Gardening in Public – Full Frontal Gardening
Preface to the series. I worked 27 years for Portland Parks and Recreation as a Gardener later upgraded to Horticulturist, a change in title only. I loved my work and job. I can count as friends many of the people who still work there. I have the utmost respect for the many there who remain positively engaged in their work. It is a wonderful place to work and grow. I also found the organization a continuous source of aggravation. I don’t think this should be interpreted to be damning of the organization or its people. It simply speaks to the nature of the ‘beast’. Like any organization it takes considerable effort and focus to address one’s shortcomings. It is all too easy for any of us to become complacent, because it is difficult and there is little reward when what you seek others interpret as threatening to themselves. It is what it is. I would do nothing different except perhaps had more confidence earlier on to pursue what I thought was both creative and healthy for myself and Portland Parks. I don’t mind being taken to task. It hones my own practice and I try to rise above the personal and wish the same for others. Growth is difficult it does not mean that we should not pursue it.
The Act and Art of Gardening
Gardening, as an art form, is unique and ‘limited’, as are the more commonly practiced performing arts. The ‘observer’ must be ‘there’ to experience it fully. Only so much can be understood from photos, film or plans. The observer must come to it. Gardens, because of their size and volume, must be walked through. They are spatial affording different views and experiences from wherever one looks. There is a depth to gardens that includes their place in the larger landscape of borrowed views and experience, including the journey to and the view away. They engage the sense of smell, of sound even touch as we brush passed and they’re able to evoke memories of other places we’ve been or dreamed about. Gardens are connected and grounded to place in ways that other art forms cannot be.
Light also plays a role as it does in all visual arts. With painting it is fixed and arises from the artist’s skill at rendering it manipulating the medium to create light and shade, cool and warm. In the landscape light comes from outside illuminating foliage and flower, casting shadow, each plant, each object responding uniquely to angle and intensity, determined in part by its own surface texture and opacity, its translucence, its form. And the light changes with time, time of day, day of the year, even from year to year as the garden grows, fades and dies incrementally. Time in a garden is not something we manipulate, but something we have to understand, something we have to relate to each plant as we design and choreograph its passage.
Gardens are precious and rare. We labor our lives over them and they go largely unnoticed. No one will ever experience them as we do as we live in them. And then, one way or another we leave them and they are changed whether forgotten or adopted. We invite friends and neighbors to visit to share them with, others may walk or drive by, and if we and they are fortunate, they too will take a little pleasure from them and perhaps they will share that and along with it a sense of the value we have for it. Gardens change lives in many ways enriching those whose only experience may be a chance passing, moments of attention arrested and held. That is the nature of gardens. Gardens are generally ‘quiet presences’, intimate in nature. And, because of this, they can affect us profoundly. But they are perhaps even more likely to go on unnoticed, by those too busily engaged in the drama and exigencies of their own lives and its demands. They are labors of love we share with friends and others afflicted as we are.
It is a rare opportunity in our world to get to garden in public places and in unexpected ways. For 27 years that was my responsibility and my job. For almost 17 years I was the horticulturist responsible for Portland’s downtown Parks, the center of its civic life, its increasingly vibrant core. I approached my job as an opportunity to create both beautiful plantings and to educate the public and my peers regarding the nearly limitless alternatives that present themselves here. Portland, as a friend once said to me, is a horticultural mecca, a place where the experienced gardener can grow a greater variety of the world’s flora than perhaps any other place, in a state that is one of the largest producers of nursery stock sold all across the country and with more specialty nurseries than craft brewers (Okay, now I can’t verify that, but as a gardener and a big consumer of such beer it does not seem like an unreasonable claim.)
Horticulture and Culture in Parks
Portland Parks and Recreation is a conservative organization. It’s charge is to care for over 10,000 acres of improved and ‘natural’ landscapes. It’s field staff’s primary responsibility is maintenance. Maintenance can also include improvements primarily intended to correct ‘problems’. The improvements are generally expected to be consistent with the design theme laid out in the original plans and documents. It must also fit within the work schedules and capacity of the responsible crew. Crews don’t have the ability to increase their staffing levels without management approval so increasing workloads by internally generated ‘improvements’ is discouraged. Labor savings is always a priority.
