As you can imagine, a Plaza like this needs more than your ordinary, standard-issue civic landscaping. Forget pansies and impatiens. Forget boxwood. Instead, a group of volunteers bring plants from their own garden and solicit donations–including a recent donation of 25,000 Dutch iris bulbs from the nearby Sun Valley Flower Farm.
That’s right. 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 when I stopped by, 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 winter, it was about to start raining, and those bulbs had to go in the ground.
Fortunately, the Sun Valley staff recommended packing them in tightly. “They need one another for support,” said one volunteer, “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.
There’s something wonderfully eclectic about the plant selection on the Plaza. Every successive group of caretakers leaves their own favorite plants behind, and the volunteers try to preserve those choices so that the individual tastes of all those gardeners are preserved. A homeless shelter has taken over a couple of the beds,and they plant food crops like rainbow chard and herbs, and encourage people to cut a litle and take something home for dinner. The Native Plant Society took over another corner, which they’ve filled with some truly cool California natives like mimulus and matilija poppy.
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. This, I think, it what a public garden should be.