I was born in the winter of ’06,…no…the last century, and had to walk 17 miles, one way, to school, up hill, both ways, in blowing snow, carrying my my little brother, and…my horse….Life was hard when I was comin’ up we had to lay computers out on the ground, in binary pairs, to do our calculations….It was so slow. By the end of the day I would be exhausted, ’cause, back then they made computers filled with glass tubes and diodes, we begged for a slate and a piece of chalk.
Those of you interested in reading more of my fascinating story…well, you’re going to be disappointed. Those of you more interested in my biography and what got me to this particular point….
I spent a lot of time outside with my friends in the Central Oregon High Desert, playing army at night crawling on my belly around the basalt and Sage Brush, summer and weekend days exploring, marauding, the dry basalt canyon that ran along the side of town, or riding our bikes everywhere including the 4 highway miles to the Deschutes at Cline Falls State Park and later just knocking around, full of angst. I would escape to the Cascades to hike, primarily around the Three Sisters and Mt. Jefferson, where I developed my first plant attachment, the native alpine, subshrub, Penstemon species. But the plant thing remained more as an undercurrent than a professional aspiration. I also was a very un-geeky 3 sport guy through high school. Geekage came later for me.
I got my B.S. at U of O in Sociology in preparation for a career in urban planning. There has always been something attractive about complex systems to me, what makes them work, how can we do it better, and what could be more complex than human communities? That career path died for me when I got a job with a consulting firm and discovered what the work was really like, being confined indoors, a never ending sea of rules and getting yelled at by an angry public. Where was the creativity? or problem solving. No one seemed interested. I fell back into doing landscape construction, work I’d done off and on while going to school. I kept returning to it because of both its physicality and its complexity.
One of the consistent activities I pursued, post U of O, was gardening, vegetables and fruit trees. This was on Bend’s westside where a damaging frost could be delivered any day of the summer. I had a 50′ x 80′ raised bed vegie garden all of which I had double dug following John Jeavon’s book. The perimeter filled with raspberries and apple trees, Western Sand Cherries bordered on the west, the front I started planting with natives from the Ochoco’s like Cercocarpus. At some point I attended a week long workshop on edible landscapes at Breitenbush Hot Springs below Olallie Butte.
Eventually, I decided I needed to get away from Central Oregon’s stagnating economy of the early ’80’s and pursued a career in horticulture. To fill some of the holes in my background I went back to school in Ornamental Horticulture at Clackamas Community College, under Elizabeth Howley’s direction, who was wonderful and inspiring. While going to school I lead landscape crews at the Environmental Learning Center on Campus and provided some part time help at the Elk Rock Garden at the Bishop’s Close.
In ’87 I was hired by Portland Parks and Recreation as a Gardener. For my first nine years I worked in Parks from Kelley Point to Sacajewea and Wellington in the east and south to Lilas-Albina and Grant. It was quite an education for a rural small town boy. This was when Union Ave. was renamed MLK Jr. Blvd and prostitution and drug activity were common. It was pre-SEI and Unthank Park was just a park with several of its neighboring apartment buildings closed and boarded up due to drug activity. Mississippi Street hadn’t seen a dollar invested in decades. This was when the gangs started moving up from LA. Anyway, interesting times. I had to learn a lot quickly about managing so much landscape with little resource and budget. It taught me patience and, most importantly, how to prioritize the work and, equally important, to make sure that the work I did was not creating or continuing problems.
That’s what most of my time was spent doing…maintaining. It was the design work, construction, that more directly fed my soul and I had to learn how to carve out the opportunities to do that, because the organizational priority was maintenance. I read books on design, urban and landscape, and always had an appreciation for the arts. Working closely with a like minded peer for a few of the early years allowed me to learn from him and to begin to apply some of the general design principles I had been learning about. We would be mulching or pruning and talking a about mass, line and rhythm in design. We would challenge each others ideas reminding the other about the scale or the fact that our work could be approached from several directions, even walked through…would it still hold up? There was the time dimension to consider, both the changing of season and growth over years. These kinds of questions only hooked me into horticulture more deeply.
