Saturday, March 26, 2011

Sunset Magazine Likes My Clients' Parkway!

I was curious when I checked my e-mail in-box last month and saw a message from Sharon Cohoon, senior garden writer for Sunset Magazine and their Fresh Dirt blog.
Hi, Billy. I’m coming up to Santa Barbara the weekend of March 11-12. Mostly to evaluate a hotel for a travel story. Tough assignment, huh? But I was wondering if you had a favorite garden or two you’d want to show off either day? If so, give me a call.
Guess how long it took me to pick up the phone and call Sharon back? A few weeks later I was picking Sharon up at her posh downtown hotel and ferrying her around to some of my favorite designs. When we got to the home of Nicole and Bill, Sharon was nearly breathless upon seeing this parkway erupting with brilliant, twisty, pink flowers floating over dark green foliage -- Grevillea lanigera 'Coastal Gem'.

"This is definitely blogworthy," she said as we drove away. She wasn't kidding. Read her blog post at Fresh Dirt.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Really Fine On-Line Garden Design

I'm not sure I should be sharing this with you. Besides writing, I earn some my income designing residential gardens. And here I am, about to hand you a great, free tool for doing it yourself. But I'm also a teacher and a generous kinda guy, so what the hell?

The local water agencies have shelled out some pretty serious coin to fund a goodie-filled website with lots of water conservation ideas. Follow their advice and you'll save money while helping preserve the planet's most essential natural resource - clean drinking water. You've read my rants ripping folks who let water run down the gutter, or squander it washing sidewalks. (If you want your concrete clean enough to eat off of, toss it in the dishwasher.)

Smart water use in the garden has two key components: Wise water management is important, but putting the right plant in the right placeis where sustainable landscaping begins. Growing conditions can vary widely on a small residential lot: The same plant that thrives in cool morning sun on the east side of your place turns into oven-roasted ‘tater skins when subjected to the summer scorch of afternoon sun. A mounded bed in one part of your yard might provide ideal drainage for natives, while clay deposits in the parkway usually mean the same plant's kiss of death.

With thousands of plants to choose from, how do you decide what to plant? I've got nothing against everyone's go-to garden encyclopedia, the Sunset Western Garden Book (actually, I do… check the link at the end of this article), but what if you could take an on-line tour of LOCAL gardens, click on plants that turn you on, then read everything you'd ever want to know about how to use each one flawlessly, and print out a shopping list?

Then step right up, ladies and gents, for the rip-roaringest, easy-peasy, life-changing garden design website in the whole world. (I'm holding off on giving you the link, cowgirls and stud-muffins, so hold your horses and don't scroll down just yet.)

Get the rest of the scoop at

Make Room On Your Garden Bookshelf

I slid into the soon-to-be-shuttered State Street Border's store a few weeks ago looking for sweet close-out deals on garden books. What was I thinking? I've never purchased a garden book at Border's. Apparently, their buyer thought we garden in the Pisgah National Forest, or have an insatiable urge to provide habitat for double-breasted pinstriped warblers.

Regardless, I optimistically raked through the dregs, recalling that my own garden library is a mess. (When I'm working, books fly off the shelves like startled bats.) I didn't reshelve everything - I wanted to let you in on a few of my faves. Spring is just around the corner - be prepared.

If You Only Buy One Garden Book…

Back at my office, while struggling to impose a little discipline on the teetering stacks threatening my desk, I ran across my very first copy of the Sunset Western Garden Book. Nostalgia welled up. This was the book I bought after deciding to hang up my drumming career in the early 70s, having been seduced by bonsai and all things chlorophyll.

This book is old, I tell you, OLD! I thumbed through tattered pages with outdated plant lists like "Pterydon-proof Plants" and "Primordial Ferns That Will Eventually Be Refined Into High Octane Fossil Fuel."

My newest edition of Sunset is already showing signs of abuse, and for good reason. "Sunset", as it's expediently called by its loyal readers, features the most comprehensive encyclopedia of plants for western gardens (over 8000 listings), informative explanations of 29 climate zones, and a massive encyclopedia filled with practical gardening information - a book unto itself. (Not sure whether your lawn is infested with cutworms, or about to burst open, spewing forth monsters from the bowels of Hell? It's probably in there.)

Mooooooooooore Booooooooks at!!!!

I'm Branching Out Into Archaeology: Blame the Wisteria

We have cable. That’s why I’m such an intellectual force to be reckoned with. I have at my fingertips access to in-depth research tools like the Hallmark Channel where I learn about what makes women tick (something to do with automatic air fresheners, from what I can tell), the Speed Network for the latest developments in dirt bike oil filters, and the History Channel (it’s not just about pawnshops).

But I’ve yet to see a documentary on the ancient migratory trail of the Wisterians, who evidently passed through Santa Barbara, leaving barely a trace. Without a reliable body of research I can only conjecture that they appeared about 14,000 years ago but were out-completed by the Clovis civilization (purveyors of fine stone spear points). Or the Clovis folks just had better PR.

But back to the Wisterians. They must have been a gentle people as evidenced by their love of sweet smelling, pastel colored plants.

“Why Professor Goodnick,” you challenge incredulously, “with what evidence do you support your hypothesis?”

