Category Archives: Parks

What Really is a Sustainable Landscape & Why it Matters

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I took this at Cape Horn in early May ’15 in one of the ‘wet’ woodland ‘terraces’. The native Delphinium gives it a fantastical appearance. If we could create this landscape anywhere in the City I can’t imagine that it would withstand the level of use and inevitable abuse it would receive let alone the ‘weed pressure’ it would suffer. Perhaps there are a few places that such a landscape could work but it would require that we have all of the surrounding landscapes ‘under control’ and that we educate the public so that they would understand and respect it enough to stay away. Our numbers alone even if most behaved themselves would make its survival difficult.  Ultimately, this is just what is necessary, re-establishing the public’s relationship with nature and the wild world.

(I’ve made earlier postings on this topic, but this piece actually predates those.  I wrote this in 2013 while still working as a horticulturist for the City of Portland Parks and Recreation as a member of a Bureau committee that was working to define ‘sustainable landscapes’ so that we could begin to make our policies and practices more consistent with our ‘desire’ to create sustainable landscapes and protect the relatively intact ones that remain.  This was a difficult process.  We spent a lot of time discussing/arguing about what constitutes a sustainable landscape and ultimately the direction that Parks should be headed.

There was a large divide between those of us who saw ultimately, that the only truly sustainable landscape was one that recreated those native landscapes that preceded the massive changes that European Americans brought with them, so that our efforts should be on these, and those of us who, having spent much of our professional lives in the field doing maintenance in created/urban landscapes, arguing that these new landscapes played a necessary role in the modern world and that our designs and maintenance of them could be moved in a more ‘sustainable’ direction.  These urban/functional landscapes, whether for active sports, community gardens or even many passive uses, provide places and venues for activities that native landscapes cannot.

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There is space and need for many different landscapes in an urban area. This is in the garden at South Waterfront Park along the Willamette River and is intended to be a contemplative refuge from the business of the city. It is layered and carefully orchestrated though its goal is more aesthetic than to be a ‘natural’ plant community. It requires considerable regular ‘grooming’ and editing to maintain in order to show off the plants to their best advantage. This garden was designed for multi-season interest especially through the summer when our native Willamette prairie landscape slides into dormancy.

The organizational structure of the Bureau has been built around three primary landscape ‘types’: ‘natural landscapes’ which tend to be larger and border more densely populated sectors of the City, ‘contrived landscapes’ that are dispersed throughout the City and serve the more traditional Park functions for sports and more casual social use and the ‘enterprise landscapes’ of Golf and PIR that serve very narrow functions and depend on those uses for much of the revenue that supports them.  These are operated and maintained by discrete groups within the Bureau, have different cultures and priorities and view sustainability very differently.   Because these are all in a highly urbanized area the degree of historical disturbance and the continuous pressures that a concentrated population apply to them, they can never by truly ‘sustainable’ in that they will always require our active stewardship to counterbalance these pressures.  This is not to say that we give up on the idea of balanced/dynamic landscapes of appropriately chosen plant communities.  We just need to remember that these are urban areas and be good stewards of the land.  We can even move ‘high use’ landscapes in a more sustainable direction, both in their design and in their maintenance.  It is incumbent upon us to do this to ultimately minimize the pressures put upon them and natural areas by weeds, invasives and human use.) Continue reading

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. Continue reading

The Fields Park: Brownfields, Compaction & Drainage – a Missed Opportunity

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The Park enterance, framed by the four bio-swales (I can’t bring myself to call them ‘water gardens’ as they look very ‘un-garden like’) that take runoff from the adjacent hard surface as well as from the drain system installed across the lawn. They are planted with Betula nigra cultivars along with Cornus stolonifera ‘Isanti’, C. s. ‘Kelseyii and an Iris. As you walk through the Park you will move over eight different hard surface treatments!

The Fields (Click here to see the final design plan), completed in spring of 2013, is Portland’s newest Park in the north end of the Pearl District.   While I was still with Parks I did the horticultural review during the design process and was an on site inspector, periodically, during construction.  New Parks like this one require a huge time commitment by Parks.  Selection of designers, outreach to all of the stakeholders and many other meetings involving more technical aspects of such a project all in an effort to deliver to residents a Park that is beautiful, serves the needs of residents and is affordable in terms of long term maintenance.  Before  the project is offered to the design community functional goals are set for the Park and a general design theme is chosen.  Various firms offer proposals.  Concepts are bandied about.  Eventually, one is chosen.  In this case, the Office of Cheryl Barton, a San Francisco firm, was awarded the design contract (To see what they have to say about it). Continue reading

Jefferson Circle of Waterfront Park: NW Tropical Theme & the Question of Design

High summer with a wide angle distorting it a little but....

