Stop the Madness! Crimes Against Horticulture


Guest Rant by Billy Goodnick

Come with me to the imaginary hearing called by the Senate Subcommittee on Crimes Against Horticulture. The hallowed chamber shudders as my gavel slams down, calling the room to order. I delight as the company reps and industry lobbyists squirm in dread anticipation of the searing questions to come. “Do you have an opening statement?” I ask.

“Thank you, sir,” he begins. “Our Stihl HL 100 K adjustable angle hedge trimmers with 42” extended reach shafts don’t commit crimes against horticulture. Plant janitors do.”

No, it won’t really come to this, but a guy can fantasize.

I take my work seriously

The term “plant janitor” is my invention. I use it to describe those pick-up truck-driving, mow-and-blow crews who wouldn’t know a Lagerstroemia from a Ligularia if it goosed them. It’s not hard to spot a plant janitor. They’re the guys displaying the classic symptoms of CRD (Compulsive Raking Disorder). They attach sophisticated motion detectors to their rakes, thereby assuring that not one gram of life-renewing organic material re-enters the soil. The tech geeks among them are working with programmers to develop a Random Form Generator app for their smart phones. It’ll take the guesswork out of the tough decisions regarding which shape to prune: Meatball? Hockey puck? Pancreas?

Mind you, it is not my intention to disparage real janitors. This venerated and respected profession keeps our schools, hospitals and offices safe, neat and orderly, often working graveyard shifts for meager pay.

But “neat and orderly” is not what my clients or me want from a garden. Do you? Gardens should be a way to bring a bit of nature to our yards. They should reinforce our primal connection to the ancient wildness that surrounded us when we came down from the trees, onto the savannah and into our SUVs.

The crap that passes for gardening that I see while driving through suburban neighborhoods and strip malls makes me cringe. We can agree to disagree on this point. Ugly is in the eye of the beholder and what one person sees as stunningly beautiful often triggers another’s gag reflex.

And it’s fair to say that not every garden has to look like a magazine cover. I guess what burns me up the most is that not only does the guy wielding the razor-sharp, fume-belching, ear-splitting implement of destruction have no clue about aesthetics, but someone is writing him a check every month. Talk about being an enabler.

Okay, I got that off my chest. Now I get to have some fun. If you’ve got examples like these where you live, please join me and 1405 other sickos at Facebook and post the best of your worst.

On with the show…

If France ever declares war on us, it might be because of this landscape. That’s French lavender (Lavandula dentata) mercilessly pruned into a reclining lounge chair (or bidet). Not easy to pull off, creating a near perfect oval, then precisely slicing the seat and backrest. And although it would by quite prickly to sit upon, the aromatherapy benefits might be worth the pain.

What happens behind the bedroom door between consenting adults is none of my business. But when a kinky gardener decides to carry his proclivity for bondage into the garden, that’s a little weird. It’s unfortunate that this bird of paradise (Strelitzia reginae) forgot the safe word.

I’ve long wondered where all of those misshapen spheres of shrubbery come from. I know it’s not the Oort Cloud. One theory posits that well-meaning garden owners install normal plants, only to have them fall prey to aesthetically challenged butchers who have their way with them. Turns out they just seem to pop out of the soil in the Santa Barbara foothills.

Which came first? The Plumber’s Butt or the Gardener’s Crack?

I’m not alone in my morbid fascination with Crimes Against Horticulture. In 2011, I dedicated a Facebook page to the topic. Since then, people from around the country and overseas have been scouting and posting their own atrocities. Jane Auerbach takes the cake, or should I say donut, for this recent contribution. No, not an enhanced photo. Just someone with way too much time on their hands.

Ever wondered where the inspiration for the QWERTY typewriter keyboard came from? Forensic horticultural archaeologist (I made that up) David Walther seems to have answered that question.

Although Crimes Against Horticulture is a year ‘round venture, some kindly folks seem to put extra effort into their yards around the holidays. Thanks to Rhett Richardson for adding this nightmarish delight, replacing the traditional visions of sugar plums.

Flagrantly flaunting their flailing, flaming hedge trimmers, a crew of commercial gardeners in Camarillo, California, regularly take it upon themselves to create what might be the largest collection of phalluses, lollipops and eggs I’ve yet to see. An office park just off the 101 freeway is where you’ll find this gallery of glop. Multiply this vignette times 50 and you’ll comprehend the magnitude of this injustice – the parking lot is over an acre. Then try to figure out the monthly pruning bill and disposal fees.

