Meet Billy Goodnick: Drummer, Landscape Architect, Sustainable Gardening Teacher


So now that Billy’s a blogger and a GardenRant reader, let’s welcome this new voice from California.  We temperate zone gardeners sometimes forget that not all gardens are like ours and I expect Billy to start reminding us of that.

To get the ball rolling, check out the post “Soil Amendment or Work with Nature? where he has this to say about recommendations to “dump lots and lots of organic material” on our gardens: 

But what about designing with nature and not pushing uphill to work
against it?  Why pay good money to add stuff to the soil, then rototill
until the natural, living web of life that makes up soil is disturbed?

And he refers to soil amendments as “life support.”  So, what’s a big mulcher to do?  This mulcher-composter contacted him in defense of soil amendments, protesting that our crappy, disturbed soil needs restoration! That didn’t phase him.  So, all you proponents
of organic matter, help me out.  Like our Great Compost Tea Debate, is there an Organic Matter Debate, or is this just a regional difference? This is firescaping country, after all.  Yeah, I just learned that word.

Then his post “Saturday Morning Syndrome” rang completely true with me.  On Saturday mornings garden centers are full of shoppers buying whatever plants happen to be featured in their blooming glory.  They then go home and try to figure out where to stick ’em.  Unfortunately, “stick ’em somewhere” is the primary design principle at work.  He advises shoppers to stop before handing over their Visa cards and remember to: research each plant before buying it, visualize exactly where it’ll go, know what function it’ll serve in the
garden, remember year-round interest and the importance of contrast in garden design, and so on.

It’s sure as hell true that people LOVE buying plants on impulse, and garden centers are very good at encouraging that behavior.  So Billy, how’s that advice working out?  I need to know because my advice to clients – make a list of the plants your garden really NEEDS and then be strong – seems to work about as well as my own good intentions to resist the cases of fresh donuts at the local Giant.


  1. To mulch or not to mulch is the question. Here in the hot interior of California the climate, while Mediterranean like Santa Barbara is much drier in the summer and colder in the winter. The heat here easily reaches into the 90’sF with less that 10% humidity during the summer. Mulch on the soil surface to reduce evaporation and keep the soil cooler is most important.I can think of no other process that helps newly planted plants stay healthy here in the summer than surface mulching.

    Soil amendments used while planting is not recommended by the local Master Gardeners. They say to just plant in the native ground since that’s where the plant will be living anyway. We feel soil amendments are important as our soil in the foothills and mountains is some of the most difficult soil there is. Clay, rock, schist, you name it we have it.
    Reading the post “Soil amendments or work with nature” Billy say’s that all the native plants grows well without any care from anyone. Why fuss with things? He suggests using like climate plants which is one area we can completely agree on. Using plants from other Mediterranean regions means the plants are adapted to the climate, but not necessarily the soil.

    Mycorrhizae is a beneficial plant fungus that exists in 90% of the plants and soil in the world. It attaches to the roots and helps plants to grow. The native mycorrhizae is beneficial for the native plants which is one reason why they grow without help on our part. When you dig a hole to plant a shrub you destroy the native mycorrhizae just as you would with tilling. The native flora has adapted to the native mycorrhizae. Plants from other “like climate” regions need different mycorrhizae to grow well. It has been found that adding a mix of mycorrhizae from other regions with the soil will help the plant grow. Their roots will attach to the fungus and grow together through the soil.

    While we recommend soil amendments with every plant purchase we do get people that don’t want to use it. At the very least we recommend the addition of organic fertilizer that has mycorrhizae in it. And as for mulch on the surface of the soil to help conserve moisture we believe in it. The ground here is just too hard and the climate so hot and dry in summer not to use it. It’s like sun block for the ground. Once the plants have matured where they can shade their own root system mulching is less important.

  2. Whoa! Hold it! Not so fast! Put on the freakin’ brakes! Garden Wise Guy here.

    Susan: LOVE the feature about my blog and honored to be honored at the Garden Rant. You hit EVERYTHING on the proverbial nail head, except you added something to what I said.