High summer with a wide angle distorting it a little but….

Jefferson Circle lies at the south end of the downtown seawall in Tom McCall Waterfront Park helping to anchor what we always referred to as ‘the bowl’, site of the Dragon Boat races, July’s Blue’s Festival and the end of Summer Oregon Symphony performance.  The curving slope of the lawn that sweeps across the site assures attendees of a more clear view of the stages erected for big events.  Jefferson Circle and ‘5 Flags to the south, permanently ‘backup’ the temporary stages, while a third display bed, Columbia Circle, marks the main entry from downtown on the west.  All three beds share a common theme though they are by no means a mirror image of each other.

These three beds were part of Waterfront’s original design from the ’70’s.  Jefferson Circle an actual circle 40’ in diameter defined, like the others by a concrete bench that surrounds it.  Columbia is an ellipse stretched along its north/south axis, while 5 Flags is an ‘organic’ form with 5 ‘corners, each defined by a flag pole that for years displayed ours and a changing assortment of three other international flags.  Their plantings have changed over the years. I take responsibility for their current theme and most of their plantings. Continue reading

Pruning: The Aesthetic Choice, Consistency & Good Horticultural Practice

The Pruning Series, 3

Illustrations from 'Pretty Deadly', written bj Kelly Sue Deconnick, art Emma Rios, colors Jordie Bellaire, Image Comics 2015

Illustration from ‘Pretty Deadly’, written by Kelly Sue Deconnick, art Emma Rios, colors Jordie Bellaire, Image Comics 2015, (007-002).  Straight-up classic art, whether oil painting or illustration, like these two pages from a graphic novel that I find beautiful, involve ‘craft and, an understanding of one’s materials and techniques, that are necessary for any artist to create work. In illustration, like this, the art must resonate with the story to be successful. Horticulture and pruning are no different.

Plants often present pruning challenges to the gardener.  I’ve already introduced the issue of understanding ‘why’ you are choosing to prune, the physical structure of a ‘normally’ growing individual and how it will respond to the cuts you choose to make.  There are several good books out there that discuss how and what constitutes a ‘good’ individual cut and what approach you might take with different types of growers…it should be the goal of any gardener to understand the technical details of pruning, so that they become ‘natural’, reflexive. (In an earlier posting, I discuss pruning tools and provide an introduction to what constitutes a ‘good’ pruning cut.) Like all artists we develop a style that may distinguish us from others.  Even understanding all of this and possessing the technical competencies there are the ‘aesthetic’ decisions the gardener/pruner must make.  Two different gardeners can prune in the same landscape and it can be obvious when they are finished that they have very different aesthetics.  The results can be ‘disjointed’ or harmonious.  Every plant, every branch, every internode, presents a choice and because each individual plant of a given species or variety, though it may grow following a shared genetic code, will grow uniquely in response to the physical conditions it faces…and the damage and pruning it has received over its life.  Like most things in life our control of a plant is limited and the more we attempt to control it the less like itself it will be. Continue reading

Waterfront Parks: Success and a Question of Purpose

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Okay, this is not Vancouver. It is Victoria Harbor, looking at their Fisherman’s Wharf across from where we stayed. I haven’t been back to Vancouver for a few years and as a result of an accident and poor back up, I lost all of those pictures. Right country, almost the same latitude, with a gorgeous natural harbor you would have to try hard to screw up!

Vancouver, B.C., has a beautiful waterfront south of downtown along False Creek merging urban development with pedestrian scale Park.  This is a busy international city, Canada’s major west coast port and a major center of the arts.  Granville Island pokes up out of the inlet housing the ‘Emily Carr University of Art and Design’ among other centers.  BC Place, the site of last summer’s Women’s World Cup Championship, resides a little more inland still close to the water.  Here the city is built  to advantage along its waterfront.  Of course on the north side is the famous and beautiful Stanley Park and a more urban edge snugging up to Vancouver Harbor, with an amazing view across it and on to the snow covered mountains including Grouse and Whistler not far to the north.  Pedestrians abound. while commercial shipping on a large scale moves in the middle distance, along with the many float planes private, tourist and small commuters.  It is around False Creek where the City has more recently redefined its relationship with the water.  It is a gorgeous setting.  All combined Vancouver’s, new and old, waterfront is my favorite along the West Coast, ahead of Seattle and San Francisco. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Horticulture: Gardening in Portland Parks

