if I was having to fight my way through the mess, it must be confusing or worse for them and their seeing-eye dogs. It's not okay to block the sidewalks, bike lanes, etc., especially when the options for pedestrians and cyclists pose a possible danger.


 COMMENT 304924 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-08-05 09:02 AM

Plants growing over fences and walls are the best defense against taggers. I'll cut my plants back when the police and criminal justice system actually punishes the taggers instead of a slap on the wrist. It is too hard and expensive to clean a sandstone wall or repaint a wall to avoid the city imposed fines as the victim in this City. When the priorities get fixed so will the plants.


 COMMENT 304932 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-08-05 09:38 AM

My apologies, Mr G., for misreading the sentence, "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." I interpreted it to mean you usually have your nose in your iPhone playing simultaneous games of Words with Friends. I guess the inference I made from your own words was mistaken, albeit slightly.


 ARCHIE agree helpful negative off topic

2012-08-05 09:55 AM

Hey, Billy- how about a book launch signing at Chaucer's- the Santabarbarabookium?


 COMMENT 304942 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-08-05 10:10 AM

The only thing actually blocking a sidewalk, the writer is okay with. Partial obstacles must be removed! Yet if it takes over the whole right of way then... Whatever dude.


 COMMENT 304944 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-08-05 10:12 AM

Billy, I can't believe you quoted your friend to lend credibility to your argument, then turn around and say the Lepto is "cool" and should stay where it is because it's pretty. So, since she can't navigate the "thoughtfully" placed stairs (built to code, I bet not) she'd be more than happy to turn around, find chair-friendly access to the street, travel in the gutter around the plant, then power back up to the sidewalk? does not compute.

and 924 and others, please re-read 919's last sentence. It isn't JUST all about you. A gated community might be your answer?


From the


 RHS agree helpful negative off topic

2012-08-05 10:20 AM

I have been planning a response to these things for several years but not acted. My idea is to create a group titled "SAFE". Sidewalks Are For Everyone. We would produce stickers and whenever members walking on public sidewalks observes or encounters a blockage they would put a sticker on the obstruction or the address mailbox politely asking the owner to attend to the problem. I think this would solve most of the issues. However, a little self-help is OK if not too aggressive. On a couple of occasions I have taken garden cutters with me to trim branches that had grown well over the sidewalk. Sometimes I move the emptied trash cans blocking the sidewalk into the driveway so the owner can see how it feels, so to speak. (This is only several days after the pick up when the owner ignores the cans.) This works. Of course the other big issue is the City's lack of attention to sidewalks--maintenance or construction in areas where they do not exist. Other cities have passed ordinances requiring sidewalks to be in place and meet code when property abutting the sidewalk area is sold. Maybe this is a good idea here? Otherwise, can we get the City to spend some money on sidewalks instead of bulb outs?


 FLICKA agree helpful negative off topic

2012-08-05 10:38 AM

Billy, A "right-on piece", can't believe anyone has issues with it. As you mentioned, you dad uses a walker and has impaired eyesight. Many others are with walkers or in wheelchairs. It's totally selfish for owners to think it's OK to block a public right-of-way, or for the commenters to suggest you are out of place for bringing up the subject.


 MTNDRIVER agree helpful negative off topic

2012-08-05 11:03 AM

Was impaled once on top of the head by an overhanging bougainvillea while walking down a sidewalk somewhere on the east side. Didn't realize how deep it went until a block or so further on there was blood streaming down my forehead.

Natal plum jutting out into walkways both along sidewalks and in some parking lots--walking along with a toddler, once almost had a small hand disaster as he was fascinated by the beautiful red fruit surrounded by those thorns.


