Sunday, November 20, 2011

Stay Classy Santa Barbara

I'm posting this upbeat, gushing article about the beauty of Santa Barbara as an advanced karmic vaccination for the likely effect of my next post, two weeks hence. That will be my annual Santa Barbara Not So Beautiful Awards, where I shine a snarky, searing light on the boneheaded things people do in the name of horticulture.

I always catch some heat from the "look for the good and praise it" crowd. Yes, I've heard the old adage, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all," but I don't live in Smurfville, and I DO get a lot of entertainment and educational mileage out of looking for bad examples and poking at them.

In the meantime, I'm posting this gallery of enchanting imagery to prove that I don't just walk around looking for warts and blemishes, when it's obvious that we're blessed with a bounty of beauty that is Santa Barbara. Perhaps by shining a golden light on the vignettes that thrill me, you'll see that I'm not just a one- dimensional curmudgeon flailing his shillaly in the darkness.

Enjoy the beauty of Santa Barbara with one quick click.

Christmas Trees Should Smell Good

The headline pretty much sums up my argument. But my boss would not be happy with a five-word blog post, so allow me to share a few more reasons why I'd never let an artificial Christmas tree through my front door.

I make no claims of being a Christmas tree maven, a Yiddish word meaning expert, or connoisseur (a French word meaning maven). I'm from a middle-class Jewish upbringing and I only knew Christmas trees from the homes of my non-gefilte-fish-eating buddies. I remember Jay's metallic silver contraption with the rotating multicolor floodlight. Better, but still pretty bizarre, was Terry's cut tree encrusted in robin's egg blue flocking -- but at least it smelled like a plant.

Christmas trees started appearing in my living room after moving out of my folks' place and setting up housekeeping with a girlfriend from a more Norman Rockwell upbringing. Over the years, I've refined my criteria for the perfect tree:

• Douglas Fir, because it has more space between the branches for ornaments than the Michelin Man morphology of Noble Firs.
• A strong leader to hold the cone-shaped, copper wire-haired, red pipe-cleaner winged angel my son made when he was little.
• The enlivening, fresh aroma of resinous conifer needles (overpowered for a day or two by the lingering fragrance of volatilized peanut oil, potatoes, and onions from our annual Potato Latke Gorging Night).

It's only in recent years that I've thought about where these trees come from and how they arrive in tree lots around the country. I've wondered whether cutting down live trees for a few weeks of tradition is at odds with my professed stance regarding sustainable living.

So I did a little sleuthing and, for me, I can emphatically state that real trees win the enviro-battle, hands down.

Holey Crocs, Batman!

Regular size people recognize me by my hat. But really teeny tiny people know me for my distinctive, perforated footwear. I'm a Crocs kinda guy. My shoe rack is stippled with chubby pairs of size tens - red, brown, green, orange, and when I wear a tux, black.

My wife, Lin, and I are die-hard What Not To Wear fans, so I get it when she admonishes me that, "But they're really comfortable!" is no excuse for a grown-up wearing what Stacy and Clinton revile as "clown shoes." She's right, but that's my story and I'm sticking to it. As Dr. Scholl taught me, when my feet are happy my brain is happy. And when my brain is happy I can write fascinating garden blogs about my shoes.

I pretty much live in my Crocs, so I wear through them regularly. So then what? Landfill? Not for a guy who's so sustainable he can work the same piece of dental floss for a month. So rather than cast off these loyal friends who've served me so well, I tap my inner Martha, transforming them into long-lasting, self-draining, artsy-fartsy wall planters.

I had a burst of creative energy this week. Instead of buying the usual box of floral gift cards as a thank you for the landscape architects who share their work with my class, I decided to make something for them. I could solve my shoe disposal conundrum and add a personal touch.

Do you wear shoes? Do you like easy, wacky projects? Here's what I did.

Plant Tags: So Much to Say, So Little Space

I know just what Mark Twain meant when he apologetically explained, "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead." Writing is tough enough, but sometimes editing my first draft down to a tight, lively, informative read feels like medieval dental surgery. So imagine what it's like to compose a plant tag, those skinny little plastic strips we see poking out of containers at the garden center.

You've probably done this hundreds of times: A spectacular looking flower beckons you from across the nursery, so you sprint over, pull out the tag, read a few dozen words, and decide whether that cute little darlin' will be coming home with you.

It's not much to go on, but sometimes it's all the information we have when the "ME NEED PLANT" neurons in the primal core of your brain commence to firing. So, what if you could take an extra minute, fire up your smart phone, scan a QR code, and tap a deep mine of information?

We're starting to see QR (Quick Response) codes popping up everywhere. They're small printed squares filled with a unique pattern of black and white pixels, like a petri dish experiment gone wild. Download one of many free apps to your smart phone (I like QRReader), hold it in front of the square, and the next thing you know, you're at the product's website.

Read how QR codes can make your garden shopping a lot more fun...

Owen Dell Wants To SLAP Your Garden Around

Abraham Maslow probably wasn't aware of it, but when he wrote his 1943 paper, A Theory of Human Motivation, he was talking about sustainable landscaping.

Now hold on a second. He didn't SPECIFICALLY mention murdering your lawn, setting an egg timer when you turn on the sprinklers, unleashing badass carnivorous bugs in your pumpkin plot, or luring slugs to a drunken death in a saucer of Rolling Rock. He didn't have to. It's obvious.

Starting from the bottom of his triangle, he describes the human animal's needs. I'll connect the green dots.