Gardening, at this scale, tends to push you toward improving your practice of horticulture. You have no time to waste. When I worked downtown I had over 3 ½ acres, over 150,000 sq.ft. of bed work. I would sometimes tell people that the average Portland lot is 5,000 sq.ft. Take away the footprint of the house, garage and driveway, the deck and patio, don’t count the lawn area, and a typical homeowner generally has less than 2,000 sq.ft. that they garden in, generally, a lot less. So I had the equivalent of roughly 100 lots worth of garden, probably more, to take care of and I did most of it with only one helper! You can’t afford inefficiencies. You are constantly examining what you have done, what you have left to do and how you can do it different or better to improve your practice and the Parks themselves. And, because this is so much of your life, and much of the work itself can be mind numbingly tedious, you try to make these places beautiful…it is after all, where I spent my life!
Doing horticulture in Parks pushes you to choose one of two survival strategies: pursuing the more commonly chosen path of doing your work under the radar of management and seeking ‘forgiveness’ when discovered and called to task; or, the more active strategy of ‘selling’ your ideas up front in the hope of pushing the conservative center to the more creative end of the continuum. The later was my choice. It is my preference and it was a necessity as all of my Parks were downtown and under much more daily scrutiny. It was hard to ‘fly’ under the radar.
Being downtown was a mixed bag of pluses and minuses. At one time I worked in most all of the system’s Parks. In no other District was their more public use and openly expressed support for the work that I did. In parts of North and NE Portland I could work a year and never once get any positive feed back from users. A political benefit of this for me downtown was that it was much more likely that I would be supported by management when I chose to do more creative plantings. This could also ‘cut’ the other way I would discover repeatedly as other people had their ‘designs’ as well. Neighborhood Parks, further from the core, got much less use, and it was much harder to do plantings that included less familiar plant species and varieties (Though this was likely also because of my being less experienced/trusted then). Management equates such plants with more labor, more expenses. They see ‘highway’, simplistic ‘native’ plantings or mass plantings of very limited selections, as less maintenance intensive, whether they actually are or not. I would also hear with some regularity that I may be more knowledgable of the care of ‘unusual’ plants and be invested in their care, but when I left they would languish and decline. This was connected to a related problem in the selection/hiring process of horticultural staff…as they didn’t really screen for applicants that were strong plantsman, we would just slide in anyway. They were more interested in those with experience caring for large landscapes with the ability to prioritize and get it done…something of ‘equal’ importance I would argue. Anyway, I don’t know if this ‘over-sight’ was because they didn’t value us out of ignorance or if it was a more active decision to limit the most skilled and invested plants people. And this speaks to the problem of ignorance at the management level in general.
Upper management has very little experience with field maintenance. They operate on broad assumptions and are unable to discuss the problem. Instead they slip into numbers and the language of accountants; or of ‘big picture’ references hinting or stating out right that there are other more political pressures involved that either we don”t understand or aren’t privy to; operations and maintenance estimates that are ‘grounded’ only by past practice formula, that are not based in experience…only in the history of such estimates themselves. To staff the whole budgeting and prioritizing by management process occurs in a ‘black box’. Field staff simply have to deal with what they have and make up for the discrepancies during their work day.
(I once was assigned new Park responsibilities that were going to be roughly equivalent to a third or more again of my total work hours. When I went to management to ask what they were expecting me to let go, I was told that the O&M estimate had been fully funded and there would be no Parks ‘let go’. I had received no additional help in the expanded budget. It is common, though maybe not planned, that when new Parks come on line, older responsibilities are shorted. Something has to give and there is much more scrutiny, by the public and political leaders on the newer projects.)
Parks management is primarily comprised of individuals, with recreation, administrative, accounting and Landscape Architecture backgrounds. Their inevitable ignorance and biases color the work that we did. There is a cultural bias against workers who do ‘fieldwork’ by the college educated who pursue professional careers, even though many of the field staff have degrees as well. People, whose lives are based in the real world experience of maintenance and construction, as competent and intelligent as they may be, do not easily fit the ‘professional mold’. They are often excluded by the organization, as well as by themselves, as they cannot see themselves ‘fitting in’. (The organization goes to great efforts to include staff input, but it quickly becomes apparent that this is only a tactic to defuse ‘opposition’, to make us feel ‘included’, when time after time you see your input, perhaps reflected in the notes, but not effecting substantive decisions.) Field staff generally do not rise above lower level supervisory positions. These supervisors tend to be split between those who see themselves as advocates and supporters of their crew and those who take a more ‘authoritarian’ approach, as extensions of management, depending on their own backgrounds and biases. This results in an organization that is somewhat disconnected from their staff and the practical realities of their work. It is telling that amongst staff that are trying to be more progressive in their work the most commonly shared maxim is, that it is better ‘to seek forgiveness than permission.’
One should also look to the membership of the Parks Board a citizen advisory group that works to ensure that the overall direction of Parks is what we want it to be. To my knowledge, since its inception in 2001, it has had no members with a horticultural background. Plants, in this ‘horticultural mecca’ are rather incidental to Parks once you look beyond natives and wildlife’s need for them.
