The Plaza Blocks – Practicing Horticulture at Lownsdale and Chapman Squares

The Spanish American War Memorial the the Federal Courthouse behind. A recent Elm stump in the left foreground and another behind and right of the Memorial. Ringing the memorial is Pachysandra, Hosta and Clethra alnifolia. These take a lot of abuse from playing kids and posing tourists crossing back and forth.

The Spanish American War Memorial with the Federal Courthouse behind. A recent Elm stump in the left foreground and another behind and right of the Memorial, the further had a cavity for several years housing raccoons, but the tree began to split. Ringing the memorial is Pachysandra, Hosta and Clethra alnifolia ;Hummingbird’. These take a lot of abuse from playing kids and posing tourists crossing back and forth.

Chapman and Lownsdale Squares sit aside each other on SW Main with the ‘Elk Fountain’ (the anatomically incorrect Elk, or at least disproportionate)holding the neutral ground in between, the street splitting traffic that flows around it like a boulder in a stream. These are among the City’s oldest Parks. Laid out formally they are nearly mirror images of one another, sidewalks hugging the streets without parking strips to shield them, a crossing pattern of concrete marking them boldly with an ‘X’, lined with metal benches, a center axis and each with a restroom building on opposite sides…the north, on Lownsdale serving as the men’s restroom with the more machismo memorials to the Spanish American War and the south, on Chapman, the women’s with its sculptural tribute to pioneer families Bible in hand. This is a carry over from the early days when each Park served as a respite for the opposite sex where one could publically relax without being ‘bothered’. As were most western territorial towns, Portland’s population was dominated by men and women were often brought here as wives or as part of commercial ventures. Somewhere here was the site of the gallows, erected as need be, up until 1870 or so when the state banned public executions. More recently it has served as a respite for government workers, lawyers, officers and staff of our courts and jail, or visitors to either, taking their breaks, having lunch or getting a few minutes of air as they cross on their way to an appointment. Walking tours and school groups wander through pausing at the monuments. Others congregate here too, sometimes for rallys or protests within earshot of government offices. There are almost always a few members of Portland’s homeless community about taking a few moments or more in the shade of the large Elms and Gingkos. It was also the site of Portland’s own ‘Occupy’ movement in the Fall of ’11.

The wooded Chapman Square with two newer beds here at the NE corner.

The wooded Chapman Square with two newer beds here at the NE corner, a ‘younger’ Gingko biloba in each.

I had responsibilities here from the summer of ’98 until I retired in the spring of ’14. A lot happened here in those years. I arrived when the Parks were being ‘refurbished’. The walkways were redone, the benches upgraded and increased, the irrigation system completely replaced and a few select trees removed. The original tree plantings had been added to over the years in a way that was inconsistent with the original design. This was a ‘historic’ park and a ‘deal’ of sorts was made internally removing some of the ‘arboreal’ inconsistencies and replacing them with Gingko trees more in keeping with the original theme while opening some of the ‘sun starved’ turf area to the light it needed to improve its health and durability. The heavy tree canopy and the aggressive roots of Elms make the goal of healthy turf difficult at best. A great deal of effort is spent regularly trying to boost the turf, but it is a bit of a tug-o-war between it and the trees, a game that strongly favors the Elms. These are heavily used Parks, mostly informally, with a dose of regular daycare center use adding to it. Thin shaded turf is quickly worn to bare soil. In fall leaf drop is heavy smothering the weakened turf despite the weekly efforts of crews to keep it clear. (This is a common problem in several of the downtown Parks, including the North and South Park Blocks). Both Parks suffer this, in more recent years catching some relief from several tree failures and consequent removals of large old Elms changing the character and light within the Parks.

Crocus t. 'Whitewell Purple'. You can see how thin the lawn is and, much of it is the weedy Poa annua that is pictured here and common in compacted soil.

Crocus t. ‘Whitewell Purple’. You can see how thin the lawn is and, much of it is the weedy Poa annua that is pictured here and common in compacted soil.