This was always physical work, oft-times, demandingly so. Even a simple job, repeated long enough, wears on you. So you look for different tasks to break it up and, I found, you look for humor, because it’s not just your body that gets tired. Someplace there’s still a picture of me pushing a loaded wheelbarrow while we were working on a planting project in Fernhill Park by the tennis courts at the end of Ainsworth. The wheelbarrow is minus its wheel. Under the picture it says only, “Early Gardening”. Humor always lightens the load. Send all of the little Hitlers back where they came from.
Another thing I discovered, over these years, was that organizations really have personalities, patterns and tendencies, not unlike people. If I wanted to do something different, whether design-wise or in terms of maintenance, I might also have to convince my supervisor and managers. It taught me to think things through thoroughly, to be persistent and to sharpen my communication skills. Along with all of the challenges of doing good work in an organization was my own particular need to leave a mark after I left.
In ’96 I moved to Portland’s westside Parks. For two years my work centered around Washington Park and Pittock Mansion. Do you remember the wind storm of Dec. ’96, then the slides in February (the camera crew driving down Monte Cristo filming the mass of mud and trees following them while pulling down wires, etc….do you remember the flood? We spent weeks, several months day after day trudging up and down the hill with chainsaws cutting up fallen trees and all of the debris, then hauling it back, it always seemed up hill, to the chipper. I remember standing at the base of 36″ dbh Fir tree up at Pittock in the wind, watching the soil move like jello as it rocked. One day, late, exhausted, trying to clear the road to Pittock, I was cutting a fallen Willow, when a 3″ branch under stress, snapped back hitting me in the thigh, flattening me while I clung to my still running chainsaw, holding it away from my body. I packed it up. We had two winters in a row of incredibly heavy work. My body was beginning to break down a little faster. It had been fun and exciting to work in landscapes with such extensive beds, with interest and history…not just space fillers, but I had to get off the hills.
I moved to the Downtown Parks in the summer of ’98 and stayed there through April 30 of 2014. There I was spared a lot of the heavy work. There was still the occasional project requiring stump removal, placing some boulders, soil and grading work or transplanting something bigger than I was, but If a huge branch or tree came down, the Forestry Division, with all of the their equipment, was on it immediately, so I was spared,…a little. The intensity of the plantings, and the high expectations for appearance, as well as the heavy public use, on the other hand, greatly increased my load in terms of lighter, bent over and tedious tasks. The weeding never ended.
By the end of my career I was responsible for over three acres of hand work along the Willamette with strict limits concerning pesticide use (I sat on the committee that wrote the City’s Pesticide Policy that addresses the use of pesticides on and near waterways at the behest of the National Marine Fisheries who were working to protect Salmon.) I was also responsible for (this includes all regular maintenance, redesign and planting) the Garden at South Waterfront as well as all of the display beds in the Downtown Parks including Waterfront, the Plaza Blocks, City Hall and South Park Blocks. While the other Downtown Parks may not have been planted so intensely, I still spent time there, sometimes doing corrective pruning or helping with spraying and leaf removal.
As a team we would spend hundreds of hours a year tuning, adjusting, modifying and tweaking the ‘automatic’ irrigation systems we depended on. Others worked much harder than I did keeping this particular skill set up to date. I was concerned with function and coverage removing overgrown plant material, suggesting different heads or locations as well as the fine tuning of the irrigation schedules. No one was excluded from digging if they wanted help in the future. It was a team approach.
Walking my sites countless times weeding, adjusting, doing removals, replanting often brought me back to our over all goals with a landscape and our limited resources. Over the years this pushed me more and more into the idea of xeriscapes, because, magically, by not requiring supplemental irrigation, many many hours of labor can be saved by no longer having to do weed control simply because so many of our weeds are of Eurasian origin and do not thrive when the water is turned off. I began to think more often in terms of ‘what else am I doing that is causing me to do added work later that, if I changed my practice, I might avoid entirely? The work kept pulling me in.
