Tuesday, June 30, 2009

In The Garden With Billy

On the momentous occasion of his retirement today, after 22 years with the City of Santa Barbara, CA, here's my experience of the landscape design work of Billy Goodnick (AKA Garden Wise Guy)

I was in Southern California recently, helping my daughter move into her first apartment. A bittersweet trip, to be sure. On the way home, I treated myself to a stop in Santa Barbara, so that I could visit my friend Billy Goodnick. Billy is a landscape architect, garden educator, TV show host, musician, and west-coast blogger for Fine Gardening Magazine.

Billy kindly offered to show me three of his favorite gardens; choice residential projects from over the years. They were all different, but with several common denominators: great clients, great hardscape and plant choices, professional execution, and ongoing development to help them reach their full potential. I was enchanted. Read on.

This garden is the newest of the three, just recently completed, and also the most contemporary. The homeowners had removed their lawn (yaaay) and created a large, private courtyard. It was up to Billy to add color and magic with the plantings. His palette is not only colorful but easy to maintain and very water-wise. In the top picture (behind Billy and his famous Red Crocs) we see Phormium 'Jester' Leucadendron 'Safari Sunset' and red Anigozanthus, underplanted with Grevillea 'Coastal Gem' and dwarf sedums. Delicious.

In the second shot we see the sleek front gate; I liked the way it was set at an angle, to create a sense of entry and privacy. And see how that simple pocket planter in the flagstone separates the pedestrian walk from the driveway, and blocks the view of cars even when the gate is open? Nice touch. Vivid orange Cannas echo the silky mops of Carex testacea in the foreground.

Inside the courtyard, a lovely flagstone patio is surrounded by generous plantings of Agastache, Salvia, Euphorbia, and Leucadendron that provide year-round structure and seasonal waves of brilliant color. The tree is a Palo Verde. Before, this large space was just walked through. Now it is as natural a spot to have a morning cup of coffee as the kitchen table.

Our next garden is much more typical of the jobs Billy and I do all the time; a full renovation from the dirt up. Before Billy came along, this house sported a shabby lawn and ancient, over-pruned foundation plantings. Billy got rid of the lawn (yaaay) and not only transformed the small yard, but also made it seem much larger by extending the hardscape and plantings into the parkway. Here he points out how the generous section of paving next to the street guides visitors effortlessly to the side stairs across the sidewalk.

I particularly loved these stairs. Well-done hardscape is beyond value to me in the garden. No matter what happens to the plants over the years, a feature like this will always be there to provide beauty, functionality and visual structure. Billy could have just marched us straight up the slope, or made us walk up the driveway, but instead created an experience of entering the garden and approaching the house that is elegant without being annoyingly meandering.

So people, this is where I get to talk about the value of the designed and built landscape. These are not fancy materials; they are readily available precast concrete pavers and wall units. Anyone could make one, right? Not necessarily! I enjoy designing hardscape, and I love seeing it installed well; that's the only way a designer can REALLY know whether their designs work! Theory is fine, and a plan can look perfect as a pretty picture, but it's a rare project that isn't refined in the field, usually to align it with elements that are simply not present in 2 dimensions (like a distant borrowed view or a seasonal shade pattern). And there's nothing more discouraging than seeing a good design executed poorly, or not at all.

What I see here first is, hello, a beautiful design. The lines and proportions of this simple structure are exquisite; I want to walk up and down it all day. Structurally the grade and pitch of the whole slope is satisfying. The paver choice coordinates well with the home's existing brick siding, and the color mix was thoughtfully executed. The cuts are divine. Philosopher David Kellogg Lewis said "Truly elegant design incorporates top-notch functionality into a simple, uncluttered form." Exactly.

The stairway nicely divides the garden into upper and lower levels, which for me always makes things more interesting. I like having things to place plants around and a reason for plants to be where they are. Garden structures give your plants something to relate to, and each in turn enhances the other.

I particularly admired Billy's restrained plant palette for this garden: blues, silvers and purples. Above Miscanthus sinensis 'Morning Light' (oooh!) and Correa pulchella 'Ivory Bells' are underplanted with Cerastium tomentosum along the front foundation of the house. Miscanthus is the featured player here: it emerges from winter, casts out its luxuriant foliage, blooms loftily until winter, then is cut back again. The Correa and Cerastium play the all-important supporting roles, and all is harmonious.

