Gardening in Public: The Duniway Park Experiment

Portland Parks: horticultural profiles series

I’m almost a little embarrassed to post this article….  Most of my earlier project were much smaller, more like bandaids.  This is the first Park I went through more systematically assessing, horticulturally, and trying to correct landscape ‘problems’ with entirely different plantings. We generally weren’t expected to do more than little fixes and bandaids.  Larger issues were considered beyond our scope and should be addressed by our Planning Division, with master plans and all of that.  The Bureau was, however, neither staffed nor funded to do master plans which is a laborious and time consuming process.  They were few and far between.  So, as I said, this was my first go at it, though I don’t claim to have created a master plan in the process.  My time was even more limited.

Duniway Park is where I did my first creative/experimental redesign and planting project. During my first ten years I did very few full bed renovation projects. There was very little support for such work, my assigned maintenance work load was very large and widespread and it took some time to figure out what the real priorities were of a given landscape beyond those of the organization. Some of the reasons for not doing this earlier in my career no longer exist and had to do with specific managers, long gone now, and their need for power and control. Others had to do more with staffing levels and simply not having the time and energy to pull a larger project together from idea, through design, plant acquisition, site prep and planting. For me this was a time of preparation, learning years, when I needed to grow both personally and professionally. They were spent in a mixed work environment where I often felt unsupported. They were also years where, when I was able to work with peers, I learned a lot about myself and the work. Central to this, beside growing my ‘base’, I learned about design, how to read a landscape, how it ‘feels’ and how to sell my ideas to management, as well as when such efforts were futile. A reactionary ‘no’ will always be a no, no matter how hard you try to sell or justify your idea. I also learned that in a conservative organization, managers feel safest saying no. It is much less likely that they will receive any ‘fallout’. This is at the core of unimaginative, stagnating, bureaucracies. Such people have little incentive to put themselves out there and let others be creative. What I learned about myself, however, was that this very thing is what is essential to my own well being, and, I believe to that of most others, whether they quash it or not.

The Park: A Description

Duniway Park is the site of one of Portland’s first garbage dumps. The Italian community, that formed at its edge to the south of downtown, were its first haulers. Marquam Creek, long buried in a sewer pipe at the bottom of the Gulch, received garbage for years. Eventually it was buried beneath many feet of fill soil. At the intermediate step up, and southwest of the track, is a manhole, many feet above from which you can hear the sound of the rushing stream below. The steep rock terraced wall at this abrupt rise, is somewhat lost beneath an over growth of aggressive cover. A turf area covers much of the upper portion of the Park with a chipped walking path that in winter can be almost unusable as the drainage here is so poor. (The field below is equally poorly drained and so is very difficult to irrigate.  There is a fine line between burnt grass and mucky saturated.  This I would discover is a very common problem on many of the Downtown Park sites.) There are grated drains at several points at the toe of the steep hills that sometimes clog. The turf is unirrigated in this upper field, no system has been built, and it bakes hard and dry in summer. I don’t think anything desirable actually grows in the ‘turf’.

Duniway Park's Lilac Garden is wedged into the cold air drainage of Marquam Gulch. The open spaces between plants are a result of the poor draining soil that rots the Lilac roots. The road in the back ground squeezes the Park providing for now parking for visitors to use to access this end of the Park unless they drive in on to the 'lawn'.

Duniway Park’s Lilac Garden is wedged into the cold air drainage of Marquam Gulch. The open spaces between plants are a result of the poor draining soil that rots the Lilac roots. The road in the back ground squeezes the Park providing no parking for visitors to use to access this end of the Park unless they drive in on to the ‘lawn’.  The plant in the foreground to the left with its poor leafing and dieback is indicative of the poor soil below.

The struggling Franklinia altamaha in one of the beds. At one time I had suggested that we replace the Lilacs with plants tolerant of heavy wet soils.

This struggling Franklinia altamaha is in one of the beds. At one time I had suggested that we replace the Lilacs with plants tolerant of heavy wet soils.

At the Park’s south westerly terminus, where Terwilliger climbs steeply up the hills from Sam Jackson, is the Lilac Garden, a plot of ground heavily shaded throughout much of the winter and spring, that because it acts as a drainage for cold air, may be the coldest area around Downtown. The soils are heavy and poorly drained. Every spring I would go in and, as part of the regular maintenance, would remove several Lilacs whose bases had rotted and the plants toppled over. The Garden was irrigated in summer. It helped little. For a time I lobbied to ‘move’ the Garden to a Park in East Portland with better air and drainage conditions which would have also provided one of those Parks with a special feature, a destination, unique to it. Horticulturally, there was interest…not, however, in management. My horticultural arguments were not denied, but budget and priority were invoked killing the project. 17 years later the Garden still limps along with much of the bed space still in a cycle of Lilac replanting and death, much of it currently mulched and unplanted. Recently someone has been experimenting with other plantings, notably Hamamelis, a struggling Franklinia altamaha and a few others. This isn’t the area I experimented in though.