The land occupied by Kenilworth Park and most of the Kenilworth neighborhood was part of the land claim owned by Clinton Kelly, a Methodist minister from Kentucky who settled in the area in 1848. In 1909 the Portland Park Board purchased 9 acres from Kelly with funds from a 1908 bond measure created specifically to acquire land for parks in Portland. In 1910, Park Superintendent Emanuel Mische created a design for the park that was inspired by the park's natural topography and vegetation. The design included a bandstand, tennis courts, sports field, wading pool and play area, sand courts, walkways, and vista points. Today, the basic layout of the park remains intact and is indicative of the strength and appeal of Mische's original design.

One of my favorite neighborhood parks is just a few blocks from my house.  The land occupied by Kenilworth Park and most of the Kenilworth neighborhood was part of the land claim owned by Clinton Kelly, a Methodist minister from Kentucky who settled in the area in 1848. In 1909 the Portland Park Board purchased 9 acres from Kelly with funds from a 1908 bond measure created specifically to acquire land for parks in Portland.
In 1910, Park Superintendent Emanuel Mische, a contemporary of the Olmsteads who conceived the overall plans for Portland’s Park system, created a design for the park that was inspired by the park’s natural topography and vegetation. The design included a bandstand, tennis courts, sports field, wading pool and play area, sand courts, walkways, and vista points. Today, the basic layout of the park remains intact and is indicative of the strength and appeal of Mische’s original design.

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Turf in Public Parks – a note

The upper portion of Duniway Park.  A Nyssa sylvatica growing at the toe of the slope below OHSU.  The turf is completely unirrigated, is very compacted and has poor drainage.  In much of it is dominated by a few broad leaf weeds while most of the grasses that survive are weedy as well.  The whole Park is built over one of Portland's first dumps.

The upper portion of Duniway Park. A Nyssa sylvatica growing at the toe of the slope below OHSU. The turf is completely unirrigated, is very compacted and has poor drainage. Much of this turf is dominated by a few broad leaf weeds while most of the grasses that survive are weedy as well. The whole Park is built over one of Portland’s first dumps.

I wrote what follows a couple of years ago while still a horticulturist with Portland Parks and Recreation.  It was an addendum to a piece I wrote addressing a different approach for prioritizing work in Park landscapes and is reproduced here, with slight changes, as i originally wrote it.  I thought of it more recently as I’ve watched Portland bake this summer and observed, consequently, the decline of residential and Parks lawns. I am a big proponent of ‘sustainable’ landscapes.  That does not prevent me from seeing the necessity for grass lawns in urban areas especially in cities as they follow the path to increased density for sustainability issues as well.  People ‘need’ open space and as we all ‘suffer’ from our own shrinking of private outdoor space, the need for such public spaces increases.  But turf cannot fill the need if it is poorly maintained.  Dormant, dry, compacted weed dominated lawns are both unattractive and less functional.  Open spaces are not all the same.  Ugliness can degrade them to the point of rendering them almost useless in terms of their human value (We often speak of habitat value for wildlife and in terms of water quality.  We spend less public time discussing what is of basic human value.  What we require to meet our very real and ‘animal’ needs.  Not all of our legitimate needs can be met by buying products and services.)

Vigorous grass based turf is not sustainable. It is a monoculture susceptible to weed invasion that requires regular care, including, irrigation, mowing, fertilization, aeration to reduce compaction, occasional dethatching, control of moles and, for the best stands, the occasional well timed application of an herbicide and insecticide. Having said this, I still see it as a vital component of our Parks.  Portland Parks and Recreation has other priorities making exceptions Park by Park, though select athletic fields for playability and safety reasons are still irrigated. (Other Parks Districts, notably places like Bend, OR, with a desert environment, have prioritized having good quality turf in public areas). No other surface provides the functionality and value of turf grass in an urban environment. It absorbs rainfall; reduces the problems of mud and dust and helps control the erosion that accompanies bare soil; provides a firm, but shock absorbing surface for activities; aids with cooling the urban heat island; provides a restful carpet of green that helps calm a potentially chaotic visual world; and, provides a surface for young children to play on or family and friends to relax or picnic on. As urban density increases, the need for public open space increases. We need lawn. Concrete, pavers and asphalt will never fill all of this need. An argument can easily be made that rich healthy lawns better fill this human need when they are in Parks than scattered thinly through residential neighborhoods in front and backyards where they are individually too small or inaccessible to meet the public need. Continue reading