Cool Green Gardens

Washing Machines and Art Collide in a Santa Barbara Garden

dragons from a garden

“Honey, I’m so proud of you turning off the tube and taking a sculpture class at the community college. And I’m sure there’s a perfect spot near the hose bibb where that thing be very happy.”

Unfortunately, that’s how a lot of “art” winds up in the garden, along with the accumulation of stuff you just couldn’t pass up at the swap meet. Some people have a knack for “eclectic”, but for the rest of us, there’s another way to personalize your garden.

Take the approach my clients John and Constance Thayer used, for example. Their new garden was something they’d been waiting years to design and build. When it came time to put the finishing touches on the garden, Jonstance (that’s how they sign their e-mails; I think it’s cute.) took their time and saw the importance of marrying the ideal pieces with each garden room.

If you were the Thayer’s letter carrier, you’d know right away that these folks know how to have fun.

mailbox base Mailbox
Their custom-built mailbox rises from a base of rusted iris leaves, dotted with toadstools (above left). The hefty square tube supporting the USPS-approved box has the address cut out of the front, and a brass scarab beetle replaces the usual red flag signaling mail pick-up. More leaves sprout from the box, twisting skyward.

The mailbox (above right) is a commissioned work from sculptor Rick Hartner, who the Thayers discovered after falling in love with one of his fountains at the now-defunct Nofufi Garden Gallery, in Encinita, CA.


leaf petal fountain
My design called for a recirculating water feature in the sunny east garden. On the drawing was circle labeled “To be selected by owner.” That’s how a recycled-Maytag-washer-turned-waterfall became the focal point, water music maker, and birdbath visible from the patio and living room. Rick cut and shaped the enameled sides of the washer into a pearly cascade of running water (photos above and below).

Added bonus: The Thayers are active bird watchers. Moving water and the small pool at the base attract thirsty visitors like an avian truck stop.

fountain detail
Hartner and the Thayers collaborated again to create another custom yet utilitarian piece. What if Rick put his artistry to work on a smorgasbord of birdfeeders? What if birds could feast while their hosts ogled nearby?

“The feeders we saw in stores were just so much commercial junk,” says John. “We needed something that would fit with the garden we were envisioning.” Working from John’s sketches, Hartner fashioned a botanically impossible hybrid between a Fantasia mushroom and a tree from a child’s book. You can see the result in the photos below.

tree bird feeder tree bird feeder close up


bird houses In the west garden grows a massive California pepper tree, a welcome source of afternoon shade but a challenge to garden under. Among the lush foliage of giant split-leaf philodendron, dinner plate-size aeonium and Australian tree ferns stand these mysterious objects.
My first impression was of a pair of cyclopean extraterrestrials, their mouths agape, beholding the loveliness of Mediterranean-climate plants. Actually, these are rent-free birdhouses that have yet to find occupants – no luck at Craigslist.
Okay, enough with the rust; let’s have some high-chroma fun! Even with all the planning and mindful selections, there’s room in the garden for baubles like these, these… (Uh, I give up. I don’t know what they are, but they look cool hanging from the eaves.)
Look! Up in the sky! It’s a family of flying dragons, confusing the heck out of anyone wondering which way the wind blows. Momma points one way while the kids wander off to video game department. But, geez, they sure look like they’re having fun.
bench and walkway
My favorite piece in the garden proves that the universe is intelligent (ignore the contrary evidence of late-night infomercials). My planting design for the west garden was a study in foliage, emphasizing yellow-green to brighten the shady bed. Well, what did John and Constance discover, but a bench (above) that perfectly matches the lemony tints of Phormium ‘Duet’ (right), Farfugium ‘Aureo-marginata’ (left), and Asparagus densiflora ‘Myers’.

The icing on the cake – more accurately, the glazing on the tiles – is the bamboo motif tiles mimicking a massive nearby stand of timber bamboo (Bambusa oldhamii) (detail photo, below). The universe isn’t just intelligent; it’s brainy times infinity.

bench detail
Last up is this pink-accented Op Art door mat, the finishing touch for their playfully pink front door. (Looks like I’m not the only Crocs fan.)

After waiting years to create their very personal and distinctive landscape, John and Constance Thayer’s patient and selective approach rewarded them with a garden that reflects their personal style.

“We love everything about this garden, but it’s the art that brings us so much joy,” says Constance. “We’re sometimes tempted to bring home yet another impulse buy, but we know that you can have too much of a good thing.”

View Comments


  1. sheilaschultz 01/17/2011

    Billy Godnick, I'm in love! Your sense of humor, the way you see gardens, plantings and art... The Thayer's are folks I want to meet, but only after you! Thank you for your insightful views. You make me smile.

  2. BillyGoodnick 01/18/2011

    Sheila: I'll check with my wife, but if she puts me up for adoption, I'll call you first. Thanks for putting a smile on MY face. You've got a few years of past posts to catch up on. Also, look for my debut column in Fine Gardening Magazine's March/April issue. It's called Design Workshop. My aim is to entertain and educate.

    Later, skater.

  3. elnell 01/24/2011

    I'm thrilled to hear that the magazine is including a regular garden design column that will include garden art. This is something I've always felt was missing from the mag.

  4. BillyGoodnick 01/24/2011

    Elnell: Just to clarify - my column won't be exclusively about garden art. Design Workshop will cover the whole spectrum of design ideas and techniques that will help readers remake or fine tune their own yards - how to develop a strong concept before designing, ways to make the most of your front yard, mini-lessons about color theory. I hope you tune in. I'm sure there'll be times when I get to write about art as well.

    While I've got you here, I'm always on the lookout for new story ideas for this blog, so keep 'em comin'.

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