Tree Plantings

These Birch trees have put very little growth on over the years since my planting was stopped. These were to have been removed and replaced with more Nyssa sylvatica and Metaseqouia glyptostroboides.

These Birch trees have put very little growth on over the years since my planting was stopped. These were to have been removed and replaced with more Nyssa sylvatica and Metaseqouia glyptostroboides.

Some of the Nyssa sylvatica I planted around a middle aged Sweetgum below Terwilliger Plaza. You can see the condition of the 'turf' around the old horseshoe pits.

Some of the Nyssa sylvatica I planted around a middle aged Sweetgum below Terwilliger Plaza. You can see the condition of the ‘turf’ around the old horseshoe pits.

While I was working to move the Garden, I was also evaluating the conditions of the trees in the upper portion of the Park. The Birch were all struggling exhibiting little vigor. I began planting Metaseqouia and Nyssa sylvatica and was working with our Forestry Division to remove/replace the worst of the languishing Birch. I had thought that I had an agreement. When planting time came around, several months later, that agreement was not changed, it was denied that it had ever been made. The Birch, sadly are still there, looking poorly while the trees I had planted, 17 years earlier are doing well. One of the Nyssa has nearly a 10” dbh. The grove of Metaseqouia are all larger as they are faster growing trees. A few have suffered breakage (vandalism?)

One of the Metaseqouia and a Nyssa behind it that I planted around 2000.

One of the Metaseqouia and a Nyssa behind it that I planted around 2000.

There, historically, is a disconnect in Parks, the different divisions not coordinating particularly well, not collaborating, but making attempts to control the others while they themselves largely ignore ideas and cautions of the others. The day to day more intimate knowledge of the conditions on a site, lose out to directives to increase urban tree canopy which may ignore planting themes and longer range development plans of the Bureaus own Landscape Architects and Master Plans. Each has something to offer but apparently, little incentive to actually collaborate. The result can be a mish-mash or paralysis by planning. Tweaking and adjustments by horticultural staff, which we viewed as an important part of our job, I did as well, is not trusted and everyone is too busy to work it out.

The grove of Metaseqouia I planted just north and east of the LIlac Garden.

The grove of Metaseqouia I planted just north and east of the LIlac Garden.

Controlling Invasives

I also spent a lot of time on the hillsides above managing invasive species and other plants that had proven to be aggressive spreaders on the site. This land contained trails that climbed higher up approaching the OHSU facilities. It was several acres. Here I cut and removed established Mazzard Cherry, Portugese Laurel and Elms that in places had heavily volunteered into the otherwise mostly native woods. I found it telling and sad that one day I had a mother with child plead with me to stop, because it was all so green and beautiful…she did not see the threat the invasives pose, the loss of habitat they engender or the threat they posed to other landscapes. I came to understand that this work, its priority is lost amongst the larger public and perhaps, political leaders and managers as well. It was a disturbing realization. So, I worked harder and thought and wrote about the problem. I cut pulled and sprayed established Clematis vitalba and the ubiquitous English Ivy. I did this off and on for months over a two year period taking breaks when my heel spurs started to flare up. I would bring in work crews and they would complain about the physical nature of the work and the difficulty of the site where I had been working myself long before. When revisiting specific sites it was disturbing to find areas that I had worked so hard in, looking as if I had done almost nothing. The problems are deep, embedded in the soil seed bank and in the nature of invasives in landscapes suffering chronic and serial disturbance.

In the remaining developed areas of the Park I spent many days crawling and climbing through the large beds to rid them of invasives cutting, digging, pulling and squirting them to free the trees and shrubs they were burying and I began to plant hardy and interesting plant material to take there place.  A lot of these plants were common Park staples, but others were more unusual like Serbian Spruce and Kolkwitzia amabalis.  English Ivy, Blackberry…here is where I really learned to ‘dance’ with Clematis vitalba that had climbed high into trees, wrapped around and clasping tens of thousands of branchlets, the rain of broken wood, grubbing out roots or treating them where I couldn’t get them out.

