Cool Green Gardens

When Bad Taste Meets Power Tools

Photo/Illustration: Billy Goodnick
Photo/Illustration: Billy Goodnick
Photo/Illustration: Billy Goodnick
Photo/Illustration: Billy Goodnick
Photo/Illustration: Billy Goodnick
Photo/Illustration: Billy Goodnick
Photo/Illustration: Billy Goodnick
Photo/Illustration: Billy Goodnick
Photo/Illustration: Billy Goodnick
Photo/Illustration: Billy Goodnick

What better way to close this tumultuous last year of the first decade of the 21st century than by writing a “list” article? You’ve probably read your share of them: Top 100 Tech Toys, or 50 Celebrity Arrests For Acting Foolish In Public, or 10 iPhone Apps To Improve Your Dental Hygiene. 

Now it’s my turn. Since starting this Cool Green Gardens blog in April I’ve written about water conservation, helpful design ideas for your garden, posted a video interview about coyote pee and shared just plain beautiful images of enchanting gardens.

I enjoy bringing you that kinda stuff. But deep inside me, pulsing like trapped magma, beats the heart of a smartass garden critic. This dark side was revealed in my June 5 blog titled Why Not Replace Your Plants With Styrofoam? in which I threw virtual rotten eggs at the worst examples of ugliness and environmentally bone-headed gardening practices. Boy, did THAT attract an avalanche of comments.

So why not do it again!

My intention is to provide positive lessons using bad examples – the stuff that either makes you laugh out loud or contemplate gouging your own eyes out. There are so many out there to choose from. For now please accept Billy’s Top Five Crimes Against Horticulture.

Rules of the Game

There are two simple criteria for stopping my car, unpacking my camera and snapping a few pics:

1.  On What Planet Is This Attractive? Indiscriminate shearing of plants into random shapes that bear no connection to nature. Bonus points for Dr. Seussiness.

2.  Wrong Plant / Wrong Place Jamming super-sized plants into spaces the size of a shot glass, thereby destroying their natural beauty and guaranteeing endless warfare to keep them from devouring each other.

Before I start slashing with my Samurai Sword of Smarminess, let me clarify where I’m coming from. After all, if my goal is to educate via bad examples, I need to explain what I consider to be a good example.

Here’s a garden I designed a few years ago.

Looks like something you might see in Fine Gardening magazine, eh? Notice how the plants are arranged to achieve their mature size without running into their neighbors.

There are two benefits to this simple approach:

  • The natural form and inherent beauty of the plant is revealed. My guess is the gardener didn’t think, “I’ll buy this beautiful plant so I can hack it into a lifeless green box perched on skinny legs.”
  • Picking the right size plant for a garden bed assures a sustainable result – less work, less greenwaste, no fumes or noise from gas-powered trimmers, healthier plants.

Let’s get started…

Take These Plants and Shove Them

Can we start by agreeing that this looks ridiculous? Yet we see similar plantings all the time. I won’t even ask why some numb-nut thought it would be okay to put these five different plants into a three by three space in the first place. 

Actually, I know the answer: The plant was little when it went in. It didn’t occur to anyone that they would grow and get bigger. What about removing a few and letting the remainder grow unmolested? Not likely. Why mess up their job security?

The lesson: Send a few plants to the compost pile.

Know When to Say When

Here’s what happens when someone crams 20 trailing lantana (Lantana montevidensis) into a parkway where five would have done the job. Properly spaced, each plant matures at about four feet wide and stays about a six inches high.  Logic would tell us to plant them four feet apart. 

Instead, spaced about 18 inches from each other, they grow, then collide, then pile on top of each other. Until someone decides to thin out the planting, or just torch it and start over, they’ll be scalped about four times a year, leaving this lovely sight.

The lesson? Restraint and patience.

Circular Logic

Helicopter landing pad? Dining table from Land of the Giants? I’m really at a loss to explain the rationale for this too-frequently seen act of tree hackery. Unfortunately, I’m not brave enough to knock on the door and ask, “Are you a card carrying control freak or do you just hate your neighbors?”

Picture getting out the ladder, powering up the Extendo-3000 hedge trimmer, trampling the geraniums and cleaning up the mess.

Yes, I hear your defense – it would cost a few bucks to send this atrocity to it’s rightful grave and plant an appropriately sized tree. But think about the long-term gains, both financial and aesthetic.

If It Grows, I Shall Subdue It

The brilliantly flowering bougainvillea is one of Southern California’s most misunderstood plants. People like to pretend it’s a well-behaved vine, rather than the rampant, thorny bramble it really is. The irony is that it’s frequently planted in small spaces, forcing it to be continually sheared, thereby removing the colorful flowers just as they appear on the new tip growth. 

