Humboldt Botanical Gardens

By: Mary Wilbur
Photo: Ted Pease

Mary Wilbur, a native of Wales, worked in the field of psychiatric care, and has gardened in England and New…

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All Happy Now, a 100-foot earthwork by artist Peter Santino, in intended to be walked in the manner of meditation labyrinths. Photo: Ted Pease

For more than twenty years, Humboldt County gardeners and non-gardeners alike dreamt of creating a botanical garden. From this community of visionaries, the Humboldt Botanical Gardens Foundation (HBGF) was formed in 1992. It was time to start looking for a site. Unlike many botanical gardens built around an existing estate, this one would have to be created from scratch.

Redwood Community College offered 45 acres. The college had a strong botanical program and the president, an enthusiastic supporter of the effort, foresaw how the garden would be useful to students and vice versa. In 1995, HBGF signed a 67-year lease with the State of California that will remain in effect as long as the land is maintained as a botanical garden.

A developing composition of plants, including geum, euphorbia, and sedum, glow in the cool marine light. Photo: Ted Pease

Humboldt Botanical Garden lies 250 miles north of San Francisco. Originally a hog farm, today the site embraces a grassy escarpment, undulating meadows and woodland, and a year-round stream tumbling down the hillside. Four miles south of Eureka and roughly halfway between the northern and southern borders of the county, the garden covers two climate types: Mediterranean and Pacific Marine, with commanding views of Humboldt Bay and the Pacific Ocean.

Volunteers from the community pitched in alongside workers from a variety of social programs to complete the demanding preliminary work. Participants in the Sheriff’s Work Alternative Program (SWAP), a social program offering minor offenders an opportunity to work instead of doing jail time, prepared garden beds, hauled materials, and built perimeter fencing for less than $50,000; a tremendous savings from the original $350,000 estimate.

However, after the fence was built, a number of deer who called the site home were trapped inside. Volunteers, aided by dogs, organized night-time drives to round up the “intruders.” During the day, people would hold up blankets and form a human chain, hoping to encourage deer to escape through an opening in the fence. According to one volunteer it was “…the silliest thing I have ever done in my life. This was not a level field and people were falling into ravines.” Eventually, the Fish and Wildlife Service came to the rescue. Using trip wire, apples, and alfalfa, it took more than a year to clear the area of deer.

Humboldt Botantical Garden was designed by Ray Lutske and owes a great deal to the generosity of the business community and neighborhood volunteers. In addition to SWAP, CalWORKS, a social program offering paid work to welfare recipients as a bridge to independent living, contributes their services. A single paid staff member supervises and directs this diverse workforce to beautifully maintain the garden.

Plant collections and gardens like the Mediterranean Allee, the Native Tree Garden, the Garden of the Four Seasons and many more, are the result of imagination, hard labor, and community support. A cascading and perpetually flowing stream tumbling down a steep hillside has been developed as a natural riparian area. The native Iris douglasiana growing on its banks has been adopted as the garden’s official emblem.

Himalayan blue poppies (Meconopsis betonicifolia) in the Temperate Woodland Garden. Photo: Ted Pease

My favorite is the Temperate Woodland Garden where a bed of Himalayan poppies (Meconopsis betonicifolia) blankets the ground in a breathtaking sea of vivid sky-blue flowers each spring. Rhododendrons flourish with abandon in the mild, moist climate. Nearby is a rare tree—the Wollemi pine, Wollemia nobilis, which was discovered in Australia in 1994. The specimen thriving at Humboldt Botanical Garden is one of many plants that have been sent to botanical gardens around the world.

An earthwork created by local artist Peter Santino, titled All Happy Now, crowns a high point in the garden. The work is formed by a 100-foot-diameter, mounded ziggurat composed of two slowly rising and expanding spiral ramps of grass edged with redwood. All Happy Now is intended to be walked in the manner of meditation labyrinths.

Topographical variety in Humboldt Botanical Garden makes it ideal for walking. Paths meander through flat areas, among banks planted with flowering shrubs and trees, through open and shaded hills and valleys, and along the hillside stream. High points offer vistas of farmland and of the Pacific Ocean. While still in development, one can dream of the garden’s splendor in its full maturity.

Meandering paths throughout the garden invite investigation. Photo: Ted Pease