Early ‘Experimental’ Plantings

I turned my attention to the narrow beds at the north end of the track and on the east side of the parking lot in the lower Park. These were unirrigated either unplanted and thus chronic weed problem areas or planted with Hypericum calcynoides and riddled with aggressive weeds. I tore out what I could, cleaning up/pruning the trees and planted them with xeric plants from our own west coast and mediterranean regions, the first time I had ventured into this kind of purposeful planting. The narrow steep strip of a bed dividing the parking lot from Barbur Blvd and the sidewalk still has much of the original planting intact although for years, not under my direct care, it was not pruned/trained as I had intended it. Still it was an interesting experiment into what you could do on a difficult public site with only one summer of irrigation to establish it.

Arbutus menziesii, Ceanothus thyrsiflorus ‘Victoria’, Romney coulterii, Cupressus sempervirens, Arctostaphylos densiflorus ‘Howard McMinn’, Phlomis russelianus and Iris x pacifica…. The Acacia parvissisima lasted for 5 or 6 years, successful in my book, before it succumbed in a harsh winter, every spring smothered in clouds of tiny soft yellow flowers.

At the north end of the track next to the large Cedar I planted Ceanothus ‘Concha’, Halimium, another Romneya, several different Cistus and a Quercus garryana ‘Brewerana’, which unfortunately looks like it was repeatedly brutalized, by someone thinking it was a volunteer English Oak. Both of these plantings were very successful in their early years requiring very little inputs in terms of water fertilization and mulching. But like any landscape, they did need monitoring and the occasional timely response to address damage,weeds and to direct growth. Plants don’t adjust themselves to our human needs or expectations and will always require our participation if we want to keep them within performance boundaries.

This planting, between Barbur Blvd. and the parking lot next to the track was done 15 years ago and has been largely neglected since then.

This planting, between Barbur Blvd. and the parking lot next to the track was done 15 years ago and has been largely neglected since then.

Today’s ‘score card’: the Madrone is dominant though had it received some structural pruning in its youth to improve its form and keep it out of the sidewalk and parking lot it could be better and may not have suffered the loss of a quarter of its canopy to a single branch failure. Madrone can have a very ‘bushy’ habit and so require our aid to ‘fit’ into the human landscape especially in such a small space. Perhaps it was a wrong choice, but I don’t think so.

The Ceanothus ‘Victoria’ has been too successful as it is huge. It was, however, perfectly suited for its conditions. Hot, full sun, mineral soil no irrigation and fast surface drainage. At 15 years old, this plant often wrongly ‘accused’ of being inappropriate for the Pacific-Northwest and too short lived to bother with, is still robust, vigorous, with good form and density. It has in fact been repeatedly sheared back to keep it contained.

This brings me to the Arctostaphylos densiflora ‘Howard McMinn’. They are no longer on site. That was my failure in the design stage. I had planted several of them around and south of the C. ‘Victoria’!!! The Manzanita grew relatively slowly and steadily for 10 years while I watched, but they were too close to the sidewalk and were being ‘pinched’ between it and the Ceanothus. Apparently, the staff decided that eventually there was no room for them and they all came out.  This Park was reassigned to another district, a maintenance unit, some 12 years ago +or-.

With the 'bulk' of the Manzanitas and the Acacia gone people have taken to sliding down the bank. Any planting requires routine maintenance and replacements when plants fail are removed or destroyed. Parks take all kinds of abuse!

With the ‘bulk’ of the Manzanitas and the Acacia gone people have taken to sliding down the bank. Any planting requires routine maintenance and replacements when plants fail are removed or destroyed. Parks take all kinds of abuse!

Just south of the C. ‘Victoria’ is a large open space with a few remaining Blue Oat Grass. People have been using this as a shortcut pathway. An old flush cut stump remains in the middle. That was my Acacia parvissisima. It disappeared several years ago in that January in which we had 5 consecutive days where highs remained at or below freezing! Scattered freezes in previous years caused it little apparent damage. I don’t know whether any attempts were made to replant in this space or not. As I said, the hierarchical structure and culture of Parks does not encourage or support collaboration. So, no one asked me and I was embroiled in my own work issues at the time.

I had planted species Italian Cypress. All three are still there thriving staying within their prescribed space. Life is just difficult enough for them here. They grow slowly enough that they have not become top heavy and toppled, nor have side branches grown so fast to splay out and detract from their classic form and structure like they so often can in our over rich moist soils here. This is often what happens here with mediterraneans and west coast xeric plants. We have to learn restraint.

Adjustments needed to be made as the Madrone grew...they weren't. Again, more shortcuts, a struggling Phlomis, once vigorous at top left and a thin Lavatera bottom left.

Adjustments needed to be made as the Madrone grew…they weren’t. Again, more shortcuts, a struggling Phlomis, once vigorous at top left and a thin Lavatera bottom left.

