by Terry Kramer
IN ANY GIVEN FRIDAY morning you may see a crew of gardeners, bright yellow buckets in hand, weeding and planting the flower beds on the Arcata Plaza.
The Plaza Garden Club, comprised of business owners and individuals, is a volunteer organization that seeks to improve the appearance and atmosphere of the Plaza. Club members donate their time, plants and effort with hopes to transform the Plaza into a botanical garden full of unique plants, according to Arcata businesswoman Anne Russell, club founder. (In above photo)
"It (the club) is sort of a culmination of several ideas," Russell explains. "One is just the fact that I am on the Plaza three days a week, and I was observing that it needed some improvement.
"It could be beautified, but the City of Arcata doesn't have any money to maintain the beds on a more intensive basis. Plus, in my travels I've seen what public gardens look like in other places like Mendocino and Carmel. There is no reason why the Plaza can't have gardens just as pretty," she explains.
Russell contacted Arcata City Manager Alice Harris about the possibility of having merchants take over the Plaza's flower beds.
"At first I thought it was going to be a big deal jumping through all these hoops, and I went to Alice Harris and she said Arcata has an adopt-a-park program in the books. 'We would be delighted to have you do this,' she told me."
So last fall the city cleaned out the beds and filled them with compost. It funded the purchase of 2,300 boxwood starts.
"Mad River Gardens (one of the club members) was really good at locating a source for the boxwood. It wasn't easy finding them," Russell said.
On Nov. 18, club members planted 2,300 daffodil bulbs, donated by Sun Valley Floral, along with the boxwood.
"My thing was to see some of the traditional plants again. I remember years ago all the daffodil bulbs. Plus this is also on the heels of the new gardening trend where you can make these really neat botanic tours.
"(The plaza garden project) is letting everybody have their own kind of bed, and at the same time tying the whole thing together with a boxwood hedge and daffodils in the spring. The boxwood are the bones, but everybody can be creative within that structure," she explains.
For instance, some beds host a collection of unusual perennials and shrubs. One bed is a rock garden filled with unique grasses and perennials. Some beds host colorful annuals. Russell, along with Arcata Main Street Director Paul Rex, plans to fill the center bed that surrounds the McKinley statue with red, white and blue flowering annuals.
"What I want people to realize is that there are some really wonderful gardens out there and that people can learn about certain plants and go to the people who are sponsoring the beds to learn more," says Russell. "I want people to get interested in the different beds and enjoy the diversity that is out there."
Those merchants who have volunteered include garden and landscaping businesses (Garden Gate and All Seasons Landscaping), a bakery (Eureka Baking Co.), and a sporting goods store (the Outdoor Store). In all, 17 businesses have adopted a plot.
Once the beds become established, Russell hopes to publish a map or guide listing the location and names of certain plants.
Inspired by the movie "The Making of an American Quilt," Russell wants to see the Plaza transformed into a living quilt, full of exciting plant colors and textures. "I am hoping that eventually, when everything fills in, people will want to look at the Plaza from up in the hotel and the Jacoby Storehouse and the other offices surrounding the Plaza," she says.
Despite the many volunteered hours, donated plants and diverse landscape designs of the individual beds, the garden club does face certain challenges. Shortly after the Plaza was planted with boxwood and daffodils last fall, vandals ripped up several vulnerable boxwood starts.
Beds in the center of the Plaza are often subject to unnecessary foot traffic and dogs. Because there are no benches in the center, some folks are not careful where they sit, according to Russell.
"Some of the problems are people trampling the plants and not understanding that there are living plants there. Except for that one vandalism incident, things have been really okay as far as vandalism goes.
"It is now to the point of just educating people to see that we really want this to be pretty, so anytime you see somebody walking through the beds go up to that person and say, 'Hey, I understand that there are beautiful things growing in there,'" she advises.
One of Russell's goals is to have the Plaza be a beautiful place for all members of the community, as well as tourists.
"I came up with the club idea because I started realizing that I was picking up on a lot of negative energy out on the Plaza, and I do know people were not happy with it not being colorful, bright and cheerful. So, instead of looking on the down side of the Plaza, I started thinking about what we could do to make it look pretty and get it beautiful.
"So I want to see old-timers wanting to return to the Plaza as well as gardeners who want to seek it out. And I want to see people out there on their lunch breaks and all types of people meeting there.
"Why can't the Arcata Plaza become one of those very beautiful meeting places, where moms and children can be; where you can call a friend and say, 'Let's grab a sandwich and have lunch on the Plaza'?" she asks.
Today the beds on the Plaza are weeded, planted and blooming. And while gardening on the Plaza is not without some challenges, Russell is beginning to see her vision of a garden for all realized.
"The nicest payback for me was in February, hearing a man in his 70s stand on the corner and say, 'I haven't seen the daffodils on the Plaza in years.' He was really happy to see them, and we will do daffodils every year!" she says.
Terry Kramer is a Bayside free-lance writer, owner of Jacoby Creek Nursery, and one of the Friday morning plaza volunteers.