Thursday, June 29, 2017 This Week's Paper

Workplace Garden Challenge: Tacomans deserve a chance to beautify the city’s planters

Empty planters are an insult to a city of gardens.

And Tacoma is rife with them.

They’re relics of lost generations of garden dreamers. You can count and date those generations in the planters’ style and materials. Some are large enough to give a tree a home, some small and elegant enough to complement a patch of impatiens.

At best, they go unnoticed. Noticed, they give the impression that Tacomans don’t care enough about beauty, grace and clean air to add seed and water.

That’s as wrong as impressions get.

This is a city of gardeners. And, in most cases, it’s a city that supports gardeners with the land, water and soil it has committed to its growing community garden, street tree and adopt-a-spot programs.

But the planters have fallen into a glitch.

They have no process attached to them. Without one, there is no permission.

“There is no process that covers it, but we can look at requests on a case-by-case basis,” said city spokeswoman Carrie McCausland.

There is still time to fix that this summer, or to push the issue for next year.

Last week we showed you how Sue Goetz, owner of The Urban Gardener transformed the big city planter at the corner of D Street and Puyallup Avenue into a workplace garden filled with corn, beans, cosmos, squash and tomatoes. At the end of the half-hour, $25, TAGRO-based job she asked “Can we get in trouble for this?”

Tacoma Weekly has spent the last week asking city officials if it is okay for people to plant and maintain the little rounds of dry blight downtown. The answer should be a simple yes, or a baffling no.

The closest we came to an answer was when a Public Works supervisor said of Goetz, “I’m not going to tear down her vegetable garden.”

That’s a relief, but not a real answer.

We had an easy process before Tacoma’s budget crisis. City crews installed and maintained flowers, shrubs or trees. It was a lovely benefit we can no longer afford.

In those days, union crews could, and did, file grievances against people planting in city-owned dirt, even if it was lying fallow. The memory of that lingers around those city planters and complicates the yes or no answer.

So does the whole issue of maintenance, which is key to any successful garden.

As community development specialist Carole Wolfe noted, once people see something beautified, they expect it to remain that way. If it goes to seed, they might complain to the city.

Mike Teskey, a city program development specialist, has gotten plenty of those complaints about Adopt-a-Spot sites, especially traffic circles.

“It’s a volunteer situation,” he said. “Circles get adopted. People move away. We get complaints. It defaults to the city to take care of it. Adopt-a-Spot primarily focuses on litter pick-up now.”

Still, the city’s planters, Teskey and Wolfe thought, might fall into the adopt-a-spot process, provided the unions okayed it. Volunteers could sign up for them. The city could keep a list. If a complaint came in, the city would know whom to contact.

It would be a process, but one without a wisp of enthusiasm to it.

By contrast, the planting strip permit process is flourishing, and carries just the right amount of obligation with it.

Tacoma has encouraged residents to get no-fee street occupancy permits then beautify the strips between street and sidewalks, and to stop referring to them as parking strips. The idea is to keep people from parking on sidewalks and junking up the neighborhood. Drive though the North End, around Hilltop or on Fawcett Avenue to see the exuberant results. If maintenance is needed, the permit holder is responsible.

The fallow planters are closer to planting strips than traffic circles. In Sue Goetz’ case, the purpose was almost identical. She heard the planter was put there to stop truckers from taking tight turns and driving on the sidewalk.

That no-fee permit looks like a process that fits the planters to a tree.

Residents of, say, The Winthrop Hotel, could for a permit for any of the planters across the street at the Theater District Link Light Rail stop. If the city had no other plans for the site, they could get the permit, found the Winthrop Garden Club and make the currently crummy site lovely.

The owners of Mad Hat Tea Co. could, for example, get a permit to maintain aromatic flowers in the planter on their grim little chunk of sidewalk and turn it into a workplace garden.

Any bank could do it. Any boutique could do it.

If city officials would rest easier with a process in place, they might wish to get a move on. There are great sales, right now, on gorgeous flowers and vegetables, and straight TAGRO to mix into the soil is always free.

Downtown Tacoma could bloom yet this year. Just add watering cans.