On the herbaceous front Nepeta, Phlomis russelianus, Lavatera even the Iris x Pacifica have all survived and done relatively well. The Iris, as expected does best with some shade protection on this baking site. The Nepeta doesn’t seem to mind at all, although some has died out I suspect partly from ‘foot traffic’ though there is some at the base of the wall at the track’s north end that has had to tolerate reflective oven conditions and I suspect, consequently, has declined because of it. The Phlomis was planted in one spot only along Barbur and for a number of years did fantastic, but now is suffering in the increasing shade of the Madrone. The same can be said of the Lavatera.

The Romneya c. was planted in both sites and is more than hanging in there. The northern planting, as an experiment, I planted within a 4’ diameter ring of bamboo barrier to see how it responded to being contained. Apparently it is not an issue. The other planting on Barbur struggled for a few years but has now been long established. It has spread but not too far. Both would look better with an occasional ‘haircut’ to remove dead and old, less vigorous growth. In fact all of the herbaceous material would look better with an occasional off season trimming.

I planted three different Cistus, if memory serves me, C. creticus, C. pulverulentus ‘Sunset’ and C. ‘Elma’. The best long-term performer here has been the later. I think all of the original plantings on Barbur remain. This plant, like several of the others have a tendency to open and splay out over time especially in richer soils with regular summer moisture, which of course this site doesn’t offer. It’s foliage is dark green and resinous and relatively densely held along the branch. It is still attractive. It still blooms well with its crinkled white petaled flowers. The C. creticus, planted at the top of the wall at the north end did not fair so well. The bed is narrow here pinched against a high volume street without a sidewalk. Part of the problem may have been foot traffic…with nowhere else to walk, people walked on the plants. It is also a narrow bed held behind a concrete retaining wall. Could it have been too dry??? The C. x p. ‘Sunset’, consistent with the other plantings I’ve made subsequently in Parks is not as vigorous and durable as some of the other choices. On Barbur it is almost gone pinched and crowded between other more competitive plants.

The plantings at the north end of the track have suffered over all more than the parking lot planting. Much of it is gone. One of the Ceanothus ‘Concha’, in my opinion a particularly beautiful smaller leafed, dark blue flowered form, is completely dead only a rotting partially heaved stump remaining. The other two plants have had their bases severely pruned and are flat out ugly. I would remove them without hesitation. I think part of the problem here was that homeless people commonly hung out and even ‘camped’ here. In Downtown there is a certain population that thinks nothing of camping right next to busy streets and, they may actually be safer in such places from ‘predation’ and attack. Such ‘occupation’ often leads to public pressure to prune and open up such areas. This does not always work, because, as I said, some people don’t mind the exposure and actually seek it out…but the plantings suffer from the occupation and the ‘cure’.

Along one edge of this planting was a Halimium sp. (?) of which only one remains where it has successfully competed with a nearby Kwanzan Cherry for years. Lower, running along the edge of the bed was the hybrid x Halmiocistus sahucii, if I remember correctly, which has died out completely. It was a tough spot next to the lawn. Overall it is a little disturbing to me that these plantings have declined to this point, but it is entirely understandable. As I’ve said earlier, staff is often under ‘manned’ and there is little sharing within the organization (I did leave plant lists for my successor). By and large the organization is much like that large portion of the public that thinks landscapes are static and fixed. They don’t really understand the necessity of our continual and constant participation in landscapes. They want bullet-proof plants and landscapes that require no care and they tire of our telling them that that is not possible. So, they tend to cling to the promises of ‘snake oil’ salesmen that promise low care/no care landscapes. It is a myth. It never was and never will be, because ultimately we are ‘part’ of the landscape and must fulfill our role if it is to be vibrant and healthy.

I used to love taking care of this Park.  The track brought large numbers of regular users who used it respectfully, by and large.  The ‘Y’ was next door, now the headquarters of Under Armor, PSU track and cross country teams were often there as well as students from St. Mary’s and many others.  The geography made the site ‘interesting’ and at times difficult.  I learned a lot here about invasives and difficult soil conditions and, in most ways, I was left alone to try things as long as I stayed up with my responsibilities elsewhere.  For my early years downtown, I was the only horticulturist and my area spanned from Duniway and Lair Hill to Couch, Wallace and Hillside in NW Portland.  Later it was split and they started adding new areas like Eastbank Esplanade and South Waterfront Park by the Riverplace Marina.  That’s another story.

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One thought on “Gardening in Public: The Duniway Park Experiment

  1. vera

    I live in the neighborhood, and I’ve always wondered who put the interesting plants in the strip along Barbur, so I’m excited to have discovered your blog. Thank you for your work on this park, and I’ll try to learn from these in my own home plantings.

    Like

    Reply

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