Fair question. You know how in the first Indiana Jones movie he finds that metal thingy, puts on top of a stick and on just the right day at just the right time the sun shines through and illuminates the secret location of the Ark of the Covenant? It’s like that, except instead of calculating sun angles and seasons, the math-phobic Wisterians planted wisteria vines along their migratory route to mark their path.

How else do you explain the sprawling purple wisteria vines that are at this moment bursting forth along Highway 101, the coastal route through my fair state. They’re scampering up tangled trees, showering them in luscious lavender-colored, perfumed vines. Like a Hansel and Gretel breadcrumbs, those clever Wisterians turned their love of plants and into a pre-GPS way-finding technology. Of course, if they came back at any other time of the year, they’d be righteously screwed, dude.

It just continues getting sillier and sillier... Will you join me at Fine Gardening?

Hot Tubbing with Jeffrey Gordon Smith?

Aside from my new Design Workshop column in Fine Gardening magazine and this blog, I write about gardens for a few Southern California magazines and blogs. Feeling a need to expand my horizons beyond my Santa Barbara borders, I planned a road trip to the San Luis Obispo area (SLO), about 100 miles north of my home.

I studied landscape architecture at Cal Poly SLO in the 80s, but haven't really kept up with the area's garden design scene, so I asked everyone I knew for advice. Just about everybody said, "You've GOT to meet Jeffrey Gordon Smith and see his designs."

Smith (a landscape architect based in the small, beachside town of Los Osos, and executing beautiful projects from the Bay Area to the southernmost reaches of the Golden State) and I hammered out the details for a visit, but a super deluge in December wiped out my plans. Later, as I perused the program at the SF Flower and Garden Show, I noticed that Jeffrey was not only going to be speaking about his new book (Jeffrey Gordon Smith Landscape Architecture), but also constructing an exhibit garden at the show.

I thought he'd be an interesting subject for a pre-show blog post, and phoned him for an interview to find out what visitors to the SFFGS might find inspirational. Our conversation kept detouring into all kinds of topics, and when I got off the phone 45 minutes later, I still wasn't sure what I'd write about. I had asked all the right questions: "What's your big idea?" "How would they be inspired for their own gardens?"

I do know one thing: If you visit his garden at show, you're going to have a fabulous time and walk away with a huge smile on your face. "I'm all about having fun. Why do it if it ain't fun?"

The discussion continues at Fine Gardening...

Foliage Foundations and Gnasty Gnomes (the Gs are silent)

[Author's note: I'm making this first part up.]

Imagine this late night scene: You've finished flossing, folded down the quilt, fluffed the pillows, flipped open F is for Fugitive, felt it fall flat on your face, and flipped off the fluorescent.

That's their signal. I'm not condoning their behavior, mind you, but as you sail off to The Land of Nod, your garden gnomes begin their nightly escapades. Imagine a job like theirs -- standing immobile while the summer sun bakes off your paint, or winter winds whip you with sleet. And what's with the sprinkler bidet?

So when late night falls and their shift ends, the gnomes need to blow off some steam. Off to the all-night pub, they belly up to the brass foot rail and get down to serious business.

The night isn't over yet. Stumbling home, their little concrete eyes gleaming, the merry pranksters repeat their pre-dawn ritual: Picking off all the flower buds waiting to open, so the garden never blooms.

The moral of this story: Design your garden as though these mischievous, misanthropic (or is that mis-flor-opic?), buggers live in your garden. Don't use flowers as the sole visual interest in your garden. Instead, concentrate on creating year-round interest by exploiting your plants' shapes, density, leaf patterns, and foliage colors, so your garden looks great, flowers or not.

Allow me to share one of the most elegantly sophisticated little corners of landscaping I've ever seen. What knocks me out so much is the use of two key visual design principles - harmony (elements with similarities) and contrast (elements with differences). This vignette sits a few blocks from my house, adorning the Sansum Diabetes Research Center in Santa Barbara.

More photos and astute analysis at Fine Gardening

Add Nan Sterman's Great Book To Your Library!

Nan Sterman's California Gardener's Guide, Volume II, (Cool Springs Press) fills in much of the info that the Sunset Western Garden Book sometimes leaves me guessing about.

Although Sunset includes more than 8000 plants in their encyclopedia, the specific information about each plant is sometimes inconsistent. I can look up one plant and find out everything I need to know (including its SSN and high school transcripts), while another plant's listing leaves out something critical, like how wide the plant gets at maturity.

Filling In The Gaps
That's why I always happy when a plant I need to know more about is listed in Sterman's book. California Gardener's Guide takes a "less is more" and a "more is more" approach: It lists only 186 plants, but packs each entry with well-researched, vital information that helps me make intelligent plant selection decisions.

The book starts with inspiring and informative introductory chapters explaining California's enviable Mediterranean climate and its affect on the garden. Sterman explains the pronounced differences in growing conditions throughout this diverse state, including easy-to-understand tables showing typical rainfall and high/low temperatures in major five regions.

Sterman's advice about planning, installing, and caring for a garden is steeped in the most fundamental concepts of sustainable landscaping: Know your site and the growing conditions each plant will face; apply the principles of water-efficient gardening; and take the time to intelligently match the right plant to the right place.

More to read about Nan Sterman's must-have book at Fine Gardening...