So here is the other big differentiator between the hand-made and the design-built garden: plant palettes vs. plant collections. A collector's garden is quite a personal thing really; if my client is a collector, that will often be represented more in their back yard and other private spaces. A front landscape is, to my mind, an extension and enhancement of the house, and is therefore more 'public.'

The successful plant palette in this garden includes sweeps of color, accent plants strategically placed to move your eye, satisfying year-round combinations, and thoughtful pairings with hardscape elements. Both Billy and I pride ourselves on our relatively short plant lists for projects like these: fewer varieties in greater quantity, all working together on multiple levels to create a whole new ecosystem.

Saving the best for last, Billy took me to his self-professed 'favorite place on earth.' Just look at those Cercis 'Forest Pansy' with that lush stand of a large-leafed Tibouchina between them. The foreground plant is yellow Kniphofia, underplanted with Dymondia, a great low-water combination. This home is on a busy corner, and was once quite exposed, but no longer.

Just around the corner is a raised planter in front of the fence that is closest to the street, filled with low-water plants. Here Billy points out a favorite color combination: a dusty rose Anigozanthus paired with a darker Phormium tenax. Several colorful vines spill over from the other side of the fence.

Here's the delightful surprise waiting behind those beautiful Cercis. A simple crushed rock path connecting the driveway with the side gate. Huge mounds of mature Chondropetalum tectorum do their thing underneath; I've never seen better specimens than these, and as always, took careful note of 'How Big Things Get!' A fragrant, climbing column of Trachelospermum jasminoides perfumes the air in spring. Correa 'Ivory Bells' appears here again, and the lovely purple Loropetalum chinense against the house echoes the color of the Cercis, and carries it on into winter when the trees are bare.

Here's the view from the opposite end of the path: the Chondropetalum and Miscanthus 'Morning Light" (oooh!) playing nicely together under the Cercis. This shot makes me think about plant spacing and garden layout. I'm not sure how wide the actual path is, perhaps 4'...when first built it must have looked huge in relation to the plantings. I love the way the plants alternately flow over the it; perhaps too much so for a public space, but for a private garden the effect is lush and charming.

This is the area where the path meets the front entrance walk and driveway. A tableau of Kniphofia, low blue grasses and dwarf Daylilies opens the area up and brings it down to a more human scale. I especially liked the simple boulder, set in Dymondia, that marks the entrance the path. Every garden needs a cairn or two to guide the way.

But the crowning jewel of this project was actually this tiny back garden. Here the garden collector aspect shows much more, guided by the designer's hand. The owners enjoy succulents, bromeliads and other epiphytes, so these are featured as accents and details throughout the space, like the vertical installation of Tillandsia and Spanish Moss against the house, (below). Above, a beautiful ceramic bench they found on their travels is an elegant focal point on a small patio, surrounded by flowing cascades of textural plants. Sitting there feels like being in the middle of a waterfall.

This garden is shaded by a mature California Pepper tree and a dense clump of Bambusa oldhamii. Other plants shown include Ligularia, Asparagus 'Myers', Green Phormium, Sphaeropteris cooperi, more Trachelospermum and a groundcover of Liriope 'Silver Dragon.' Billy has been developing this garden for at least five years; I think you'll agree that it combines the best of hand-made and design-built because of his careful attention over the years.

My last picture is meant to be a reminder of how fragile all of this is...ashes on the Tibouchina from the recent Jesusita fire that devasted the Santa Barbara region in May. What we create as gardeners and designers is ephemeral, even more so when care is not taken to see our visions through to their mature glory. I learned some great lessons from Billy about my role as a designer. And he has continued to inspire me as he recreates his life, post-retirement, along all new lines. His words and influence can now spread far beyond the city limits of Santa Barbara. I was glad to see such personal examples of his art, and it has been my pleasure to share them with you.


  1. Laura: Wow! Thank you so much for this mini-tribute. I so much enjoyed showing you around a few of my faves; always fun to talk design with another pro.

    The best thing for me is having you independently validate the design principles I employ and realize that they were successfully executed and that others "get it." I think this blog post needs to be prominently posted in my resume. I'll be getting to it as soon as I come up for air.

    Luvzya, chica!

  2. Laura, you and Billy are inspirations and credits to our profession. What beautiful (and smart) gardens, how beautifully narrated. Thank you for showcasing some of the best of the best.

  3. Kudos and props from a peer is better than a 10 page spread in any glossy shelter magazine IMHO. Thanks for sharing this 'wise' guy's design sensibilities through the eyes of your own.