What this meant for me as a horticulturist was that I had to push ‘good horticulture’ fairly aggressively. The organization takes for granted that it is doing good work. It does not see the gap when politics and budget drives everything else. What happens is, that what ever the reality is, it is publicly presented as the ‘best’ possible outcome. Staff knows this is not the case. Management does not want this point belabored, because there are bigger political agendas at work. This shouldn’t be particularly earth shattering to anyone. This is how most of our public bureaucracies function. People ‘push’ on government to get what they want. The more connected, the more well to do, the more they tend to get what they want. This simple ‘fact’ explains a lot in the City as well as in Parks. It is actually the staff, and their own personal standards, that make most organizations as good as they are.
Most bureaucracies tend to function under a standard of ‘good enough’. It is part of the structure that defines them. Staff, over time, either cave in to this standard, or continue to strive toward their own, with little official support receiving only that which they may receive from their peers. They have to do this carefully to not polarize their relationship with the organization and this takes a lot of energy on their part. This is the state of work in Portland Parks and Recreation…sad, but true. Ultimately, after 27 years it is why I left. Institutions mature. They become highly structured, hierarchical bureaucratic organizations. They become very conservative over time. They age like individuals do and can lose touch with what is best and vital. The institution can become more important than the purposes it once served. And, if their leadership does not remain highly cognizant of this reality they will slip into a state of complacent mediocrity with a few scattered bright spots created by those who have not succumbed. Grim???
Some organizations operating with more organizational awareness, develop and put in place Best Management Practices (BMPs) that are grounded in sound horticultural practice. They make efforts to keep these current and educate and support their staff in their use, very often assigning responsibility of these to the staff themselves who are best versed in their practice. Historically when staff have through staff initiated ‘quality circles’ identified, discussed and found solutions to maintenance problems and issues, there has been little support or follow through by management. The practice of horticulture has no powerful advocacy at management levels.
Looking more broadly, work provides the goods and services that benefit others. Ultimately this is the purpose of any economy. The creation of wealth is simply a by-product. It is an indicator of the value a society places on the goods and services provided. Problems begin to occur when we start moving away from this basic service of economies. Work is also an ‘expression’ of our lives something very limited and thus valuable. When economies move away from these basic tenants problems ensue. When the pursuit of wealth and power supersedes the needs of the community and of its members, the workers who participate, something very important is lost and it cannot be reclaimed with more dollars. People need ‘good’ work. It is essential to our well being just as people need beautiful healthy places to live their lives. There will always be a struggle in the workplace for what is needed, for what is fair, for what is ‘best’. Passivity and complacency is what many managers superficially want, but what they need are inspired workers who strive to make their jobs and where they live better. Without them managers will someday find themselves out of a job, because good enough really isn’t. Mediocrity can never be the goal. It is not ‘humanly’ sustainable. We need more. Portland Parks and Recreation is still a good place to work. Gardening/horticulture is a ‘worthy’ endeavor. The fact that it demands more of our energy than should be strictly necessary to provide the ‘best’ service, should not deter us. The work itself is important. We should not short the job or ourselves.
The Work Itself
My work as a field horticulturist was often very physical. This was the second reason that I left…my joint failure frequency kept increasing. My body was breaking down. Torn meniscus in my knee. Ruptured biceps tendon. Elbow tendonitis. Herniated cervical disk replacement and a history of back issues brought about by two malformed vertebrae. That aside, much of the work is very physical and we all have weak points in our physical structure, in addition to the problem of youth that cannot see much beyond its indestructible present. Ultimately someone has to do the actual work. You cannot think a weed or a tree out of the ground, a hundred yards of mulch on to the beds or a thousand plants into the soil. You can rethink your maintenance plan. You can modify your practice, if you’re not, then you’re not really learning anything. Much of what we do is learned from others and practiced in the landscape it becomes almost reflexive…even those things we should be reconsidering because they are actually adding to the problem on a given site or within our own bodies. Still, we are the ones in there everyday doing the work and, if we’re good, thinking about our impact, how we might turn it to our advantage. Over a career I’ve spent thousands of days bent over weeding, an activity that always seemed easier on the body then the half bent posture required for hoeing. I can’t even guess how many yards of soil I’ve dug from holes and trenches, how much soil and mulch I’ve spread or graded, manually, stumps dug or pulled, pots planted or branches, head tipped back, cut, or feet of elevation trudged up and down with chainsaw in hand or dragging limbs to a chipper or to be loaded and hauled. Bruises, strains, scrapes, punctures and tears, uncountable, because they were nearly daily. Part of my choosing of this kind of work was exactly this, its physicality and the satisfaction that it can bring me, still…, but it was not my only reason for such a career, there are mental demands, problems to be solved for the work to make sense, for it to be effective and there is that whole creativity thing, that lets you step back and admire your handy work and see the appreciation on the faces of others.
