A cultivated tour
by AMY STEWART
I'VE LIVED IN EUREKA JUST OVER A YEAR, and in that time I've laid claim to dozens of gardens, window boxes and parking lot planters in my neighborhood. I keep an eye on my neighbor's fading geraniums, resisting the urge to rush across the street and deadhead in the middle of summer. My route to the gym takes me past a pink jasmine vine at an attorney's office, an ornamental plum tree blooming in front of a nondescript apartment complex, and a stand of daffodils in a vacant lot. Lately a good-sized crack in the sidewalk has yielded an enormous Oriental poppy; I walk past it almost daily and urge it to bloom before someone mistakes it for a weed and yanks it out. All of these plants have become mine in some small way: I've become concerned for their welfare and interested in their future.
Surely Rose Madrone felt the same way when she put together a self-guided walking tour of Arcata's plants and gardens last year. After all, this is no ordinary garden tour. It includes a laundromat, a Mexican restaurant, a parking lot, and a couple of traffic roundabouts. The gingko tree in front of the Pacific Rim Noodle House gets plenty of play, as does a bed of medicinal plants on the Plaza tended by Moonrise Herbs. I took the tour myself recently, brochure in hand, looking out for the small metal signs that mark each stop. The overall effect is like that of walking through the neighborhood with a longtime resident, someone who tries not to compare her garden to her neighbor's but cannot resist saying, "Let's go by Wildwood Music on the way home and see if their pollinator garden is blooming yet." (It isn't, but just give it a month or so and you won't believe what can be accomplished with a few planter boxes.)
The Arcata Community Garden is one of the most vibrant and boisterous stops on the tour. I was there just half an hour after I'd finished tidying things up in my own garden. At home I'd decided to rip out some Swiss chard plants with stems the size of young tree trunks and start over from seed; when I saw a similarly overgrown bed of chard at the Community Garden, I had my hand around the plant's neck before I remembered where I was and let it live. (Note to visitors: Please refrain from picking flowers or pulling weeds on the tour.) A pair of neighboring beds reflected the tenants' disparate opinions on the value of borage: one considered it a weed and kept the bed picked clean of borage seedlings; the other felt it was a valuable crop and let it compete with chamomile for space. I haven't chosen sides in this debate myself, but you can be sure I'll check back later in the season to see if one has managed to bring the other around to their way of thinking. Meanwhile, the folks at First Presbyterian Church tell me that there are still garden plots for rent, and they're a bargain at $24 for the entire season. Call 822-1321 to reserve one.
The artemisia at Emerald City Laundry is the fifth stop on the tour. Although I've never been a fan of artemisia a shrub's got to produce significant fruit or flowers to hold my attention any laundromat that manages to rate a stop on a garden tour is worth a visit. I stood at the corner of 12th and G, reading the brochure and eying the silvery artemisia on the corner. Turns out that absinthe, vermouth and a few other bitter liquors are made from artemisia, a fact that elevated the plant considerably in my eyes. Any number of themed cocktail gardens began to suggest themselves: the Martini garden, consisting of junipers, an olive tree and just a hint of artemisia; the Cosmopolitan garden, with a cranberry bush, a lime tree and a barrel of potatoes; an ordinary bed of hops and barley for the beer drinker in fact, it was such a good idea that I couldn't imagine why some local tavern owner hadn't thought of it already.
It was too early in the day to head round to the bars and try to convince them to take up the challenge, so I walked up to 13th Street, where some of Arcata's finest gardens can be found. Christy Laird (No. 8 on the tour) was outside pulling weeds and pruning shrubs. While there must be a certain amount of pressure involved with having one's front yard on a perpetual garden tour, Laird seemed to take it in stride. "I've gotten used to seeing people standing in front of my house with a brochure in their hands," she said. "Go ahead have a look around." If you've got a strong jealous streak, stay away from Laird's garden, which is in full bloom right now. I stood gaping at a clematis vine that has clearly been flowering for weeks while, back in Eureka, mine is still making excuses about the weather. (Her secret is a dose of tomato food in spring.) Down the street, No. 13 on the tour is a similarly enviable stop. Visitors who spend too much time looking for the yarrow mentioned in the brochure (it's not yet in bloom look for a clump of feathery leaves around the metal "13" sign) run the risk of missing the purple echium, a tall spike of a flower that towers an improbable 15 feet above the garden.
Keeping tabs on other people's gardens is something of a national pastime among gardeners, and this 20-stop tour offers locals and tourists a chance to participate in the sport. Madrone hopes that other towns will follow her example and start identifying residential gardens and commercial spaces worth visiting. The charm of the brochure lies in its democratic nature, where no site is too small, no plant too insignificant. If anybody's thinking of getting together a walking tour of Eureka, there's an Oriental poppy on K Street I'd like to nominate.
"Plants & Gardens of Arcata: A Self-Guided Tour," now in its second printing, was produced with support from the Arcata Foundation. It is available at Plaza Design, Garden Gate, the Arcata Mainstreet office and other shops around the Plaza.
Amy Stewart is the author of From the Ground Up: The Story of a First Garden (Algonquin Books, 2001). E-mail garden-related news, announcements, questions and quarrels.
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