Partially in response to the poor turf and deciduous canopy I went ahead with a planting suggested earlier by two retired long time Parkies from our City Nature division. Both thought it would be an ideal opportunity to plant masses of the diminutive Tommy Crocus, or Crocus tommasinianus. I checked into it. Got support and some funding from a ‘corporate partner’ and ended up buying 30,000 Crocus t. ‘Whitewell Purple’ bulbs! to be planted in the fall of ’13. Volunteers were lined up. Weather was typical sketchy and unpredictable for here and I was getting nervous having never done anything like this type of planting before with or without volunteers. I arranged for a turf core plugger aerifier, laid out my areas and started doing a test planting. Okay. Weather and scheduling delays happened  so I put a call out internally for staff volunteers from around the system. We planted somewhere around 20,000. (The original plan was to plant 3,000 bulbs not 30,000.) Eventually, on volunteer day we planted another 7-8,000. The aerifier made perfectly sized holes, but they were placed too close together. It was hard to get the volunteers not to plant every hole. Oh, well!

Over the years I worked on the plantings in these Parks addressing the particular site conditions and the use they endure. During my tenure, Lownsdale has suffered the most. Early on I was directed to do what I could around the men’s restroom. This was a problem spot. Portland had, and still does, have a lack of public bathrooms. This combined with a relatively large homeless population put a lot of ‘pressure’ on the Park. The restroom suffered from significant regular vandalism and heavy use. There was ‘spill over’! in the immediate area. Attempts were made to ‘control’ the problem. Money wasn’t available for restroom construction. A common strategy was to try to get people to move on, to make facilities or conditions, less hospitable. We removed the asphalt pad and picnic table from behind the restroom where people would hang out. The door was removed to discourage the illicit activity that went on there having the unintended effect of making the facility less likely to be use by folks with any other options at all.

The men's restroom bed on Lownsdale Square with the 'new' plantings.

The men’s restroom bed on Lownsdale Square with the ‘new’ plantings.  I originally planted this 15+ years ago.  Even given the soil conditions everything grew.

While breaking up the base beneath the old asphalt I discovered how compacted the soils were here in general. This was the ‘old days’ and we pick axed the whole site breaking up the pan and planted it the way the existing bed on the back of the women’s restroom was, Thuja plicata in the middle with a ring of Azalea ‘Everest’, ferns and Hosta around that. It became quickly obvious how poorly drained this whole area was as we played with the irrigation schedule for years, constantly tweaking and adjusting it as temperatures rose and fell trying to keep turf and plantings alive and the ground walkable. I added new plants to both plantings trying to add more interest like Corylopsis pauciflora with its inflorescences of hanging racemes of soft buttery yellow. There was no space to add the matching Hydrangea anomola petiolaris that clings to the sides of the women’s building.

Like so many other problems we face in landscapes plantings alone can’t always solve them. People still ‘camp’ here. Others still use it as an optional ‘toilet’ much to staff’s continuing dismay.

The biggest single ‘hit’ these two beds, and the rest of the Parks’ beds took, was from the Occupy Portland ‘encampment in the Fall of ’11. The restroom problem escalated and the simple ‘crush’ of people ‘occupying’ every square inch of available space, resulted in crushed and broken plants, while someone ‘artfully’ contorted plants tying and braiding branches into odd shapes. The damage was significant. Herbaceous plants were included within the footprints of occupiers’ tents getting crushed beneath, the rain wet soil compacted. In other cases trails were worn through beds, hammocks hung over them between trees. What began as a relatively orderly ‘possession’ of the Parks became a more ‘confrontational’ situation as numbers swelled attracting individuals who were less supportive of the politics driving the movement than they were an opportunity to be part of a happening while others saw it as a big party. The Park and its plantings were losing. Intention and purpose didn’t matter.