    I DO go on about not needing to add soil amendment (for ornamentals, not for heavy feeders like veggie gardens) but you extended that comment to include mulch, for which I am a HUGE advocate. I make a strong distinction between the stuff we rototill into the soil or mix into planting holes, and the mulch we use to conserve moisture, inhibit weeds, etc. And the mulch doesn’t necessarily need to be organic–gravel, tumbled glass, or other inorganic materials would do the trick.

    Just needed to clear the air. To paraphrase Dr. Frankenstein’s monster: Mulch gooooooood; soil amendments baaaaaaaaaaaaad.

  3. I would really love it if GardenRant could find some more ranting west coast voices to add to the mix. The blog is so east coast centric, sometimes it’s a little hard to take. Not that I don’t love it, I do. I love it. I drop $ in the tip jar whenever you rattle the can. I sound like a ranter in this post, but it’s not really in my nature to be like this all the time, or I would nominate myself.

    Okay. I read a story about a California gardener in Pacific Horticulture who lets the surface of his clayey garden soil bake to a crisp in the summer to seal in everything below. He must not do that with new-ish plantings, but I would like to try that with my mostly native garden going forward. Maybe I’ll start next year…

    Anyway, the point is, we want the roots to grow down, down, down into the soil profile, not reward them for hanging out near the surface where the moist and yummy organic matter’s hanging out, so I like the idea of the crispy soil top.

  4. Ah, see how I jumped to conclusions, just coz I apply organic matter to my soil in the form of mulch? Leafmold, to be exact. It’s the no-till method of soil amendment.

    And Billy, thanks for stirring things up ALREADY. S

  5. Hey Chuck, I’m all over the idea of more west coast voices as the sole west coast member of GardenRant! Come do a guest rant for us.

    As for adding compost etc. when you plant–I think the idea of just going with native soil is great, but many of us are not gardening in native soil. The ground gets leveled, peeling off the uppermost layer of good stuff, then the houses get built, and then crappy fill dirt gets brought in….not much native about that.

    I just planted a bunch of salvias, which are known to love poor soil, but I still gave them a scoop of compost to get them going. Beneficial microbes and all.

  6. I think you can make a good case for not roto-tilling. I’m not sure you can make a very good case for not using compost. But the use of soil amendments is situational, not absolute. Many gardeners probably have unnatural expectations, and therefore try to create unnatural environments in their gardens, including the use of all kinds of soil amendments.

    For a natural approach, read Masanobu Fukuoka’s “The One-Straw Revolution.” Truly, growing anything is a state of mind as much as anything else. People should use moderation in all things, and try to immitate nature whenever possible.

    But of course, as Westerners, we look for a scientific answer for all things. It’s even possible to pay exhoritant sums of money to have your soil analyzed for microbial activity and receive a prescription for bringing your soil food web into balance. But isn’t it more satisfying to just get your hands in the soil and figure out what works for yourself?

  7. In the not so distant past when planting a new bed for a client I would put down a layer of compost, top it with four inches of mulch, usually wood chips fresh from a tree trimmer, scoop out a shallow depression in the mulch, plant into the soil below and add a dash of a balanced chemical fertilizer over the whole bed. I let the earthworms and other critters do the tilling and churning. That recipe worked in most conditions from highly disturbed fill soil to the natural thin, rocky volcanic stuff. My advantage was that tropical plants aren’t very fussy if you give them water. They’ll grow on top of rocks just fine.

    In my own garden all I did was incessently mulch. Over time that turned a thin pick-axe soil into a deeper shovel soil. No fertilizer, no soil ammendments, just copious amounts of green waste decomposition. The mulch was the lazy way to soil ammendments.

    Sure native plants and plenty of others will do fine in native non ammended soils. But we are gardeners here. Even plenty native plants are fuller, healthier and bloom better in richer soils out in the wild. We want our plants to look good native or not.

    I’m just patient and lazy so I use mulch to improve my soil.

    Now I’ll have to see how the recipe works here.