Okay, I’ve had my say. If you’re sympathetic to my cause, please join the gang at Facebook. In the meantime, keep your eye tuned to C-SPAN. If my representative would just take me off her watch list, those hearings might materialize.

Billy Goodnick’s new book, “Yards: Turn Any Outdoor Space into the Garden of Your Dreams” debuts March 2013. It’s filled with great design advice and he’s sneaking a few Crimes into the last few pages! For more about Billy, Yards and where he’ll be speaking, go to


  1. Congrats on your upcoming book.

    Why do people live in homes with plantings decades old planted by the builder? Then, new people buy the home & prune those wrong plants into meatballs etc.


    No wonder most people do not garden. They think what they see at most homes, created by the builder, is gardening.

    Terrible scenario played out daily: upscale home in new gated community with landscape design created by testosterone-on-wheels-commodify-all-I-touch with a GREAT SALES PITCH and copied by the rest of the homes in the ‘rich’ neighborhood.

    Dominoes continue to fall as the not-so-rich neighborhoods nearby copy.

    And the beat goes on.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

    • Tara: Succinctly put. You hit the nail on the head. Imitation might be the highest form of flattery, but it also proliferates misguided, environmentally harmful landscape practices.

  2. “It’s not hard to spot a plant janitor.”
    Yup, it’s not hard to spot a snob either. While I can’t say that any of these are in my opinion the least bit attractive, I don’t go around disparaging those who like them.

    • I find it incomprehensible that anyone could accuse Billy Goodnick of snobbery or of having his nose in the air, talking down about anything. I would suggest to those who feel obliged to make this accusation to first read more of Billy’s writing, where with your brain hopefully in the ‘on’ position you will note that he is a really funny, if sometimes irreverent guy. If you still think there is something snobbish in the air, then my second suggestion it to look in the mirror, find the eyes of the person looking back at you, look deeply into them & see if you can
      figure out where that holier-than-thou impulse is really coming from.

      • In my opinion a post should stand on it’s own. I should not have to go and read all of his writings to have an opinion on this one. I know eactly what I look like in the mirror – I look like someone who has been on the receiving end of comments like those above (although not about landscaping) where someone who had a different sense of aesthetics was disparaging of me. I know how that feels and therefore have an acute sympathy for people being mocked in this article and those like this one.

        My original post and my response have been done with my brain in the “on” position, as you so quickly deemed to be my problem and your accuasation of me being holier-than-thou…well I can’t help but see the irony in your response.

  3. Hear hear and I know exactly what you mean even here in the UK. As for pruning, I hate domed shrubs that all look like hummocks. My parents are quilty of this crime and it seems to be peculiar to their generation. They need to control and everything to be neat and there is absolutely no consideration to the plants natural growing habit.

    My pet hates at this time of year are the heathers sold in our garden centres which have been sprayed different colours and had glitter added – I kid you not.

    • I saw some of those heathers in big box store here a few years ago. Could not imagine what possessed someone to do that to an innocent plant, nor what would make one want to buy it!

  4. Where can I get some of the tape? I could totally go around my neighborhood and tag some homes that are in total violation. Hee Hee.

    On another note I find that the donut is really funny. Geez.

    • Rama: I have custom 500 foot rolls manufactured. I make mini-rolls and give them away with my CAH Facebook contests and when I give CAH public talks. Keep you eyes out at Facebook.

  5. Though its not my style, I do have an appreciation for this type of pruning. Sure it looks butchered and far from normal but in the right setting it can curious. The Japanese mastered ‘Niwaki’ in their gardens and we all celebrated it. Someone does the same outside their single level rambler and we’re all disgusted! Gardening is just like art, not everyone will get it!

    • Rob: My “gateway drug” to gardens was bonsai and I’m a big fan of niwaki pruning, but it’s done by artists with a deep appreciation for natural forms, then abstracted. I’m good with that. It’s the mindless, artless butchery that churns my stomach.

  6. One thing that drives me nuts this time of year here in Michigan is homes with all the shrubs in front of the house totally wrapped in burlap. I have no idea who gave these homeowners the idea that their yews and arborvitaes need to be “wrapped” for the winter. Why on earth would you landscape your yard with shrubs that need to be under wraps 6 months of the year! We have cold weather a long time here in Michigan. AND there are plenty of shrubs that truly do not need to be wrapped to survive our winter!

    • Joe: Big wet kiss waiting for you when I see you in Seattle at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show (in a manly and platonic way). I’ll be doing a Crimes Against Horticulture talk on Friday, Feb 22, 1:15. Bring your Fiskars loppers.