At the beginning of ‘Occupy’, I was still on leave having had meniscus surgery on my knee. The first day back, going to a meeting downtown, I had my first exposure to the event, which had begun in Waterfront Park, where I thought it still was. I was stunned by the masses of people and by the spectacle itself. We tried to fence planting areas off belatedly. After a few days I found I couldn’t go there any more as some “Occupiers” took pleasure in taunting me and my attempts to protect my plantings. Douglas Fir trees had been planted in beds as the Park was being reclaimed by nature via their help. Some of them spoke about the rare bamboo I had planted, Phyllostachys bambusoides ‘Richard Haubrich’ as an invasive plant to be gotten rid of. I half expected to come by one day to find it ‘missing’. I conceded.

Eventually, they left. And I began the task of reclaiming my beds undoing the damage after their departure. Plants are amazingly resilient.   My largest concern was the compaction of the soil that we had spent hours on addressing before the original planting.

For months after the ‘Occupiers’ were decamped a contingent remained on various properties in the immediate area its ranks ebbing and flowing. Eventually, that following summer, this group was pushed off of the City Hall block and they began congregating in the Plaza Blocks again. Management conceived a plan to make staying their uncomfortable by setting the irrigation controllers to come on several times a day. We attempted to dissuade them arguing that our systems would be vandalized. They were. We also became targets for verbal attacks as they knew we were the ones operating the system. Bad. Various Parks staff were beginning to feel threatened as emotions ran higher. Eventually we were allowed to shut the daytime operation of the irrigation down and restore it to its normal schedule. Confrontations evaporated.

The NE corner Chapman beds with flanking Daphne tangutica, Hellebores, Acorus gramineus 'Ogon' and more.

The NE corner Chapman beds with flanking Daphne tangutica, Hellebores, Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon’, Phyllostachys b. ‘Richard Haubrich’ and more.

Most of my plantings are still there. The two beds that flank the NE entrance to Champman Sq. are doing well. Originally planted because the turf areas were not accessible to our mowing equipment given the chain fences, the benches and the Gingko trees planted there, I planted them with a woodland theme utilizing a variety of native groundcovers, e.g., Achlys triphylla, Asarum caudatum and Vancouveria hexandra with a mixture of others from Asia, like Ardesia japonica, and Europe. Mimicking the Bamboo’s form and texture on the other side, there is a Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’ standing like a negative of its partner, with the bright chartreuse form of Ribes sanguineum ‘Brocklebankii’ lighting the space beside it. Epimediums, Helleborus x hybridus repeat on both sides along with Daphne tangutica. Golden foliage of Carex elata ‘Bowle’s Golden’ serves to brighten the shade, Iris foetidissima ‘Variegata’ adds its almost white striping on its evergreen foliage. Hosta ‘Frances Williams’ contributes its blue and gold. Dicentra spectabilis ‘Gold Heart’ contrasts with Actea simplex ‘Black Negligee’ adding more light and contrast. Mahonia gracillipes jumps in and is repeated across the street at the opposing entry into Lownsdale. A variety of distinctive ferns add to the textural mélange along with Rhododendron yakushimanum ‘Teddy Bear’ and Clethra alnifolia ‘Ruby Spice’, while Cardiocrinum giganteum explodes out of the ground in spring. All of these bump shoulders with one another beneath the growing Gingkos. (The nearby Elms contribute thousands of seedlings that must be pulled each summer.)

Achlys triphylla, Asarum caudatum and Vancouveria hexandra

Achlys triphylla, Asarum caudatum and Vancouveria hexandra

Across Main, in a sunnier location, with the other Mahonia gracillipes, is Magnolia x ‘Susan’ one of the sisters from the National Arboretum breeding program. Behind it, protected from too much sun, is a Eucryphia x intermedia ‘Rostrevor’, my first planting of the summer blooming genus. (My successor planted a Eucryphia ‘Nymansay” next to the ‘abandoned’ ramp coming off of the Hawthorn Bridge on the north side in Waterfront Park. I hadn’t been able to finish the planting in the spring before I left.) It is growing skyward and as of this writing I have yet to see a bloom on it. Joining it are a Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’, Iris x ‘Canyon Snow’, Podophyllum pleianthum and Geranium ‘Blue Sunrise’. While working this bed over prior to planting it too was compacted with the additional problem of a partially ground large stump making the task of breaking up the subsoil and tilling all but impossible. It’s like a Cracker Jack box in downtown parks, a surprise everytime! Still, what are you going to do?

