Gardening at City Hall- Lessons in Reality & Frustration

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Impatiens omiense fronting a composition including: Vancouver hexandra, Podophyllum pleianthum, Aspistra elatior, Dryopteris erythrosora, Hosta ‘Sum and Substance’ and Prosartes hookeri (previously Disporum hokkerig). This is the south bed on the 5th St. side of Portland’s City Hall.

I’ll bet you thought this was going to be about the hours of meetings wherein Council pours over the issues surrounding the plantings and landscapes of which the City has responsibility…Hah!!!  No, this will be a bit more mundane, hands in the ‘dirt’, and about some of my experiences gardening in the limited ground around City Hall, as well as some observations and comments on what it’s like to garden in such a public spot.  There’s also a bit of hand wringing and hair pulling here.  I’ll be telling two short stories of gardening, one on the 4th St side, but first the 5th Street side of the building.

The Westside’s Always Greener

If you drive or use mass transit on SW 5th St. you are likely to never see the beds.  You have to walk along the sidewalk to see over the wall, across the ‘moat’, to the two raised planters that sit slightly below the sloping street grade.  On this, the west side of the property, the building is relatively close to the street and, other than the two ‘large’ species Japanese Maples, there is nothing green to see.  There is a small driveway with space for a single car, that in my memory was only used by Vera Katz, or rather by her driver, as she did not drive and had reason to regularly leave the building for business.  There is a small entrance here that feels incidental, used primarily by staffers and Council members, as they shuttled back and forth across Madison to and from the Portland Building.  There is no curb side parking. All of these things add to the ‘surprise’ when you actually look over the low wall…it’s a bit incongruous.

 

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Portland’s City Hall, an Italian Renaissance style building, on the 5th St. side. The two Acer palmatum grow out of the planter down in the moat inside the stone railing beside the sidewalk.

Working in these two beds is an ‘intimate’ experience.  People can walk by, ‘protected’ behind the wall from whatever activity you are engaged in while seeing ‘everything’.  It was routine for Park’s managers, planners etc. to pass by and acknowledge you, maybe visit briefly on their way to and from meetings and briefings.  For me it was an opportunity, one literally miles away from the typical experience of my peers who would be slaving away in far away Parks like Argay and Kelley Point.  It helped change my relationship with them affecting what I was able to do.  Many of my peers preferred to be ‘farther from the flag’, working in anonymity.  I wanted them to know what I was doing, what I was up against and to understand how I solved my problems.  The three different Mayors over this period and Council Members would routinely pass by and I found it vastly informative how each would choose to acknowledge or ignore me.  Some times they or staffers would make a point of thanking me for doing a great job or have a question about a specific plant, after I changed the bed to perennials.  This rarely happened when they were planted with annual bedding plants, which, largely because of the summer shade, alternated back and forth between ‘winter’ Pansies and summer’s annual Impatiens.  Our in system grower was not really supportive of much experimentation unless the numbers were large enough and there was little budget for purchasing ‘specialty’ annuals, so it was pretty ‘static’.  But, then came the big change over from annuals to more permanent, perennial, plantings.

 

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This is the north bed, the one with the Maple root problem. Many of the plants here are stunted when compared to the south bed. Impatiens, the Hakonechloa, Impatiens and Carex in particular lack vigor. The bare areas typically yield a heavy ‘crop’ of Maple seedlings. The majority of the surface is troubled by few weeds. Only the Podophyllum requires a little more active management as it slowly, but persistently expands. These are relatively easy to remove and remain high value plants. The Alpinia can be frozen back in colder winters. Keep in mind that downtown is a heat island and tends to be warmer than most other areas of Portland.