 COMMENT 304967 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-08-05 11:06 AM

Recently, I rolled down Patterson, from University to Hollister (left side - right side does not have sidewalks much beyond Overpass Rd, to keep a medical appt. I had to power thru parkway and county property overgrowth. including huge weeds growing in cracks, before and after the overpass..I was scratched and my white jacket, badly soiled...had to protect my eyes. One must be very cautious crossing intersections. I always try to make eye contact with the driver, praying they do not make a right turn before they see me! I am a friend of Bonnie Elliot...access in our disabled community can be very frustrating!?!?

I will carry clippers with me next time...albeit most are too thick for me to clip.


 COMMENT 304972 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-08-05 11:28 AM

I'm with you, Billy! Keep up the good work and information!


 COMMENT 304975 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-08-05 11:36 AM

I love the SAFE suggestion! I too have disliked the intrusions. A removable (yes, they make them) SAFE sticker is extremely appropriate. I often tell myself to not be a WWW, a whiney white woman, and ignore the sitch. But a friendly note to the owners, a SAFE sticker, some clippers, are all great ideas...thanks!


 COMMENT 304987 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-08-05 01:18 PM

You'd rather place a sticker on someone's mailbox versus actually having a face to face conversation with you neighbors? This makes you something other than a WWW. I concur with @798. If you don't have the huevos to assertively ask for change, how can you expect anything other than the status quo?


 COMMENT 304990P agree helpful negative off topic

2012-08-05 01:38 PM

I agree that having vines on the wall prevents tagging, but bougainvillea and/or roses are not good choices. Neither actually clings to the wall, and both have thorns. A better choice is creeping fig, which loves to plaster itself against walls, grows flat, and requires only occasional pruning when it's mature. There are probably others--let's ask Billy! I think it's nice that the city tends to leave sidewalk alone unless there's a complaint, because most people feel they own the space in front of the house, but actually the sidewalk is an easement and the city could come in there and do whatever. Where I live in San Roque there are no sidewalks, and my gripe is with people who deliberately plant spiky things against the curb, to prevent neighbors parking there. Not only is neighbor parking not a big problem around here--people tend to do the suburban thing and park in front of their own houses--but they are totally asking for the serious liability suit when some child loses and eye or some naive person exiting a car gets impaled on blue agave spikes sticking out at 3', etc. I became hyper aware of these places when I first became a mom. At least the overgrown sidewalks appear to be products of neglect or lack of awareness, but the curb barriers around here are deliberate.


 BILLY GOODNICK agree helpful negative off topic

2012-08-05 02:03 PM

Dear Commenter 304990P: Creeping fig, eh? Guess you missed my rant a few months ago, title Dear Ficus: Go Fig Yourself. (http://www.edhat.com/site/tidbit.cfm?

The stuff is cute when it's young (like most of us), but after a few years it morphs into a plague that can swallow buildings and slow moving pets. I wish it had a "Pause" button. Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of chia-like plants that do the job of covering a wall without damaging the structure, and also know when to stop. When I become Rei di Tutti, things will be different.

As for the majority of you who see the merit of my point, thanks for weighing in. This article is going national soon at GardenRant.com. Let's see how the rest of the garden blog-reading world feels about it.

Lastly, I would LOVE it if someone picks up the ball about SAFE stickers. Maybe start by throwing a Facebook Page up? I'd take a shot myself, but I've got a book to write.

be well ... bg


 COMMENT 305205 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-08-06 01:37 PM

@798, I would love to have a conversation, but access to door and even mailbox (to leave a friendly note) is difficult to impossible in my wheelchair.


 SBROCKS agree helpful negative off topic

2012-08-07 08:51 AM

We asked our neighbor to cut back the plant growth on the sidewalk. She put in rocks under the growth so if you step on the growth you trip and fall. She has a very interesting City file full of mis dos. When asked to remove her trash from the sidewalk, she dumped the trash on the walkway and put the can away. The city responded, we ment what was in the can. She then said I could not lift them they were too heavy. City response, if you could dump it out you should be able to remove the cans and the contents. No joke it's in the property city file with all the emails. Not the SB I grew up in.


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