  7. I have to get in the Wayback machine for this one, so sadly, I have no photos. But 20 years ago up here in Rochester, NY, we had a massive ice storm. So much so that many people were without power for nearly a month, as the weight of the ice brought down tons of trees that fell on power lines. The power company, under the influence of who knows what drugs, decided in its infinite wisdom that the way around this problem in the future was to “donut” all trees above power lines. And so they did – for miles along certain roads, large old trees had massive holes in their centers. I have never seen anything like it. And if there is a merciful God, I never will again.

  8. Why are shrubs/trees pruned to such a degree? ‘Cause they are the wrong plant in the wrong place. Their mature size is waaay too big. So they get meatballed. I blame a lot of this on the horticulture industry who LIE TO US on their labels. The size listed is for the plant at ten years. Which is why I am yanking the “dwarf” false cypress that was suppose to only get 6’x8’. Evil capilistic plot to force us to re do landscape every 10 years.

  9. I don’t find this chuckle-worthy. I absolutely believe we should be able to criticize and even poke fun at what we deem to be poor cultural practices or “bad taste” but there are ways to go about it that respect the fact that taste is a matter of opinion and doesn’t place us “above these lowly buffoons” in the way this sort of thing does.

    Over the years I can’t tell you how many new gardeners have expressed abject fear about messing up and it is in part down to this nose in the air, holier than though kind of ridicule that doesn’t exactly help or encourage them to try.

    We all make mistakes. I’ve made some doozies for sure and I’m sure there are things I am doing now that I will look back with some sense of embarrassment or (unfortunately) shame 10 years down the line. It’s the shaming that bothers me here. Looking back I can say that I have done this too… this ha ha pointing fingers at the ugly mess I saw in some gardens and if there is anything I really feel ashamed of now it is my own arrogance.

    Beyond being shaming and discouraging, I also find that this sort of thing is sometimes classist, sometimes bordering on contemptuous, and often missing the point. Image #6 is not my cup of tea but I also find it oddly provocative and beautiful. There is beauty in our mistakes, missteps, and sometimes bewildering differences that I find can be overlooked and disregarded in our haste to decry “Look at how this person is screwing it all up!”

    As long as they aren’t pouring on the chemicals or doing any real harm on that level then I don’t really get what the crime is… yes, I understand it is hyperbole as a way to be funny….

    I’ve written about this a few times and I’m not going to write an essay here but I felt compelled to voice a little of my perspective. Like I said, I am not saying we can’t or shouldn’t be allowed to be critical or even poke fun at this stuff but I also think there is a way to do it that also offers ourselves up for criticism and making fun of our own so-called crimes at the same time.

    • Gayla: I do appreciate you taking the time to leave your perspective. When it comes to humor, we all have different ideas of where the line is and when it should or shouldn’t be crossed, but I have to say, in my defense, there are thousands of folks cheering me on, attending my lectures, reading my diatribes, and who appreciate the humor.

      That said, please reread and see that I do hold out that beauty (and ugly) are in the eye of the beholder and we can disagree about that. But this piece of writing hones in on the purported “green professionals” who can’t tell one plant from another and support themselves by shearing everything in sight, regardless of its inherent growth patterns, natural form, and often to the detriment of the plant’s health. Most homeowners aren’t up to speed, so they rely on the person they pay to look out for the garden’s best interest, then end up paying the price aesthetically and with unnecessary replacement of the plants that suffer a slow death.

      Add to that the noise, the stink, the pollution, the use of fossil fuels and the green waste generation and I think there’s more to this than a difference of opinion about beauty and snobbery. My goal is to kick the door open, get people’s attention and deliver a message about sustainability.

  10. Hey, the “plant janitors” are not to blame, they just do what the boss tells them to do. The culprit is a sterile horticultural style combined with a desire to have landscaping done at the lowest cost and without the homeowner getting their hands dirty. A friend of mine, after moving into a new house, was informed by neighbors that they all contracted with the same landscaper so that he could have his mowers go from one end of the block to the other without stopping, in addition to using other economies of scale. When she broke up the package deal, no one would talk to her for a year.

  11. This little rant didn’t sit well with me either. There are a whole host of reasons why crimes against horticulture can be committed. There are budget considerations during installation and for regular maintenance. There is the desire for instant gratification with new landscapes that can then out grow the space quickly. There are poor design and plant choices from the beginning. There is a strong cultural expectation here of what a tidy landscape look likes. I could go on.