When I initially changed out the plantings, ‘my public’, was very curious and appreciative commenting through the year as plants established, spread and went through their own seasonal cycles.  Given the conditions on site, I followed a woodland theme.  It was my choice to not plant from a strictly limited native palette.  Irrigation was already in though we chose to update it for efficiency reasons.  It is planted informally utilizing several ground covers to help visually tie it all together.  Vancouveria hexandra, one of my favorite native woodlanders, along with Asarum caudatum, together cover nearly half of the main planted surface, not including the raised center portions planted with Vinca minor ‘Illumination’ which requires monitoring and cutting to keep it from taking over the surrounding beds.  The two green Japanese maples are planted in these raised centers.  Interestingly, only the northern of the two Maples, has ever presented a ‘root’ problem for the perennials.  Maples, in general in our soils, tend to have aggressive roots, quickly colonizing, nutritive, well aerated topsoil, and in the process, providing significant competition to whatever may be planted therein.  In reality, this was true in the north most bed, but not in the south.  Perennials have always performed more vigorously in the south planter.  The north bed has always required more irrigation to keep the perennials in visual ‘balance’ with those in the south bed.  Maple roots are pervasive throughout the upper soil level of the north bed and almost non-existent in the south.  I never figured out why and can only speculate that the soil texture is much finer/denser in the lower levels of the northern planter, discouraging deeper rooting, something that could only be addressed, or even checked, if the trees and all of the soil were removed (I did not take any ‘cores’ to evaluate it either).

 

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This shot is part of the ‘drier’ north bed with the ‘hardy’ Ginger, Alpinia japonica or Peppermint Stick Ginger, backed by the Podophyllum, Autumn Fern and Fatsia japonica ‘Spiderweb’ with Hakonechloa macro ‘Aureola’, Prosartes and the Vinca again toward the left edge.

Another significant ground cover plant is Impatiens omeiense, and that’s its role here, its floral display is incidental, which leads me to my issue with it here on this site.  For a few years growing the Impatiens o. here was a problem.  In short the beds were infested with root weevil. They’d notch it into absurd ugliness weakening the plants, compromise their health and destroying their aesthetic value. For a few years, beginning in later Spring, before any foliar damage, I’d alternate between using Neem oil as a foliar spray and a product called Azatin, which was a very concentrated form of the active ingredient in Neem oil. I would apply it every couple of weeks through June or so, when the adult weevils were active, depending on the summer.  I’m not sure if Kevin, my successor, continues this or has found no need, but so far, this Spring, it looks wonderful!

 

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Here you can see the hanging blood red flowers of the Podophyllum pleianthum beneath its foliage. The Vinca minor ‘Illumination’ shows above and the soft Hakonechloa macro ‘Aureola’ leans out from below.

You will also find Epimedium growing here, which shares familial ‘roots’ with the Vancouveria.  This form is a very manageable spreader.  Another relation, Podophyllu pleianthum, (aka Dysosma pleiantha) was also spotted in.  It too has a proclivity to spread, but not rampantly, and looks like a giant close cousin with its shiny leaves on individual stems or petioles arising from its rhizome.  The ‘volunteers’ can be easily lifted in the Spring, potted, or moved elsewhere before the heat.  Most of the plants here are of similar stature.  I didn’t want them to overwhelm the space or detract from the wonderful form of the two mature Maples.  My intent was that they ‘play well together’ and they have for the most part shifting their borders over time, mixing, spreading and yielding.  Of course the Vancouveria and Asarum have a long ‘natural’ history together and do this quite well.  The beds are rectilinear while my plantings are intentionally asymmetrical to soften the architecture and mimic a shady woodland planting.  Only the Fatsia japonica ‘Spider Web’ will have the chance to ever compete with the Maples, but it is slow and can, with minimal effort, be limited.

 

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The building side of the two beds is dominated by a mix of Asarum caudatum, Vancouveria hexandra, Helleborus x hybridus and Hosta ‘Jade Cascade’ which have formed a stable community requiring very little maintenance.

Other plants include our lovely native Hooker’s Fairy Bells, that I learned as Disporum hookeri, which is now Prosartes hookeri, sharing space with Hakonechloa macro ‘Aureola’, another Asian, as is the Arisamea taiwanense, several Helleborus x hybridus, some Aspidistra elatior, for some evergreen, vertical, contrast, Autumn Fern or Dryopteris erythrosora, mimicking in a more colorful way our local Western Sword Fern, several different Hosta, and some Hardy Fuchsia which have gradually declined in the shade, they want more light in our northern latitude.  I also tried Carex siderosticha ‘Island Brocade’ which was to provide a contrast with its gold leaf margins on a broad, evergreen, blade, only it has under performed, retreating to a narrow strip along the northern wall of the north bed.  In my memory I think root weevils may have been an issue, but the primary factor is probably the thirsty Maple roots, though I had this perform poorly in my home garden, where root weevils, not tree roots were a problem.  A zn 5 plant it cartainly didn’t freeze out.

