Friday, August 31, 2007

Nominations for Santa Barbara Not-So-Beautiful Awards

It’s about time for Santa Barbara Beautiful to issue their awards for all the great commercial building, residential, and landscape projects that continue to make our hometown such a fabulous place to live. SBB is all about shining a well-deserved spotlight on the property owners, designers, contractors and maintenance personnel who make the extra effort. We owe SBB a debt of gratitude for continually raising the bar and for providing funding to worthy beautification projects.

Out of necessity, or maybe kindness, they do not have an evil twin organization to rant about the aesthetic blight perpetrated upon the community by folks who plant and tend some of the landscapes we are daily subjected to. These are the tortured trees, chaotic colors, and hacked hedges that make me want to fly over with a napalm drop and put us out of our collective misery.

Here are my two main beefs…

1) People (out of ignorance, not malice) put plants in places they have no business being planted. If a plant is genetically imprinted to grow twenty feet high and twenty feet across, don’t put it in a 6” deep window box. That casts the die and assures unnecessary butchery for the live of the plant. Worse, some folks consider the pruning of a plant to be an artistic endeavor on par with avant garde sculpture.

2) Just ‘cause you own a smelly, obnoxious, gas-powered, pollution-belching hedge trimmer doesn’t mean you have to use it on every plant in the garden. And if you do whip it out, how about creating a somewhat natural form out of the plants you assault?

So permit me to offer the 1st Annual Santa Barbara Not-So-Beautiful Awards for Absurd Horticulture. I’m seeking your nominations. Here are the guidelines and a few pictorial examples to get you started. Leave your nominations as comments at the end of this post…

Category: Best Use of Inappropriate Technology To Perform Needless Work

This award will go to the Plant Janitor who has apparently never visited a real garden or ventured into the natural environment. Note the avoidance of the term “gardener” as this lofty title is reserved for those who recognize that plants are living things, that each has its own particular growth habits and cultural needs, and that, when properly selected and placed, can exist quite well with no reshaping from anyone, thank you very much.


Category: Most Absurd Location To Plant A Bougainvillea

Most Bougies fall into the category of aggressive, thorny, don’t-mess-with-me brambles that will take over a football field if left alone. Their allure, however, is their delightful color, imparted by bracts (not actually flowers) that range from purest white to copper, red, purple, and pink. It’s that beautiful color that makes folks plant them anywhere, regardless of the torturous abuse needed to subdue them in the ridiculous spaces we force them to occupy. It’s NOT a freakin’ petunia folks! Furthermore, when you slice them and dice them, you’re cutting off the tips that produce the color. Smooth move! So lemme know where the most absurd examples reside.


Category: Abused Plant Most Likely To Be Featured In A Dr. Seuss Illustration

How far can a plant janitor stray from the inherent form of a plant before we lose all connection with Mother Nature? How misguided and unobservant does one need to be to create the Twilight-Zone tableaus we find dotting the landscapes of Santa Barbara. When does it make more sense to throw some plastic coat hangers in a furnace, pull them out and shove them in the ground? You know they're out there—now go find them.


I think that’s enough to get you started. If you think of other categories, send them along and maybe we’ll try another round. In the meantime, while you’re looking for candidates, keep your eyes on the road—wouldn’t want to lose a REAL gardener.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Santa Barbara County Hort Society Tour

Plants! Where would we be without them? We’d be hungry, breathing toxic gases, sporting various sun-related skin conditions, and thoroughly perplexed with our irrational urge to visit the garden center on beautiful weekends.

I’m in a minor panic at the moment, sitting here at the keyboard putting together my thoughts before taking an enthusiastic group from the Santa Barbara County Horticultural Society (founded in 1869—who said we don’t have our stuff together?) through the Thayer’s garden. No offense to my other clients, but that’s still my fave rave of all the places I’ve done over the decades.

Who joins the Hort Society? Not to generalize too much, but it’s folks who just plain love plants—weird ones (the plants, not the people, although…) rare ones, drop-dead-gorgeous ones, odd ones, fat ones, skinny ones, plants that climb on rocks. Knowing from my own temperament, sometimes the possession of the plant overwhelms the necessity of fitting it into the overall design. “I just HAVE TO HAVE IT! I can always move it later” is the primal brain response from somewhere deep in the cortex.

I know I’ll be asked to “address” the folks before we turn them loose in the garden. So what gem can I impart that if they retain nothing else, will make this visit worthwhile? It’s my handy dandy system for taming potential chaos.

A couple of years ago I was asked to create design guidelines for the main meadow area at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. Honored? Stunned? Humbled? You bet. More on that another day.

The key idea was to tame the potential chaos of this grand palette by viewing the entire area as four or five major groupings of plants, each held together with a harmonizing theme.

Huh? Here’s an over simplification, but what if there were 100 varieties of plants to display. Do we combine them alphabetically by genus and species? Not likely. How about by the zip codes of the area in which they commonly occur? All the plants from downtown Santa Barbara’s 93101 would be in one group, the plants that naturally occur on the Mesa in another grouping…nah.

O.K. Back to the four or five major swaths, one with predominantly yellow and golden flowers, another made up of plants with a spiky form, another with gray and silver foliage. From a distance, there would be a sense of order due to the common visual characteristics, but if we move closer into the meadow, we’d see subtle and not so subtle contrasts between the various plants in each grouping.

Within each major block can be associations of plants of different species, but they’d all fit within the common theme. This allows a large variety of plants to be combined while simplifying the overall scale of the bed.

So what about trying this in your own garden, but scaled down to fit the spaces? I think the best example of this approach is the combination in the “Big Sur” garden at the Thayers (pictured above). Aeonium and Echevaria planted in blocks. Each has the same form and structure—flat succulent leaves held in a rosette. But the yellow-green of the slightly more robust Aeonium paired with the gray-green smaller Echevaria create a mass that from a distance, appears to be a single entity. But move in closer and there’s a subtle mix that provides another layer of complexity.

Too similar? I understand your concern, so we sparked things up by backing up that mass with Myer’s Asparagus, the common link in this grouping being the yellow-green foliage that complements the Aeonium, but with a radically different form—in this case, something like Rastafarian dreadlocks heading skyward.

Nuff for now. I can go on and on about how I visualize and compose with plants, but my hope is to give my readers a starting point for taming the one-of-each plantings I see in so many gardens owned by plant fanatics. Round up all the plants you’re thinking of using and see if you can categorize them by some common characteristics. Within those groupings, play with varying degrees of harmony and contrast.

Lemme know if this helps.