Benefit of the doubt – perhaps it’s a creative Picassoesque cubist sculpture, or a Shaker-inspired chair. Or perhaps it’s just the mindless application of power tools. Either way, it leaves me scratching my head.

A Bit of Light Reading

Once again, I’m astounded at the effort people expend in the name of weirdness. I could see if you placed this over a couple of chaise lounges – then you could put a light bulb inside each orb and have a one of a kind, hydra-headed organic reading lamp. Maybe I’ll drive by after dark. (BTW: Extra points for Dr. Seuss influences.)

Well, that does it for this year’s last installment of Cool Green Gardens. I’m sure I’ll have lots more examples of what not to do in 2010. If you’d like to see the rest of my rogue’s gallery or have a few examples you’d like to contribute, visit my Flickr photo collection and join the fun.

Wishing you a safe, healthy, prosperous New Year and a garden that fills you with joy.

View Comments


  1. frranross 01/11/2010

    I have to admit that the launching pad tree made me smile. Not with joy, exactly.
    My neighbor boys once commented on my hedge trimming efforts: "How is that "hotdog" topiary coming along?"

  2. puerco 01/11/2010

    That table-top ficus! That trunk shows that it's fairly old. He/She is going to end up with that sorry-looking tree and one hell of a destructive root system. It really puzzles me why anyone would do that. That also goes for the reading lamp.

  3. BloominLooney 01/11/2010

    Looking out at my melted winter garden, I think a bit of Dr. Seuss is just what I need. O.K. maybe not quite the Lorax's Truffula tree, but an artfully trimmed hedge or topiary can give the garden much need structure and focus -- especially in the winter when so much is gone. Formal European and Japanese gardens do so traditionally, but also wonderful modern gardens. These "bad taste" people have just strayed slightly from a very well-worn path of messing with nature with wonderful results. When I saw the "Jetson's" tree (or launching pad tree as the previous commenter called it) in your yuck-list, I thought immediately of Piet Oudolf and his wavy stacks of hedges or giant spheres balancing the mess of old grasses and perennials in his winter landscapes. There is a magic to his landscapes which could never be achieved without the delicate dance of nature and man's radical interference.

    Here is a link to the NY Times article on "Artfully Planned Decay."

  4. Birdygirl 01/12/2010

    This guy has a great sense of humor. I love his examples. Let's have more, more, more!

  5. Martha3J 01/12/2010

    Landing Pad and Dr Seuss are great examples of suburban humor!
    I hope more people get wild with clippers and give me a daily laugh in my neighborhood. "What were they thinking?" Maybe what a hoot their creation would be!
    PS Dead plants are NOT funny.

  6. user-7006878 01/12/2010

    Just wondering what a "Rouge's Gallery" is? I know that rouge is the French word for red, so would a Rouge's Gallery be a display of red pictures? I'll have to click the link and see. ;-)

    (I assume you meant Rogue's Gallery. Just a little misplaced "u". I love your articles and couldn't help poking a little fun too.)

  7. BillyGoodnick 01/17/2010

    Billy G here - your Cool Green Garden guy...
    Frranross: Smiles are good. That's my main goal. Glad it worked!
    Puerco: You can't see it in this photo, but the ficus has caused huge uplifting of the sidewalk behind it. Hope there's no sewer line within 100 yards.
    Bloomin: thanks for the link! Great article. Keep em coming.
    BirdyGirl: I'm having the time of my life getting to impose my snarky writing on all my readers. Happy to keep it coming. Will you be in line to buy my book? Just started - I'll keep you posted.
    Martha: Dead plants aren't funny, but undead zombie plants can really liven up a party.
    Garius: thanks for the spell check and for keeping me humble. I should have hired Sarah Palin's ghost writer to do my proof reading.

  8. urbangardens 01/21/2010

    Those trees had my same hairdresser I had when I asked just for a little trim and ended up with..well, you don't want to know. Thanks for making me laugh Billy.

  9. wmarazita 02/04/2010

    Great article! I'm very happy to see that there are no pictures of any of our plants here!

  10. hpez 02/18/2010

    I find this so entertaining but also disturbingly close to home. With the boom of new construction several years ago in our area, builders wanted a finished look to their landscapes to promote sales! In so doing, they placed shrubs and trees far too close together giving them no room for future growth. An Alaskan blue willow right next to an entry walk looks fine the first year when it is one foot tall, but just wait two years. Once it is six by six, you won't be able to locate the front door unless you chop it in half or rip it out. (A better choice would have been a perennial Salvia.) I agree that picking the right size plant for a garden bed assures a sustainable result but remember, this requires planning, research and some actual thought. While traveling, I have witnessed many similar examples of what not to do! This has inspired me to take pictures of the funny ones and share them in my garden blog!

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