Prior to these perennial, more permanent plantings, for somewhere around 10 years, I managed these two Fifth street planters as annual display beds, as they had been for the previous few decades, changing them out twice a year, regularly amending with compost and tilling, sometimes spading, to help control the Maple roots. We called it the ‘moat’, the sunken area around the two raised planters. Everything in and out had to be lifted over the low stone wall, and hefted across the ‘moat’, which is a space about 3’+ across and 30″ deep to the inner/surrounding concrete retaining wall. This included: plants, compost and a 50lbs roto-tiller! This continued until one of my helpers one day, hauling out surplus ‘soil’ in 5 gallon buckets, lost his balance and fell against the outer sandstone rimmed wall breaking his arm. At that point I was, after several meetings involving members of the two bureaus, directed to redesign it as a perennial bed to reduce the need for so much back and forth of materials. The City would make no provision for altering any of the wall for safety reasons as it would be too much of an affront to the historical structure. So, garbage cans full of fallen leaves and the ‘sputnik’ seed pods of the adjacent Sweetgum trees, which collect here on the ‘floor’, as if magnetically attracted and occasional applications of compost, still go over the wall and across the moat. The differences are the reduction in such visits and materials, and the fact that it was only me who visited weekly for grooming etc. Overall, the initial planting was quite successful. There was a little tweaking the first couple of years, but the design has remained intact for the most part, for a good ten years. Incidentally the historic sandstone sometimes gets quite slick in winter with the wet and algae growth.

History of the East

 

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This pic shows the shade situation with the Zelkoovas to the east, the tower to the south, City Hall to the west and the growing Red Cedar, Magnolia and Azara in the garden. The roses to the left are weaker than ever.  The veggie beds yield primarily leafy crops and others with low sun requirements.

I began taking care of this site, not a Park, but a property we were under contract to care for (I know, it’s still the City!) which was ‘owned’ by the Bureau of General Services, now City Facilities Services, after the completion of the major remodel in 1998 (Do you all remember the construction crane crashing to the ground in June of ’96…that was a month before I ‘moved’ downtown to take care of the Parks.) For several years after there was interest in redoing the landscape on the eastern, 4th St. side, but as is often the case, little budget.  Lango Hansen Landscape Architects were briefly involved.  This never came about.  Instead a group of City staffers organized around creating a memorial garden for a much beloved staffer of Commissioner Mike Lindberg, Keeston Lowery, who had died in ’93.  He had been a strong advocate and activist within the government for the LGBQT community, before those various groups had joined together and were recognized as a viable, important and even powerful citizen’s advocacy and support group.  This group of staffers got support from Council, as well as design help, gathered the plants together and planted the garden.  It still stands at the south end of this space.  Much of the  landscape that predated the building renovation project including several large Camellia japonica, were trashed or removed during that project.  Time, growth and increasing shade have changed the Garden’s composition.  Additionally, there was once a matching pair of tall Lawson’s Cypress on this side, the southern one yielded to Phytophthora Root Rot, no doubt exacerbated by relatively poor drainage here with the ‘sunken’ grade and the inevitable trauma of the construction project to its root zone.  The tree died and was soon replaced with a Western Red Cedar, a more resistant native conifer that, unfortunately for this site, can grow very broad at the base and, in this case drastically changing light conditions over the years.

 

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A wider view of the Keeston Lowery Garden. This has become a very shady space with the tower to the south and the maturing trees on and adjacent to the garden. The entire garden needs to be reworked given the shade conditions. Many of the earlier plantings have declined and faded. The Borinda bamboo sits happily, though largely alone. The patch of Epimedium is robust.  An Azara microphylla rises with its several stems from the corner with the Magnolia grandiflora ‘Little Gem’ to the left of the stone bench.  There was a second one on the other side. Yikes!  The Viburnum ‘Onondaga’ is now growing weakly to the left of the Azara.