  8. If you have clayey (I do, I do!) or sandy soil and live in a hot-summer region (I do, I do!) where organic matter (OM) breaks down very quickly, the regular addition of organic matter (i.e. compost) is a must… but only for annuals, perennials (ok, and biennials too) and shrubs. Natives are an exception for obvious reasons. Trees are also an exception because amended soil in the planting hole encourages root girdling, which can ultimately “strangle” the tree if the surrounding soil is heavy clay. Don’t let a salesperson tell you differently.

    Incorporating a little compost at planting time and when prepping flowerbeds improves soil structure (roots gotta breathe, water has to infiltrate and percolate) and encourages beneficial microorganisms and earthworms to stick around and do their thing.

    Mulching and topdressing with OM helps conserve soil moisture, improves water infiltration for clayey soils, and adds nutrients as the OM is broken down.

    So, yeah, it’s probably a regional thing and a soil-type thing, and it’s why you’ll hear different things from Master Gardeners and horticulturists in different regions. For soil info, stick close to home.

  9. Back atcha following up on what angela posted. If root girdling occurs in amended planting holes of trees, doesn’t it stand to reason that the same would occur for any plant? Unless you dig a hole that is the size of the ultimate root mass, you’re only improving a small percentage of the volume of soil that plant has to grow in.

    Here in Santa Barbara a large percentage of our soil is adobe clay, so I’m totally with you about crappy soils. Other places are shallow, poor soils over sandstone. Add to that, Western soils are not laid down in highly organic, forest floor situations. The only organic material that typically builds of comes form our scrubby chaparral and sage scrub communities. No big rivers, so not a lot of alluvium. Point being, I don’t have a lot to work with here and the technique still works.

    Here’s the basic recipe for EVERYTHING from trees, to shrubs, to herbaceous stuff (disclaimer–I’m not a “flower garden” guy. If I were designing one for a client, I’d probably start it off like a vegetable garden with an initial push for a more lush soil.

    Recipe for plants form the nursery.
    -Dig a hole two to three times the diameter of the rootball and slightly shallower (so the top of the plant is about a 1/4 inch higher than the surrounding soil (prevents settling and crown rot).
    -Use the blade of the shovel or a spading fork or digging bar to create some fissures around the sides and bottom of the hole (this is where the roots get to venture out).
    -Break up the excavated soil into smaller clumps and get it as friable as you can.
    -Mix the backfill with a handful mycorrhizal fungi (endo and ecto)
    -Place the plant after roughing up the rootball (watch a Scorcese movie for pointers).
    -Fill the hole half-way with backfill, water it until it puddles, then add the remainder of the soil and water again to settle the remainder.

    Done. I’ve done this under every type of condition and it works. It’s a Darwinian approach, but that’s how plants and children learn.

    Now I’ll stand back and await the next wave. Having fun, wish you were here!

  10. Am I still not getting enough oxygen to my pea brain and lungs but isn’t compost one highly respectable variety of “soil amendment” ? … and someone from the left coast is saying that this is a B A D thang ?

    One can make a fairly profound statement by advocating using ‘common’ horticultural sense such as ‘ right plant , right place’, but who here is common ? .. ( yikes ! )
    The reality of it all is that we DON’T always choose the right plant for the right place so amending our depleted soils is an inherently necessary task if you want the Right Plant to thrive in its Wrong Location.

    And lets face it, Mother Earth is getting up there in age and a little bit of botanical botox can really perk up those Tulips.

  11. It might be interesting to see Billy’s favored Santa Barbara plant palette. Like he said, he’s not a “flower garden guy” and if plants have to tough it out in clay soil, he’s probably compiled a great list of really… tolerant… plants. 😉

    In my northern CA yard, the addition of compost allows me to grow much more than natives and trees.

    If I see a plant tag on an annual or perennial that mentions the necessity of “good drainage”, that puppy’s either going in an amended bed or a container with commercial potting mix. I’ve seen too many drainage-sensitive plants languish in unimproved clay.

    As we’re learning here, gardening practices are very regional. Personal even.


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