Doing this work in Parks also tests your values. You have responsibilities, the organization does have its standards and expectations that may be different than your own. When I started it was expected that you would spray. Now it’s expected that you stay on top of the weeds be that with herbicide, pulling, chopping, cutting, spinning or macerating. Outcomes are more important than being on a maintenance schedule, though for some bosses, this is the only way they seem to understand the work still. ‘Have you done…?’ That’s all they want to know. Decisions made not to do something, personal judgments, leave them feeling exposed and they’re going to pressure you. Yes or no…did you do it? Sometimes a redesign is called for, a shift in the plant population that may make the landscape itself better able to ‘defend’ itself against invasion. About the time you swear you’ll never do something again, you find yourself doing just that, because someone has to, because the Director’s or Commissioner in charge’s office called and it no longer matters what you think…if you want to keep your job. And then there is the ‘unwanted’ feedback that can come your way from a demanding public that doesn’t care what you think, that is unconcerned with the holes in their own understanding…they simply want it…are demanding it in fact. How do you respond? If you blow them off, you must take the time to do it thoughtfully and respectfully, so you don’t find yourself dealing with the fall out from your boss or the Commissioner. Then again, you don’t want to bend over because there is always someone who wants something that you think is wrong or will cause you more work or will ultimately degrade the landscape undoing much of your previous effort. Sometimes these were big event organizers with money on the line and political pull, or maybe not…you don’t always know. There can be a constant barrage and every one of these people may expect you to do what they say whatever the conflicts it may create for you. You need to cut this tree down, it blocks the view that I paid for! Why aren’t you planting natives? Your killing the fish when you spray…you’re killing me…you’re killing yourself. They don’t want to know why you’er spraying or what you’re actually using and what your alternatives are. Spraying is bad, always. Why don’t you let nature correct itself? Nature has an inherent ‘wisdom’. And everyone of these people will fail to see the problem from your perspective… pathways trod through the landscape…and not one will volunteer to help pull weeds…most will argue that their behavior is not a problem…their dog is not a problem…when they walk through a bed to responsibly cleanup after their pet it isn’t a problem though they are trampling your planting in the process. Most people are ignorant of the scale of problems that we deal with daily in urban Parks and the organization is very bad at trying to educate the public on these points. We are told to simply accommodate the behavior or ask nicely. And then we clean up, again. We replant, again. We prune, again, hoping the plant remains acceptable. We bait for rats foraging for tossed away food scraps and much less acceptable waste that accumulates regularly in areas that serve as public toilets. We haul away contaminated bedding and clothing that has been left on the ground, sometimes hidden and forgotten in beds behind plants broken in the process of stashing. We implore parents that they control their children out collecting bouquets of planted flowers or running through beds playing hide and seek. We discourage photographers who pose model wannabees in the middle of planted beds because it makes a nice shot and they are just doing it this once so its not a big deal or others walking through a bed to get a different angle for a photograph. We pull into a Park with one job in mind and then change plans because somebody dumped an old nasty couch over night that we have to load and haul away, or a truckload of tires or a refrigerator or unmarked containers full of something someone didn’t want to have to pay for to properly dispose of. Parks are often repositories for anything people might want to get rid of, which in Portland, today, includes many homeless.
And then there are the legal activities, a rolling string of permitted events Cinco de Mayo, Rose Festival, Blues Festival, Flug Tag, beer festivals, food festivals, fundraising walks and runs, the Bridge Pedal, the Doggy Dash, Big Float, Dragon Boats, concerts…each one bringing a few thousand or 50,000…a day! The lawn gets stomped and toasted, often retained by the event for two or more weeks, while they set up, hold the event and break down, with Parks fenced off from general use and even from our access.
Trucks roll in and out, deliveries are made and crowds pour everywhere looking for easier movement. Vendors set up according to pre approved plans then store odds and ends in, or even use beds for their own access compacting the planted ground. The Waterfront Master Plan calls for armored turf in event areas, but now they seem to be everywhere while event organizers press for more from the City.
Managers walk a line between the political demands and the needs of staff and the Parks themselves…Waterfront Park, perpetually under repair or assault all summer…leaves event organizers unhappy with their fees given the condition of the Park when their event occurs.