The Garden was planted to appear full from the beginning with a number of plants that would soon gobble up available space and crowd their neighbors.  A matching set of Magnolia grandiflora ‘Little Gem’ bracketed the wonderful little stone bench that bears an inscription recognizing Keeston Lowery.  Unfortunately even this ‘compact’ cultivar will grow 30′ tall x 15′ wide.  There arguably wasn’t even space for one in this small garden.  After a few years, I dug and moved one up to the perimeter of the Washington Park Rose Gardens.  The deciduous Vitex agnus-castus, was tucked into the corner behind the Magnolias with little room for it.  My memory tells me that this was not removed but suffered a slow decline, perhaps from overly wet soil???  In the other corner, against the building itself, is the largest Azara microphylla that I know of in Portland, it is well over 20′ tall and lends a kind of pre-historic gawkiness, akin to the Weeping Giant Sequoia.  Add the wonderful sweet, spicy scent of its otherwise inconsequential flowers and it becomes a very welcome member of the garden.

Next to it, against the north facing retaining wall, is Viburnum sargentiana ‘Onondaga’. There are many Viburnum that have served as stalwarts in the landscape, and for me these have often been more suitable for colder regions than ours as our choices for large shrubs is very broad, but I can make an exception for this plant.  It’s form is nothing special, but its colorful foliage and inflorescence is great.  The only thing it lacks in a deciduous shrub is fragrance, and for this plant, I will accept that. Unfortunately it has been suffering as the shade has been increasing.

Many of the original plants have declined and been transplanted away or died out.  Others periodically move in and out.  Gone is the cute little Corydialis ‘Pere David’ with its soft foliage and little blue hearts; gone too is even the Blue Star Creeper, Isotoma fluvatilis, succumbing to foot traffic and the ever increasing shade.  The Hakonechloa macro ‘Aureola’, has done well other than a planting near the east wall???  The Variegated False Solomon’s Seal remains.  I removed Sasanqua Camellia, for space reasons several years ago, planting it in another Park.  The Hydrangea aspera subsp. sargentiana became crowded as well and was moved to the Garden at South Waterfront where it still resides.  The Gunnera simply didn’t have the space to perform and was transplanted away.  The Sarcacocca humilis is thriving.  Fuchsias were shaded out.  There are two nice, but shallow pots inside the arc of pavers, that are periodically replanted sometimes including more tender perennials now needing a change with one still sporting a nice clump of Arisaema ringens. 

This is a very urban site and City Hall is the focus of a lot of attention good, bad and indifferent.  So, yes people routinely drop/dump trash, at least whatever was burdening them as they passed by, and the bus stops, particularly the east bound, where riders wait, heavily littered it with spent cigarette butts, package wrappers and leftover food.  Drink bottles…It was often not unusual for the garden to serve as a ‘toilet’ during off hours, sometimes with ‘visitors’ breaking or crushing plant material.  Such was the fate of a Daphne bholua I tried here.  There remains, happily, a Crinodendron hookerii in its place, but you can see how it got flattened where a footfall flattened it, later curving back upward in spite of the affront!  Plant tenacity!  I know, nobody wants to hear about this kind of stuff, but it was part of the job and many other downtown Parks have a much more severe sanitary problem.

 

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This 4th St side adjacent to bus stop on Madison in the background. The veggie beds have been recently worked. Some of the veggie space has been abandoned due to shade and root competition with the Port Orford Cedar. This end of the landscape is better drained. The roses here always struggle. The roses on the side to the right is also shaded by the street trees, the Zelkovas here along the block’s eastern curb.

In more recent years, inspired by the Obama’s efforts at the White House (it’s 6-7 years now), it became popular to install vegetable gardens at City Halls across the US.  A group of volunteers coalesced and one went in here taking over what once served as lawn area in the remaining space, a lawn that was increasingly problematic for me because of poor drainage, compaction and rules in place that effectively eliminated the use of any herbicides.  The lawn was composed almost entirely of broad leafed and grassy weeds which would continually be moving into the beds.  We had our doubts as to the longevity of the project, but it is still there and operating, cared for almost its entire time by two individual women.  The first left during the summer of ’12 when the ‘Occupy’ movement took was still ‘camped’ on the sidewalk, because she was made uncomfortable working there by herself given their uninvited social interactions with her.  Since then another woman has been operating it the meager production of which goes to food programs.  I say meager because as a vegetable garden, there were also many fruiting plants planted here that have declined in the shade and limited space, there simply is insufficient light for many of them try as she might.

