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November 16, 2006

Dirt heading

Digging the Plaza

story and photos by AMY STEWART

photo of people gardening on the Arcata PlazaI arrived at the Arcata Plaza at about 9:30 on a Friday morning, coffee in hand. I should have brought a shovel. Geraldine Goldberg, one of the organizers of the Plaza's gardening crew, was leading a group of volunteers who were already hard at work rejuvenating the flower beds around the Plaza. I would have liked to join in. I wanted to get my hands on all that rich soil, all those perennials just waiting to be divided and relocated, and all those bulbs.

Let me stop here for a minute and talk about the bulbs. The Plaza Beautification Project (which is, by the way, an official non-profit now) asked Sun Valley Floral Farms for a donation, and what they got was a truck packed with plastic crates containing 25,000 Dutch iris bulbs.

Twenty-five thousand. Bulbs. Free.

It's hard to describe the kind of lust this inspires in the average gardener. If you're not a gardener, you might look at those crates of bulbs and see nothing but back-breaking work ahead of you. But a gardener sees that many bulbs in one place and swoons. If it wasn't a chilly November morning, I would have been fighting an impulse to dump them all out on the ground and roll around naked in them. (Hey! Stranger things have happened on the Plaza!) But no -- it's November, it was about to start raining and those bulbs had to go in the ground.

photo of people gardening on the Arcata PlazaFortunately, the Sun Valley staff recommended packing them in tightly. "They need one another for support," said Geraldine, "like redwoods." So the volunteers dug wide trenches and packed them in by the hundreds. Next spring, almost every flower bed on the Plaza will be bordered by Dutch iris.

To make room for them, volunteers dug out rose campion, which would be divided and re-planted, and pulled out dahlia tubers, which Geraldine would store over the winter and bring back to the Plaza in time for their summer show.

There's something wonderfully eclectic about the plant selection on the Plaza. Most of the plants are donated, Geraldine explained.

"The farmers' market growers have been wonderful. They've given us so many beautiful plants. I bring some from my own garden, too. All of us do." Every successive group of caretakers leaves their own favorite plants behind, and Geraldine tries to preserve those choices so that the individual tastes of all those gardeners are preserved.

On the northeast corner, Vicky Turner of Arcata Endeavor was adding Dutch iris to the beds she maintains, with the help of two Endeavor clients, Alan and Danny. (When I asked if they minded having their pictures in the paper, Danny said, "As long as it's not a mug shot," and went back to digging. Fair enough.)

Vicky also brings plants from her own garden to plant in the Endeavor's beds, and she likes to use as many culinary elements as she can. Last year, the rainbow chard she planted went to seed, sending up six-foot-tall spikes of crazy multicolored seed heads. This year, she's putting in peas, parsley, thyme and more chard. "I like to plant food on the Plaza for everyone to enjoy," she said. "I want people to find something they can use in their kitchen."

photo of people gardening on the Arcata PlazaOn the southwest and northwest corners, two native plant gardens were just taking off, thanks to work of California Native Plant Society volunteers. A flannel bush (Fremontodendron californicum) was just getting established on the southwest corner, along with a cheerful tangerine monkey flower (Mimulus aurantiacus). It's good to see them out on the Plaza -- both of them are so tough, so reliable, and such cheerful bloomers that I was inspired to go home and plant one of each.

And that's what I love about the gardens on the Plaza. They look like real gardens, filled with plants that someone had a soft spot for. They have to be hardy enough to survive the somewhat unpredictable Arcata Plaza ecosystem, and they have to be free-spirited, too. After all, this is Arcata's public gathering space. It's only fitting that it's also a gathering space for the best-loved plants of Arcata's gardeners.

As I mentioned, the Plaza Beautification Project is a non-profit organization, and it could use your support. Business sponsors have donated money and send work crews over to help (when I was there, a crew from Tomas Jewelry showed up to dig); nurseries and local growers have donated plants and materials; and local groups have taken responsibility for particular flower beds. To get involved, contact the project at 407-9099 or

Send garden news to, or write in care of the Journal at 145 G St., Suite A, Arcata, 95521.


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