    The client or homeowner is ultimately responsible for the condition of their shrubberies. The last people who should be blamed for these atrocities are the Outdoor Maids. That term is my invention.

    Let me put this in a way that might get through. The longer people in our own industry denigrate the mow-and-blow crews, disparage their skills and decry their preponderance like they are some insect plague let loose on the suburban landscape, the longer those low expectations will remain in the minds of people who hire them and of our industry in general.

    Just because you see a guy in a truck with power tools standing next to a meatball doesn’t mean you know diddly squat about his skill set or knowledge base. His next job might be at the garden that got the most rave reviews on the last garden tour from the local horticultural elites.

    Stop blaming the outdoor maids. They are not the the cause or the problem. They are the solution. Just think, if the mow and blow guys got a little more respect, if they were looked at as the people who nurtured the environment we all live in on a daily basis, they could possibly expect to be valued and paid more.

    People who work in the same industry should be the vanguard of praising and promoting the valuable work of all the outdoor maids who clean up after the rest of all you slobs.

  12. We always need to spend more time in the yard to get things looking good since we don’t have yard help, but don’t necessarily have that time to spare. So our yard isn’t perfect.
    But what shocks me the most is when at least one of my neighbors prunes old fashioned nandinas (with red berries in the winter) down to the ground in the fall, or trims a camellia or azalea when they are full of fresh blooms. Makes no sense!

  13. I gag when I see poor poodled plants, but a talk by Chris Grampp opened my eyes to another perspective. He walked around Oakland, Calif., and interviewed the folks who landscape their front yards with white gravel and make spaceships out of greenery. What he discovered was that they take pride in their work and think they are giving a gift to the community by creating a neat and orderly tableau. Of course, that’s different from someone hiring a crew to come out and create a barren insect-free swath of lawn and poodlings that looks like what all the neighbors have.

    • Gemma are you saying that when a homeowner hires a crew they no longer take pride in the work and no longer think they are giving a gift to the community by creating a neat and orderly tableau that looks like what all the neighbors have?

      There is no vast poodling conspiracy being perpetrated by yard maids. The client gets what they ask for.

      • Here’s the book

        What I was saying was that intention matters. People who are spending time in their own front yards creating something that they like is different from someone hiring a crew. People I know who spend time working on their own front yards (more than just keeping up with routine maintenance) are proud of what they’ve created. People I know who hire crews are basically looking for routine maintenance, not something special, and they do want it to look like the rest of the neighborhood.

      • Christopher: I’m not sure I completely agree that the client “asks for” these pruning jobs. Though there are certainly culpable, I think sometimes it’s that they accept the “aesthetic” imposed by their service provider because they are complacent.

        • Billy did you just decide to ignore my main point and longer rant higher up in the comments? Blaming and denigrating the mow and blow crews is a disservice to the landscaping industry and insulting to people who work very hard for low pay. Discuss.

  14. I know that my neighbors who prune their shrubs so often or at the wrong times are trying to keep their yards neat and orderly. I envy them having the time and energy or money to pay a company to keep it up. But the landscape companies don’t always do as good a job as you think they will. A number of years ago, we splurged to hire a local landscape contractor because he had recently done a fantastic job re-landscaping a yard in our town, and we needed a lot of work done. However, when his crew did our yard, he was never there to supervise and they didn’t know one plant from another. They weed eated a large patch of thrift, then buried it under mulch. It didn’t survive. They also buried my daylillies, iris and gladiolas that were already up that Spring under mulch, instead of mulching around them. I had to uncover them for them to survive. They used twice as much mulch as the estimate, so the total cost was a lot higher than we had planned also. A very disappointing experience, so we have just tried to do our yard ourselves since then.

  15. I think Jason above nailed it. The owners of companies who employ these “plant janitors” are mainly culpable for these crimes. But their customers are complicit too. In their race to the bottom by choosing only on price, homeowners accept these results of the mow, blow and go operators (with meatballs on the way out.)

    These horticultural crimes are simply the results of gardening marketed, all too successfully, as a commodity.

    p.s. if folks find the terms “janitor” or “maid” too loaded in meaning, would “sanitation engineers” work better? (wink!)

  16. I had a customer who years ago planted arbor vitaes around her entire house as “foundation plantings” she hired me as she now wanted these way to big 7-8 ft shrubs topped into a hedge about 3.5 ft tall with the stubs painted green so they could blend in. I told her to find someone else. I should drive around her house to see if she found someone to butcher her plants.

