“Then why the heck don’t you just rip out all your plants and put in big blocks of green Styrofoam?! And how about I take that 900 horse-power, fume-belching hedge trimmer and give you a custom manicure?”

Pretty macho, huh? Of course, that diatribe has only played inside my head. My mom raised me to be polite. Besides, I don’t like risking my life when confronting plant janitors holding sharp power tools. I am usually content to rant within my moving car, windows rolled up.

This is growing next to a church in downtown Santa Barbara. I'm pretty much speechless. Does anyone find this attractive?
But stop and think about it. Why do so many people go to the trouble of lovingly designing and then installing a landscape only to let it degrade into a mindless construct of bizarre geometric shapes? Here, a cube sheared so severely that there are more brown stubs than leaves. There, a Close Encounters of the Third Kind-inspired floating green disc, perched delicately on spindly gray legs.

Really, wouldn’t it be a lot simpler and more sustainable to rip out the plants and take the Styrofoam challenge? It’s a win-win-win. Your yard would still qualify for recognition by the Mindless Geometric Shape Preserve, you wouldn’t have to spend time or money in a never-ending battle to make the plants do what you tell them to do, and you’d save a lot of money on water, fertilizer, and bug spray. 

Maybe I’m missing something and you can straighten me out. I’ve been under the impression that people put plants in their yards because they want to bring a little bit of nature into their lives.

I’ve seen nature. There’s some just outside of Santa Barbara and it’s really cool. There are graceful sycamore trees arching over creeks, centuries-old oaks twisted by the elements, masses of befruited elderberry, and mounds of pungent Cleveland sage. I have not, however, seen any flat planes, pointy pyramids, or cute little globes.

I’m not saying that there isn’t a place in the world for formally pruned hedges or tightly clipped boxwood parterres. My designs tend more toward naturalistic uses of plants, but I’ve done my share of formal schemes when a client’s taste or the style of the home dictates.

Forget about the sustainability issues—consider the creaion of green waste and the fossil fuels and air pollution that are part and parcel of the professional’s arsenal. The visual by-product of all this extra work is just plain fugly.
What gets my knickers in a twist is the knee-jerk reaction that seems to demand that every plant in the yard receive its due punishment. Just because you or your maintenance person owns a hedge trimmer does not mean that every plant has to be transmorgrified in the image of a Dr. Seuss illustration.

I have a simple solution: Right Plant / Right Place. If you have a four foot wide space under a window that starts four feet above the ground, select a plant that doesn’t get bigger than four feet wide and four feet high. I’ll wait while you smack yourself on the forehead as this epiphany settles in.

And if you do have ambitious plants that are genetically programmed to burst their boundaries, selectively and artistically shape them with a good pair of hand-pruners (not hedge shears--that's where flat planes come from) to preserve their natural character.

Here’s my rogue’s gallery of offenders. You might want to have the children leave the room now—this could be traumatic. And if you hear muffled screams coming from a moving vehicle, it’s just me melting down.

A eugenia hedge (Syzigium paniculatum) was been "restructured" to conform to
front yard zoning codes. Let alone, eugenia becomes a 60 ft. tall tree.

Yew pine (Podocarpus gracilior) will grow to 80' high and 60' wide. Here's an attempt
to keep it three feet wide.

Lantana montevidensis makes a beautiful carpet, given adequate space. Here's what
it looks like ten minutes after the gardener leaves. How many times will this be repeated?

But the big winner is this lovely juniper. Why is someone willing to leave this plant
in their front yard for all the world to see?

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