  4. Great stuff, beautifully planted. I love those stairs.

  5. Way cool. Good design is even more important than good plants. But when you've got both, you get the photos above!

  6. Awesome! And I must have those red shoes.

  7. Really lovely garden space with amazing textures and colours. The curved stairs are fab. Curved walkways really make a huge impact, and add that extra feeling of friendly space and magic. I love them.

  8. Billy has such a nice, tight ... palette! Oooolala!

    I love seeing plants repeated over the three gardens shown - garden designers not only repeat within spaces, but thoughtful ones create distinctive looks over time that become unique to them. All of the gardens you showed featured soft, mounding forms in prominent positions. I LOVE that! They seem beautifully feminine somehow; generous and full - it takes a sure handed man to play eloquently with billowy grasses (which are echoed by the similar feel of the ferns, the arching phormiums, the Asparagus densiflora).
    Lovely work, Billy - Great post, Laura!
    I can't believe your blog is so young! You are SUCH a must-read!

  9. Gorgeous gardens Billy! And Laura- thanks for capturing it all to share with the rest of us. I love the way you write- so much attention to detail, I feel like I'm right there with you. You did a fabulous job of drawing attention to some of the details I may have overlooked as a non-designer :) Whohoo to both of you for making the world a more beautiful place!

  10. Everyone, thank you for such wonderful comments. The day I toured these gardens was an important one, for several reasons. I had just posted my first entry to this blog a few hours before, from my hotel room in SB. It was also my daughter's 19th birthday, my youngest and the one I saw so happily settled into her new apartment the day before. And to be back in Santa Barbara, where I went to college, was a treat in itself. To meet Billy, who was one of the first to welcome me into the Twitter Tribe, was such a bonus; the three gardens were (as you see) magnificent, and even the weather cooperated: a light, high fog, the perfect scrim. Otherwise I might have burned my retinas looking at those Red Crocs! This was also the day my profile picture was taken, and Billy took it. There must have been a few cosmic convergences going on to make it such a great day; so glad I was able to capture it to share with you. xoxo

  11. A fascinating counterpoint/complement in the..' InterLeafings..' erudite series on making gardens. Kudos to you, LLS!
    And thanks, too, for the bit of back story in the previous comment. What a lovely context for your post. Alice

  12. Billy's gardens are beautiful, and your thoughtful, poetic analysis adds so much to the photos.

    Great post, Laura!

  13. Nice photo essay.
    It was enjoyable to see some of Billy's design work.
    Santa Barbara is a horticulturists dream climate and with San Marco's Nursery within driving distance , .. well that is just icing on the cake.
    Normally I can't stand interlocking pavers. They scream mediocre and mass production to me but I actually liked the line of their curve in the staircase and the overall surrounding softscape.
    It take a pretty good designer to take a mass produced commercially available pedestrian product and turn it into something aesthetically pleasing.
    Nice job.

  14. Wonderful gardens!! And so exotic to me; I recognize hardly any of the plants. I'm with Michelle on the paving products; they do need to be artfully installed, but they can be and can look wonderful.

  15. These days, being able to create pleasing gardens with less expensive materials (even materials a client already has) is a helpful skill!

    Good craftsmanship will always shine. I've never had a client with a well-designed and installed concrete or paver patio come back and say they wished they'd spent the extra $25K on bluestone...

  16. Oh, all the wonderful variations of foliage! Thank you for taking us along to Billy's gardens :)

  17. So awesome, thanks for sharing. Congrats to you both for all your hard work to share this (Billy's hard work to make it happen, & Yours to document it and bring it to the masses).

  18. Wonderful post and even better workmanship, something that I try to follow up here in the North. Just wish I had the plant selection that the two of you have. Mentors and peers like both of you would be nice in this area to!

  19. Hmmm,

    I must have missed this update on Twitter but I like it like the other and the one with the GardenPunks.

    You all need to organize a California garden blogger meetup.


  20. That was fun. I've never seen Chondropetalum tectorum get that big before now!

  21. Hi Laura - love this garden .... the courtyard area is so appealing - great natural shades and hues. I do garden design in South Africa (amongst other things), so enjoyed this very much. Thx
    PS. have just discovered by blog thru networked blogs on f/book

  22. I love the mass planting of kangaroo paw!

  23. Billy can write AND he sure can design a landscape! Beautiful examples of well executed designs. Loved the plant combos and hardscape. Details too.
    Shirley Bovshow

  24. Laura, Missed this post in 2009 and what a gem it is. Kudos to Billy and to you!