Level 1: Food, water, warmth, and rest: If he'd planned ahead (and left more room at the bottom of his chart) he would have also included "plucking fresh-laid eggs from your Double Breasted Pin Striped Bantam Appenzeller's coop, keeping toxic lawn sprays out of groundwater, planting deciduous trees to invite morning sunlight into the breakfast nook, and stringing an authentic Guatemalan Kaqchikel hammock between your Quercus agrifolia trunks.

Pick up the trail at

Exquisite Little Jewel Boxes

Two very talented landscape designers invited me to Eye of the Day Garden Design Center in Carpinteria last week - something about "new demonstration gardens." I smelled a story. Gas prices and carbon footprint be damned, I drove the 12.8 miles from my downtown SB pad and liked what I saw.

If you're yearning for inspiration for your own garden, or in the market for a focal point to nestle in a flowerbed, you might want to pop down to Eye of the Day, too.

Shining in a chain-link fenced, jumbled storage yard chock full of owner Brent Frietas's garden wares, sit four exquisite little jewel boxes - mini-gardens created from a seemingly limitless selection of pots, statuary, fountains, and garden ornaments.

And, oh, the plants! Santa Barbara landscape designers Arianna Jansma and Jennifer Voss, each with an impressive background in botany and art, have a gift for combining form, flowers, foliage, and texture to create stunning compositions.

Since the earliest manifestation of Eye of the Day in Santa Ynez, Brent has been a fusion reactor of design and marketing ideas. He told me years ago about his vision for an outdoor showroom that would display his merchandise "in real garden situations" while offering a local designer an opportunity to strut their stuff. After a long gestation period, the idea has hatched.

Continued at

Imagine: No Lawns (but maybe a free book?)

If you've been lounging in the Garden of Ed(en) for any time, you know that I'm vehemently anti-lawn (Keywords: wasteful, boring, destructive, sterile). So, this week I'm sharing a great book that like-minded, lawn-averse California gardeners should find inspirational and instructive. But first, let me take you back to this morning, when my button got pushed in a big way.

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I learned in design school that it's good form to start by saying something positive when critiquing a classmate's design. It makes them more amenable to the pending evisceration, so here goes…

The Encina Lodge and Suites, near Cottage Hospital, is to be commended for having their gardeners sweep the pavement with palm fronds instead of gas-powered blowers.


Today isn't the first time this otherwise lovely guest lodge put my boxers in a bunch. The identical scenario caught my attention two years ago, leading to a water conservation diatribe (It's Like Road Rage, Only Wetter) at my Fine Gardening blog. Sadly, not much has improved. No, I take that back: They've replaced the 1950s-era sprinklers with a shiny new, but just-as-poorly designed system: sprinklers showering me and Biff as we waded up the sidewalk; streams of water smacking into shrubs, then overflowing the beds; over-pressurized pop-ups sending clouds of mist drifting far from their intended target.

Now I can share the anger and frustration I felt this morning, triggered by the sight of a fast-moving stream of water coursing down the gutter on, ironically, Bath Street. The only thing missing was a Tidy Bowl man rafting the surge. This gusher's source was the motel's irresponsibly designed, poorly managed sprinklers sheeting off the grassy parkways three blocks upstream.

Read on at

Time Machine Tales Part II: Long Strange Trip To The Garden

Back in July, I blogged about finding an old drawing from my first landscape design class and the memories it triggered. From summers in the mountains to discovering I had a sense of rhythm, it didn't look much like a gardening column. I said it was "Part One in what will likely be a sporadic series." Well, I'm done "sporadickling" and ready to pick up the trail where I left off.

Some kids obsess about sports or rock collecting or astronomy or hedge fund trading. For me it was "all drumming, all the time." Bongos were the start, then a pair of drumsticks banging on anything that made noise. I studied jazz, Dixieland, classical, big band, bebop, surf, rock. I even played a polka gig dressed in lederhosen. (Thankfully, no photos survive)

Here's my high school rock band, A Little Bit of Sound. We not only won the biggest battle of the bands in LA, but we ended up opening for The Doors in San Diego.

I stayed with music into my twenties, doing studio recordings, nightclubs, and clocked thousands of cross-country miles on the road. One year I toured with the opening act for the Jackson 5. (Don't get too impressed. We were the band everyone wished would get off the state so Michael would come out.)

What's this have to do with gardens? Here's the rest of the story...

Surprise at the Indianapolis Museum of Art: A Paved Paradise

The last time I visited Indianapolis was the early 70s. My one-week stay didn't start out so hot. Perhaps it had something to do with the paranoia of being a longhaired hippy musician in Middle America, coupled with my first (and only) tequila hangover. Did I mention it was Easter Sunday?

This year was different. I was back in Indy for the annual Garden Writers Association symposium, and aside from my soulful karaoke rendition of Joe Cocker's You Can Leave Your Hat On, there were no reportable shenanigans.

This was my fourth GWA event and I have to say that each trip is better than the last. There was a big turnout: We were dubbed the Indy 500, attending sessions covering everything from publishing e-books to the benefits of beneficial insects. The exhibit hall was packed with vendor booths sharing hot new products and services you'll be reading about soon. And these annual meet-ups always provide opportunities for "the tribe" to reinvigorate old friendships and germinate some new ones.

Lest you think we spend all our time indoors, the host committee for each city always organizes tours of private gardens and estates, public spaces, and educational facilities. That way we have stuff to write about and share with our readers - sort of like this article.

One of our obscenely early morning tours took us to the Indianapolis Museum of Art, housing over 50,000 works representing a variety of cultures and 5000 years of art history. But I'll have to take their word for it, since I spent my time trying to make a dent in the horticultural offerings contained in 152 acres of gardens, woodlands, wetlands, lake shore, meadows, and even their parking lot.

Loads of luscious pictures and reading ahead...