    • Yeah, the worst crimes are committed when clients who don’t know or care about plants hire someone to “clean up.” These employees are trying to keep their jobs by doing what they think the client wants, and a lot gets lost in translation. A former neighbor’s yard person told me he used to work for a very high-end client where they’d use green spray-paint on any dead areas of hedges (rather than pruning them properly), especially before a party. One of the first things he did at the neighbor’s was to remove all the accumulated leaf-mold mulch under the shrubs! He’d spend 6 hours of his 8-hour day with the leaf blower going at full blast. I’d look out the window and see the guys blow-drying leaves on wet lawns. I’ve had other yard people tell me they’re interested in learning more about plants but don’t know where to go. In recent years a lot of communities have started Green Gardener programs that offer training in better ways of taking care of landscapes.

  17. I love gardens with natural style and my garden gets no trimming unless necessary (and sometimes not even then). However, I really dislike the disdain shown for the hired crews and owners with terms like “plant janitors” and “crap”. There are many garden styles that do not appeal to me – but they are not my gardens. I do not care for the hedge trimming in the renown but many do and good for them. I am in awe of the beauty that Pearl Fryar has created in although not my cup of tea. Billy if you want to deliver a message about sustainability, please do so without tearing down others. We need strong garden voices on sustainability and you can do better.

    • Pearl is an artist and a magician and I have nothing but praise for what he does. The problem is that not everyone who wields power tools has his artistic sense, imagination and skill.

      I’m probably allowed to buy dental surgery tools, but that doesn’t mean I should put them to use any more than some of the garden maintenance services should be allowed to use their gas trimmers.

  18. I say to Mr. Goodnick – Judge not, for you too will be judged. He cannot know for certainty that all the gardens he ridicules were maintained by paid help. Some of these may indeed be maintained by the property residents or owners themselves. No one intentionally, whether they be a do-it-yourselfer or a paid employee, approaches these tasks with the objective of making something ugly. I suspect that, to a person, they all think that what they have done “looks nice”. This is nothing but pure elitism and snobbery and snarkiness, and for Mr. Goodnick to suggest that what he does is “okay” by virtue of the number of followers he has is outrageous. It just means there is a heck of a lot of garden elitism and intolerance still out there, and it’s just unkind and it IS this very elitism that gives gardening a bad name. Where I live, some homes have wild and naturalized looking gardens, some are heavily “poodled”, and others have nothing but weedy grass, and to me, it’s all good. Long live tolerance and acceptance in gardening, and let’s stop with the elitism.

    • Perhaps the lavender that’s been trimmed into the shape of chaise lounge is a visual pun. Perhaps it’s a “bed of lavender.” In which case it’s not a crime against horticulture. It’s a crime against all the laws of wit,humor and civilized society.

    • Urk: Thanks for weighing in. As for “judge not” I’m perfectly fine with being judged. So far, my body of work has received pretty good reviews.

      I disagree about this being an exercise in elitism or snobbery. I think that most gardeners aspire to the quality of garden design and care they see in the great gardens, books and magazines they see, but don’t know how to achieve it or just don’t make it a priority to invest their time, energy or imagination in achieving it. My hope is to not just pick fights at other peoples’ expense, but to follow up by giving sound advice about not only the aesthetic issues but also the environmental damage and eventual demise of gardens that are managed with too heavy a hand.

  19. I suspect that if you look for photos of ‘meatball’ shrubs in America before 1945, you won’t find any. My guess is that the first meatballs were pruned by soldiers who served in occupied Japan in the late 40’s and returned home to the GI Bill, the suburbs and a front yard to look after. Mostly they were working class guys with an underdeveloped aesthetic sense who did their best to copy the amazing gardens they saw in Japan. It spread from there as a way to distinguish a ‘cared for’ yard from an unkempt nature. (I’m a woodsman and forager of the first water, but there are some stages in which nature looks downright trashy.) I don’t mind people getting their jollies from other people’s ‘clip-tomania’ (I just invented that word 🙂 But I do wonder if there is a practical mechanism/pipeline for educating business owners, homeowners and landscapers about more cost-effective and sustainable options…..

  20. I have to send you a pic of this house nearby, with a forsythia hedge cut into ‘BOB’ . I kid you not. Will wait for it to bloom, loudly shouting BOB!!!

  21. Goodness me, I wanted to make a point but am almost exhausted by the barrage above mine. Let us teach people to Slow Garden: to grow from seeds and divisions and cuttings and have the patience to treat plants with respect.

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