Workplace Garden Challenge: Gardener sees sprouts, and wild possibilities, in Tacoma’s concrete core

The life just creeps onto the sidewalk and over the asphalt at 311 Puyallup Ave.

Heuchera, nandina, sage and an artichoke jostle up against the outside walls of Sue Goetz’s Urban Garden Company, a bright emporium of garden books, tools, decorations and, yes, plants.

They are proof, she says, that, with a base of good soil under the pavement or in a container, plants can transform urban Tacoma’s throw-away places into attractive spaces. Just add water.

“I think about what I wipe off my windows,” Goetz said, “But those plants are happy. That’s a learning curve for me. Those plants are happy and thriving on the surface they’re in.”

She’s killed enough plants in her life as a gardener to know what will enjoy nights of warmth stored in asphalt and concrete, and what will survive hot times during summer in the city. Rosemary has what it takes. So does lavender. So could corn and tomatoes.

“They’re tough stuff,” she said. “I don’t know why there isn’t more of this stuff going on. Find what works, and give it what it needs – water, soil and sun.”

With that, she headed for Tacoma’s Link Light Rail to case the route for garden spots.

The first sloped down from the Tacoma Dome stop to a vacant industrial building and parking lot.

“Somebody loved this place once,” she said. “Somebody tried at this place once.”

Somebody planted rock roses, sweet peas and a dogwood. There’s still a patch of nandina – heavenly bamboo.

Goetz sees it revived as a meadow.

“Can you see swaths of lavender, rosemary and rock roses and grasses?” she asked.

Yes, you can, at the next stop, by the Elephant Car Wash.

“See, there’s a nice meadow of blue grass,” she said.

It will look lovely through the seasons with its flowers and seed heads.

“Sometimes I see planters that are well done, and I think they should get a ribbon,” she mused.

It’s a swell idea. Imagine Pothole Pig bestowing Streetscape awards…

Moving on to the Convention Center stop, she mourned for the warty barberries pruned to a shape they would never choose in nature. She lamented the downtrodden grasses swamped by roadwork of some kind.

“When they design those spaces, they should design a maintenance plan for them,” she said. “It’s a maintenance issue, not just a growing issue.”

She had free advice for the planners working on the Prairie Line trail: Go with the curve. Don’t scatter individual plants that no one will notice. Instead, mass like-minded plants to beckon walkers to venture down the path.

Plants do that, she said. They invite people to come see them – and the businesses behind them.

As we’ve seen with Tacoma’s community gardens, they involve residents in their neighborhoods. They get them digging and watering and sharing conversations and food.

That’s what got Goetz excited as the Link glided toward the end of the line.

All along Commerce Street are the makings of a community garden for the people who live downtown in condos and apartments. The street is, in technical landscaping terms, littered with planters. Round and low and rimmed with blue, they were attractive when the city had the money to plant them. That money’s not there any more, and neither is the irrigation system broken during light rail construction.

Now they’re ashtrays. Lots of ashtrays.

Some of them still have hardy evergreens living in them. Some 40 are just containers of weedy dirt along the street, with a cluster near the Winthrop.

Goetz sees a community garden in them. She sees gathering them by the transit station and the Winthrop – she would be happy to work with the city to design the layout. She envisions some of the people who live and work nearby taking responsibility for the planning, watering and tending. Sure, she also sees people picking stuff they didn’t help grow, but that’s garden life.

If those low planters can’t be moved, there’s a stash of other types lying fallow after they were removed from Pacific Avenue.

Imagine a real community garden in the concrete heart of Tacoma.

Goetz does.

Imagine reviving the abandoned planters along the unlovely street.

The materials are there, waiting for people to, as Goetz says, “commit random acts of gardening.”

Your weekly tip from Travis Valbert of Gardensphere:

Blossom end rot happens to tomato and squash. It is caused by a lack of calcium, but this year there is a spray that you can spray on leaves and fruit and it will fix it, and save all your fruit!

For future years it is very beneficial to add garden lime to your vegetable beds once per year in the spring to prevent calcium loss. It, however, is granular and does not work fast enough for this year.

TAGRO is miraculous stuff, but unfortunately calcium is soluble in water and TAGRO originates as a lot of water, which leaches that vital nutrient out. The salmon have strong bones though.

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