Hybrid Tea and Grandiflora Roses still form a border just inside the perimeter wall and against the building.  At one time there was a clipped Boxwood hedge that bound it on the ‘inside’ which also complicated maintenance.  The Veggie project removed the hedge to create more open ground.  Every Spring, as a part of the Annual Rose Festival the Royal Rosarians and the standing Mayor would plant a ceremonial Rose in the perimeter bed, in a whole I had previously dug.  It was never a problem choosing a spot as the entire site was sub-par for Roses and I would simply remove the worst ones, replace them, and leave a hole for the ceremony.  But that ended with the same extended ‘Occupation’ of the City Hall property, after they were removal from the Plaza Blocks late in ’11.  Neither the Mayor nor the Rosarians, I imagine, wanted to subject themselves to the ‘demands’ of the protestors while carrying out what was historically a positive event.  I don’t know if this practice has resumed.

The Roses, despite the problems with the site, were a relatively enjoyable part of the job, myself or someone else, would visit twice a week to groom the garden and deadhead the roses during their peak.  Passersby would always exclaim their appreciation for them and for our work.  We never had a committed volunteer to do the task, like I had for many years in the Rose beds in the South Park Blocks.  So we did it, smearing aphids with our fingers while sliding them along stems and buds and performing minor pruning to keep the structure of the plants more open and to hide the torn ends where some passersby would tear flowers or buds free!  Ahhh, public service!

The ‘occupation’ and the vegetable garden made it difficult to even access the site for regular maintenance some days.  The occupiers certainly made it less enjoyable with their comments, often addressing us as if we were the @#$%&$ who were making their lives so difficult or were some how conspiring with City Hall to move them offsite.  Access was always a problem here.  When I first began there was very little parking allowed anywhere along the curb for anyone and government vehicles were expressly forbidden.  Meaning, we would park across the street in Chapman Park, literally, because we could not park along the curb there either and carry everything from our truck to the site and back, tools, plants, debris  and materials.  The only exception was if I got advanced permission to pull a bollard, a barricade, on the 5th St. side, to park in the little driveway when i came in for tilling and planting or with a load of compost.  Not getting permission added that much more distance to our problem.  We found this particularly aggravating, and perplexing, because we had a contract to do the work, but Parking Enforcement, treated us as if we were a problem.  For a year or more after we took on the City Hall landscape we couldn’t get a permit to park nearby.  Eventually, they relinquished.  We received a permit to park in one space, a space that was not always consistently available. Woohoo!  One time, while working on site, I received a ticket anyway because the officer didn’t see my permit which was visible through the windshield…Arrrgh!!!

By far the largest challenges on this property over the years were both the increasing shade and the demands of the job as more properties and landscapes came under my responsibility.  I know, no one ever wants to hear a public employee complain about budgets, but something has to give when your responsibilities keep increasing while budgets fluctuate, generally remaining fixed or suffering minor cuts.  It is a debilitating pattern.  The new projects, more in the public eye, inevitably demand time once spent  on other landscapes.  Yes, staff were sometimes hired, but they were generally non-horticultural.  Theses classifications were assumed to help, but without the expertise and with competing priorities…well, it generally didn’t work.  As I tell people frequently, it was the politics of the job, that became the deciding factor in my retirement.  Sure, I was getting ‘older’ and my body was beginning to break down at an accelerating rate, a scary thing when one’s career is absolutely dependent upon the physical ability to get the work done, but it was the politics that, ultimately, were the deciding factor in my departure.  I love the very idea of public parks, horticulture and many of the people that I worked with…but the politics.  Gardening in Parks is what I did when the politics allowed!!! It had, though, become a daily race akin to juggling with too many spinning plates on too many poles, running from one to the next.

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