As new Parks were coming on board South Waterfront in ’99, Jamison Square in ’02, Tanner Springs in ’05, Director Park in ’09 or the Fields in ’13, I was asked to participate in horticultural review during the design process and on-site inspection during construction. When Riverplace Esplanade was redesigned I sat in on meetings and wrote up my comments. I was also occasionally asked by peers to help in the same capacity on some of their projects like the Dawson Park makeover and the earlier Caruthers Park project.
Horticulture can only be separated from design at a cost. Yes, horticulture can figure out the best way to assure a designs success, but it can also help to make the design more successful by grounding it in its experience. What works? Given the site conditions what might work better? Alas, I’ve never been very good at this game. I felt the pressure of my own limited time here and the resistance of those whose commitment to their design seemed only personal. So, I’m out of that now. I’m retired, but not dead, so i do things like this blog to keep my head in the game working with those who are open to these ideas.
I’m adding a note here because as time has gone by I find myself pulled in by the science of life, its evolution and complex relationships upon which it depends. I have a need to understand. As a boy in summers, particularly, I would visit our little local library and developed an appetite for reading and writing. I bring this up because one book stands out in my memory from the rest, Madeleine l’Engle’s, “A Wrinkle in Time”. I loved that book. It piqued my interest in science and the wonders of this world and the universe. From it grew an interest in physics and astronomy. I read every book our library had. I later built a telescope and wrote a paper on them for a seventh grade english class, 12 pages! Today I find myself ever more interested in the science of life, in particular that which goes toward understanding just what it is, which entails a lot of reading and thinking about quantum mechanics, Super-Strings and the developing science of quantum biology, in addition to cell biology and evolution! I love this stuff! So, part of my effort here has been to share this with my ‘readers’, though I must add that these pieces are mostly for me and are part of my own learning process. If others find them helpful, wonderful!
I really enjoy reading your blog. I found my way here back in March after searching for info about growing hardy agaves in cold wet climates (I live in Boone, NC which is somewhere in zone 6). Your writing inspired me to dive down the rabbit hole and this year I acquired nearly 30 different agave species and cultivars, including a few A. montana plants that I am going to try in some clients’ gardens next year (I started my own fine gardening/horticultural services business this year). I just finished reading your series on pruning and a lot of that resonates with me also. Nice to know there are folks out there who take horticulture seriously and practice it with pride. Anyway, thanks again for sharing your wisdom. I will keep digging through the archives in an attempt to learn as much as I can.
Huge fan of your site and writing! I am trying to grow a exotic garden here in SE Portland as well and your blog is a great and detailed resource for ideas – particularly regarding helping these delicate plants survive our wet winters! I’ve had mixed luck so far in my first winter but have learnt a lot for the next one! If you ever are interested in visiting I would truly appreciate any advice/guidance!
I’m always interested to see what other people are trying whether successful or not!
Enjoying your posts. I remember passing by your garden a couple years ago and being inspired to do more plant stuff. We met briefly the other day, but I never fully introduced myself.
I found you through a search that turned up your post on the Himalayan cloud forest and companion plants for Rhododendrons. I live on part of a former Rhododendron nursery on the Long Beach Peninsula and am collecting and planting more. You show some wonderful plants!
Good Morning. I just found your blog today while looking for some information about my ensete banana, now that spring is tiptoeing in and it appears that my tree has surprised me by surviving its first winter. I was bowled over by how informative and how long your blog is so I looked to this page to find out who you are. I chuckled to read that you double dug your veggie garden ala John Jeavons, as did I (but only once!) I learned all about your career, but nowhere on this page or site did I find your NAME! Who are you?
I am your neighbor to the south, in San Jose, CA, trying to have a tropical lookalike garden in a desert. My front yard looks like xeroscape for the neighbors, but my backyard fuels my soul. Thanks for your inspiration.
Hi Linda. My name is Lance Wright. Garden conditions in San Jose are very different than up here. I’m assuming you left your Ensete outdoors in the ground. We can’t ever get away with that in Portland, especially a winter which we’re still trying to come out of. Our low this winter was in mid January of 17ºF and we’ve had 50 days with lows at or below freezing.
Your an artist with the landscape…and, with your eye, as a photographer. Keep up the Great work ! : )