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June 9, 2005

HBGF's Annual Garden Tour


Photo of Jim Sullivan's garden

I CALLED JIM SULLIVAN TO GET DIRECTIONS TO HIS GARDEN [photo at left]  two weeks before he was planning to open it to Humboldt

Botanical Garden Foundation's annual garden tour. "Do you know where Ridgeway is?" he asked.

"No," I said.

"You know where Hoover is?" he asked.

"No," I said. There was a pause.

"What part of town are we talking about?" I asked.

"Myrtle and Harrison," he said.

"I got it," I said. "I'm there."

Jim's garden is tucked away in a neighborhood I've driven past a thousand times and never bothered to explore. In fact, it's hardly surprising that I didn't know where Ridgeway was -- his end of the street is nothing more than a gravel alley that slopes down to his driveway. Nobody ever comes down the alley, he said, unless they are lost or unless they've lost control of their brakes and are looking for a soft landing.

One of those not-so-soft landings explains the enormous concrete planter his Japanese maple is growing in. He'd put it in a pretty sturdy container at the base of his driveway, but after a car rolled right into it, he decided to build a concrete bunker around it. And what a beautiful concrete bunker it is. Like the rest of the garden, it's both handmade and elegant.

"Everything around here is something I built, or salvaged, or somebody gave it to me, or I found it somewhere and hauled it home," Jim told me. He's been on this one-acre property for more than 50 years, so he's had an opportunity to accumulate some stuff. And in case you're turned off by the idea of a collection of junk art covered in vines, don't worry. This is the most orderly, manicured, well-behaved collection of recycled garden art I've ever seen.

In the early `50s, the property was a mill pond for the Goodwin Mill. Then it became an informal clean fill dump. "When people had extra landfill, or when they were doing remodeling downtown and had busted-up concrete or anything else, they'd bring it down here," he said. "Eventually that got filled in. That turned out to be a great thing for gardening. My neighbors all have red clay, but I have sand, gravel, topsoil -- the best drainage you can imagine."

He bought the land in installments when he returned from Korea, and built a modest cabin on it out of salvaged redwood boards. Over the years, he's expanded the house and put in a garden.

If you've been around Humboldt County for a while, you'll probably find something in Jim's garden that you recognize. He's a Humboldt native who taught art at Eureka High for 30 years, and over time, people have just figured out that they can bring him stuff.

Wrought-iron gates came from a friend working on a remodel of an apartment complex. Pretty soon, an ironwork balcony, the kind that might be used for a fire escape, showed up as well because it went so well with the rest of the wrought iron. Metal barstools from a long-ago closed bar in Eureka sit outside around a granite counter. A carved stone urn and fountain arrived from the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, where they were going to be tossed out because they were damaged. "My cousin did their landscaping," he told me. "These pieces were cracked, and they told him to take the to the dump, but he took them home. Now I've got them. They were painted Golden Gate orange, but I've tried to tone them down a little bit."

As I followed Jim around his garden and listened to his stories about each artifact, I realized that we'd hardly bothered talking about the plants. His garden is dominated by roses, clematis and rhododendrons. Like most people who put their gardens on a tour, he's had to watch as stunning plants go in and out of bloom before the tour begins. "We've had some plants this year that are just knockout. See that huge red rhododendron? You wouldn't have believed it a few weeks ago. And that climbing rose is spectacular, but it'll probably be all done in two weeks."

A surprising number of his plants are in containers, a fact that is not obvious at first because they are all so lush and overgrown. Over time he's put in brick walkways and patios, so most of the plants that soften the hardscape have to be in pots. Everything gets hand watered. "We tried drip, but we drowned some things in the winter, so we do it all by hand," he said. When I asked him what he fed all these container-bound plants, he stopped and told me a story about another tour he'd been on one year. "I overfertilized the garden," he said, "and it just turned brown. So I had a friend make a sign that said, `Lawnus overfedus burnus.' That was a big hit on the tour. I think everybody understood. But I forgot I did that and I think I might have overfed the roses this year."

I looked around and didn't see anything that looked overfed or stressed out, but this is the way it goes with garden tours. The gardener is the biggest critic. What else could drive a person to get up at five to pick snails, pull weeds until nightfall and haul in truckload after truckload of fine dirt?

Even all the gorgeous sculpture and metalwork seems to require some explanation. "If you see anything that looks a little weird," Jim said, "just remember that it's somebody else's garbage."


HBGF's 14th annual garden tour will be held on Sunday, June 19, from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. There are 11 gardens on the tour in Eureka, Arcata, Fieldbrook, McKinleyville and Trinidad. Tickets are $15 for members and $20 for nonmembers. You can buy tickets and get a map of the gardens on the tour at practically every nursery and garden shop in town, or you can purchase them at any of the gardens on the tour. Tea and scones will be served at Pat Wells' garden in Trinidad, and lemonade will be served at Jim Sullivan and Glenn Murray's garden in Eureka. You can also buy raffle tickets for any number of cool prizes on the day of the tour. For more information, call 442-5139.


garden-related announcements and news to Amy Stewart.


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