Daphne odora fronting Magnolia 'Susan'

Daphne odora fronting Magnolia ‘Susan’, a young Eucryphia ‘Rostrevor’ to the right above a Podophyllum pleianthum.

Working in these Parks I had to come to terms with the nature of their soils. I had thought that because of their age they had probably suffered less disturbance than more of our modern parks, but no. Everywhere I dug was compaction and often old trash…not plastic but bits of heavily corroded metal, glass and broken clay brick. In some areas heavy compaction began a single shovel depth down and there was a hard pan or anerobic conditions with blue clay, other times this layer was full of ‘rusty spots’ indicative of a seasonal cycle back and forth from saturated to dry and back. I wanted to come in here with a track hoe and dig a couple of inspection pits to see what the hell actually happened, but I didn’t because even if I knew I wouldn’t have the budget to address the problems. These were historic parks and no one was going to give me the permission to tear them apart.

The NW entry to Chapman with Sambucus nigra 'Sutherland Gold', Sacrococca confusus and Epimedium x versicolor 'sulfureum' fronting a more mature Gingko with its less aggressive roots.

The NW entry to Chapman with Sambucus nigra ‘Sutherland Gold’, Sacrococca confusus and Epimedium x versicolor ‘sulfureum’ fronting a more mature Gingko with its less aggressive roots.

The other two west entry beds on Main utilize more Hellebore and each contain a Sambucus nigra ‘Sutherland’s Gold’. These beds have more of a struggle as they’re planted at the base of some huge old Elms with their very aggressive root systems. The Elderberrys, both older plantings than the ‘Black Lace’, are underperforming, but adequate. The Sacococca are in their element here as is the Epimedium x versicolor ‘Sulphureum’.

This brings up the issue Elms and suckers and sprouting. A significant proportion of Elms do this heavily often forming heavy ‘skirts’ extending well up their trunks as well as suckering up from damaged roots which can be problematic when they are planted beneath. These present one more task every year, the removal of sprouts and suckers. Generally, because these are such large trees homeowners are only confounded by them where they are used as street trees.

This shows the bed behind the women's restroom on Chapman with its thirsty Thuja plicata underplnated with the Azalea's I could save, Mahonia x media 'Charity', Corylopsis pauciflora and Hydrangea petiolaris anomala climbing the building that we keep pruned off of the roof so that it doesn't tear it apart.

This shows the bed behind the women’s restroom on Chapman with its thirsty Thuja plicata underplnated with the Azalea’s I could save, Mahonia x media ‘Charity’, Corylopsis pauciflora and Hydrangea petiolaris anomala climbing the building that we keep pruned off of the roof so that it doesn’t tear it apart.

I kept replanting as I had time. Behind the women’s restroom on Chapman, after the Occupier exodus, I pulled out broken Azaleas and began trying to plant natives and other things I thought might be better adapted. A Mahonia x media ‘Charity’ appears to be doing fine. I tried more ferns like Cyrtomium, planted Epimedium some more Yak Rhodies, which perished due to conditions and tromping feet, as did a Ribes sanguineum ‘Pulborough Scarlet’. People still felt the need to walk back here, occasional campers, come and go. And the Thuja always sucking up whatever it can. A plant’s life downtown can be iffy, even when well chosen for site conditions. The human factor of use and abuse can switch on and off unpredictably.

Thompson's ill proportioned Elk.

Thompson’s ill proportioned Elk with the Justice Building behind.

Still, I had a stubborn streak, if we give in to the ignorant, the malicious or the self-centered, when we make our decisions based on the lowest common denominator, it can quickly become a sad and sorry world. Though I often complained and conceded battles here and there, it was not within me to give up on the larger picture. There will always be those people, the users, the bitter, those in their anger making a ‘statement’ and doing my best was my response, ‘The world may suck to you, but this is what it could/should be. “Never give up! Never surrender!” (Galaxy Quest tagline.)


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