The Great Park

I visited the Orange County Great Park for the first time today. It’s only about 15 minutes from my house, and I can see the giant balloon ride every time I drive on the freeway. But I didn’t think there was anything to actually do over there yet. Opened in 2003, the Great Park comprises about 1,300 acres from an old military base in Irvine, CA, set aside to build a giant metropolitan park in the geographic center of OC. It’s supposed to have sports fields, natural canyons, museums, botanical gardens and a wildlife corridor. But then the recession hit, and all the grand plans stalled out.
 In recent months, however, things seem to be revving up again.

Sharon Cohoon recently posted about some new activities at the Great Park, including a Farmers’ Market, outdoor movies, and new gardening workshops, on Sunset magazine’s garden blog, Fresh Dirt. I’m not a huge fan of our county, which is dominated by “planned” communities, cookie-cutter developments and a distinctly suburban aesthetic. Unless I have a specific destination, I stick to our little coastal oasis of Laguna Beach. But I have to admit, I really love that orange balloon. (It basically just goes up and down. I would have ridden it today, but the wait was two hours.)

Sure enough, though. The Farmers’ Market was hopping. They had everything from organic veggies to specialty popcorn, home-grown honey, hand-made gyros and hummus, grilled corn-on-the-cob and even a poetry reading. It did have that buttoned-up, overly commercial feel, though, that I associate with the OC. But I was trying to stay open minded. 

The gourmet foodie trucks were lined up at least ten deep. If nothing else, no one goes hungry here.

The best thing, I thought, were all the little kids and dogs! They just loosened up the atmosphere like nothing else. If I had still had young children, I would definitely be hanging out here–and bringing my dog! And unlike a lot of Southern California venues, there was a lot of space–wide open space with lawns to spread out a blanket and just hang out on the grass–with the lovely Santa Ana mountains in the distance.

They even had a band playing at 11 on Sunday morning.  

The actual Farmers’ Market was respectable enough, selling fresh flowers (Sweet Peas!), locally grown, organic veggies, and all that good stuff.
I didn’t inspect the prices or quality too closely, but it’s just nice to see it here.
They were very proud to have just included a stall selling Asian veggies, along with cooking demos.
The Farm and Food Lab Demo garden–run mainly by University of California master gardeners–was an inspired addition. 
How wonderful to see OC locals wandering among the plants and getting ideas for their own gardens.
Don’t assume everyone has seen tomato plants.

They were really into espaliered plants, such as this apple. 

Everything was clearly marked and tended with great care.
 There were several gardening experts–all volunteer master gardeners–eager to talk plants and sustainability. Actually, what I started to appreciate was that this Great Park is introducing some progressive ideas, activities and inspiration!! 
They had a little of everything, from kitchen veggies to this native Prickly Pear.

One of the highlights was the raised compost pit, where they let the little kids dig around for bugs and worms.

This little girl was showing this little guy a centipede she found. Look at those faces! Okay Orange County Great Park–you can’t do a whole lot better than that. 
They had quite a few native plants.

Even if there was nothing I hadn’t seen before, who doesn’t like seeing it again?

There was something endearing about seeing families spending their Sunday together
wandering around this little garden.  

Besides the big orange ride, they had a merry-go-round, and free guitar lessons going on, and they have outdoor movies on weekends, stargazing nights with high powered telescopes, lectures and documentaries on food and health issues, and free fitness classes. In Orange County, everything often has that tinge of Disneyland, and this place is no different. But so far, it is scaled back and has a refreshing simplicity to it. Maybe it’s a good thing they don’t have a lot of money to work with. 

Even in suburban OC, you don’t need a lot to amuse people. They just like a spot to gather and relax. Some good food, a little nature and pretty flowers, a band in the background, a place to run the kids and dogs, and most of us are pretty happy. (Oh no! I’m starting to sound like Anthony Bourdain!)

I still find the whole place a bit surreal. But it definitely has a lot of potential. 

7 thoughts on “The Great Park

  1. it's good to know that there are signs of life in the great park. i haven't been over there yet, but looking at these images makes me want to make the trek! i hear they have a great concert series in the summer, too!

  2. Looks like the market is on the right track: I spied a Master Gardener booth in there. It's always good to get people thinking about growing things. I firmly believe in the positive power of nurturing!

  3. Thanks so much for featuring the Farm and Food Lab demo garden on the blog. I'm the Univ of Calif Master Gardener chair for the project. There are a couple dozen volunteer UC Master Gardeners who donate numerous hours to designing, planting and maintaining the garden over the past 1 1/2 years. We also hold spring and fall garden workshop series there (two left: 4/16-Herbs, 5/7- Low Water Lawns and Lawn Alternatives), and provide the garden docents on Sundays and school tours. The garden changes with the seasons so visit often!

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