And there is another affront Downtown Parks suffer and staff endures, that I’ve already mentioned, an ever-growing homeless population. It’s to the point now where I’ve heard that some downtown hotels are cautioning their patrons to stay away from the north end of Waterfront Park. People always complain about the homeless, though, mostly about wanting them moved somewhere else, so cautions made to tourist are hardly an accurate indicator. We would receive similar complaints from area residents and businesses regularly always with requests to do something attached. The crew literally spends several hours every day picking garbage from the ground around ‘camps’ that have become fixtures. It is true that many of these people, but not all, make little to no attempt to keep their ‘area’ clean. Staff gripes about the free ‘maid service’ they are providing and the bio-swale immediately north of the Burnside Bridge is so contaminated by human waste that staff have refused to go into it to pick up anything or to weed or prune. Drug dealing is even more openly transacted than it was a year plus ago when I retired. Tourists walk the Esplanade openly gaping. Landscapes immediately adjacent to some of these heavily used areas are subject to malicious vandalism, shrubs smashed and trees broken down…a ‘reflective’ show of disrespect???
This is on top of the traffic and normal pedestrian pressure and use that Downtown Parks get. There are very few times other than when the weather is absolutely miserable that there are not people around when staff is doing the work, people that must be accommodated, in some way. Just driving your vehicle into, through and out of a Park can be an adventure. There are no laws covering such maneuvers. We are simply told to be safe and respectful. These are the same people who may ask you to take their picture, or for directions, or plant information or a recommendation of a place to eat, how to get to OMSI or the airport. Many are tourists and very appreciative of any historical bits that you might share with them. Most people, if they express anything to you, it is their appreciation for what you do for the Parks themselves…unless of course you are confronting them about illegal and/or destructive activities. Then staff can be on the receiving end of a full on verbal attack with lots of ‘gesturing’. But most people simply ignore you, look passed, while a handful, carry their animosity for ‘government workers’ right in front of them and will let you know what they think. It take all kinds….
All combined, this makes much of the work very disheartening. Staff is largely powerless in most of these situations finding themselves in the position of making do. Managers are attempting to meet the political demands while at the same time putting a ‘rosy’ spin on things that can often seem disingenuous to staff. Historically, the Downtown/Washington Park crew has been ‘good spirited’, one with an overall positive attitude, known for their camaraderie and willingness to help each other out. It is a team approach and it is spawned from the staff members themselves, not dictated from above. Top down rarely works well. The crew cares, and the horticultural staff are personally and genuinely interested and involved in plants. This is why things are in as good a shape as they are and they get little organizational recognition for it beyond their immediate work group, only requests to do more or hollow platitudes.
Parks work is valuable, because of the ‘space’, amenities and services parks provide the public. For several decades, as America prospered and the middle class was able to meet many of its needs privately, individually, many parks languished, neither needed nor utilized as they once had been by a public much more dependent on the wider community to meet many of its needs. More recently, as incomes have stagnated and it has become more difficult for many to provide for their families, and as we find our selves being squeezed into a denser urban center with less private space, Parks are once again becoming more valuable to meet the needs of our population. In many ways parks are more effective and efficient at providing for these needs than traditional private yards were and as we find more of us living ever closer to one another the need for quality public open spaces is increasing. Parks, and the work needed to develop and sustain them is once again becoming more valuable to its community.
In an episode years ago on ‘The 70’s Show’, Eric has been grumbling to his dad about how work ‘sucks’. Red responds with something like, ‘That’s why they call it work and not, Hey, lets go play at laugh and fun time? Dumbass!’ While work may be ‘work’, there is no reason that it shouldn’t be satisfying, fulfilling needs beyond simple survival. That is one of the main reasons I chose the horticultural field. It is physical, creative and intellectually challenging…or it can be. Despite all of the negatives of working in Parks, these were the things that drove me to do a good job, helping me fulfill my own individual needs. As our economy continues to wear down this work can still be sustaining for the right individuals. It does demand that you push back and I did, always keeping in mind the practice of good horticulture, because ultimately good horticulture is cost effective over the mid- and longer terms. Bad practice may save up front, but then it will collapse, it is not sustainable and being able to vocalize this effectively, helped keep me sane and raised my level of practice above the mediocre requirements of the organization. Portland Parks and Recreation still offers a good opportunity to other horticulturists, especially these days in an economy where potential customers in the private sector all seem to have less disposable cash. Being self-employed, always a challenge in the best of times, is even more difficult these days. For many people the organizational pressures of public sector jobs is simply impossible. For some others, though, it may be a perfect fit.