I begin the writing of this week’s column while walking beneath near century old maples, ash, linden and walnut trees, not in Orange County, but less than three miles from downtown Seattle. I haven’t actually typed a word yet, but the column is already constructing itself, if only in my thoughts. The grass here is lovely; the air is clean; the sound of leaves rustle above me and people are enjoying nature all around.

Gardens are a great place to think, to simply allow thoughts to form. Not forced thoughts, but natural, organic thoughts; thoughts that arrive naturally, much like a wild bramble vine in a forest. While outdoors, breathing in the fresh, pure oxygen of the trees and plants around us, our minds seem to work more clearly; with less disorder, less burden. For me, it is the difference between ‘thinking’ and ‘thoughts coming to me’.

I am walking through the Washington Park Arboretum, one of America’s great urban gardens, on the banks of Lake Washington. The garden was designed a hundred years ago by John Charles Olmsted, of the famous Olmsted family, long regarded as the patriarchs of American Landscape Architecture. Their resume would speak for itself, including New York’s Central Park and the grounds of the United States Capitol.

Today, twenty-four hours later, I am back in Newport Beach talking about gardens and plants with Mia Lehrer, the landscape architect commissioned to turn a forsaken and abandoned military base in Irvine into our version of Washington Park; a park for all the citizens of Orange County. Mia is the landscape architect of The Orange County Great Park, the park that will come to be over the next twenty years or so.

The Great Park, will be exactly that. It is immense; a once in a lifetime opportunity for Mia and the rest of the design team, including team leader Ken Smith, architect Enrique Norton, engineer Pat Fuscoe, ecologist Steven Handel and project manager Yehudi Gaffen. I have had a unique opportunity to survey the 1347 acre site firsthand, driving the runways, inspecting the trees, imagining a botanical garden and ‘thinking’.

The Great Park site is a massive space. Frederick Law Olmsted ‘s New York’s Central Park and John Charles Olmsted’s Washington Park would both fit comfortably inside The Great Park, with 247 acres remaining, enough to just about squeeze in Irvine Park as well. Orange County’s Great Park, upon its completion, will stand as one of the great green urban spaces in America.

Orange County — potentially the gardening capital of the country — has stood by while other cities have enjoyed their big urban green spaces. Not far away San Francisco has had its Golden Gate Park, while San Diego citizens enjoy Balboa Park. Soon, it will be our turn.
Orange County, in spite of its near perfect climate still has a long distance to go before it can approach the garden and plant fanaticism of the northwest. Most agree that Seattle may indeed be to horticultural hotbed of the country. They love their gardens and their plants in Seattle. The Northwest Flower and Garden Show, held in Seattle, attracts nearly 90,000 gardeners who pay $19 each just to get in the door.

Plants and flowers seem to be everywhere in Seattle. Even in the downtown areas every nook and cranny is planted in some way. Green roofs are going in at an alarming rate and groups like the Northwest Perennial Alliance and The Northwest Horticultural Society are swelling with memberships. Gardening specialties like rock gardening, bonsai and bamboo are very popular.

Will gardeners in southern California and Orange County catch up to their friends in the northwest? That would be hard to predict, but I suspect that we could at least close the gap some, and the Great Park is a big step in that direction. In the footsteps of The Olmsted’s and in the shadow of great spaces like Central Park and Washington Park, Mia Lehrer has begun.

Imagine an enormous green space just a few miles from where you are right now. A place where you can walk all day and never see the same tree twice. A place where the air is fresh and clean. Where oxygen is abundant and you can really think – without ‘trying’ – and where the thoughts are pleasant ones. This is the type of thinking that happens in a park – a Great Park.

Ron Vanderhoff is the Nursery Manager at Roger’s Gardens, Corona del Mar