Category Archives: Street Plantings and Medians

Weeds, Politics and Commitment- When Doing the Right Thing is Outside of the Box


This view is from the northern property line looking westerly toward 27th which runs between the white and gray warehouse buildings. The tall ‘coppery’ growths are the seed heads of the Knotweed. Much of the middle ground is buried in Blackberry while Clematis can be seen to the left now hanging from a neighbor’s tree, and is more than capable of burying it completely. The brick at the bottom of the frame is the cap of a low wall the northern property owner has built.

[There is a recurring theme in several of my postings and that is the failure of various of our local agencies and departments to responsibly care for the landscapes that they are charged with, a responsibility that is secondary to their primary mission and priorities.  The fact that this problem is so common is indicative of two things: first, that society views the ‘care’ of the wider landscape as a non-issue, that it is either somehow self-regulating, the mother nature thing, or, of such low importance that it need not be addressed, or some combination of these two, and, that our need for government accountability is so tightly defined and our mistrust of it, so deep, that our ‘exclusionary’ strategies utilized to accomplish this, eliminate the possibility that secondary responsibilities, i.e., those not directly serving the explicitly stated priorities, are excluded from any action or even discussion.  Thus, an agency or department charged with specific transportation priorities will only respond to and act on issues of transportation efficiency and safety…not landscape concerns.  My position is that this allows the uncontrolled spread of weeds and an overall decline of the health, beauty and vitality of the landscapes across the City within which we live, devaluing both the place that we live and the quality of lives we can enjoy.

The following is another example of one such landscape, in southeast Portland, this time a one block section of unimproved right-of-way, or roadway (UROW), a scenario that repeats regularly across this part of Portland, the difference being that the lack of vehicular traffic and the grade have allowed this property to grow in solid and has become impenetrable.  Many other such properties are in use by vehicles with sections of them graveled and eroded, huge pot-holes turning them into obstacle courses, but largely free of heavy weed growth, or at least free of many of the larger more aggressive invasives that plague our area.

First, below, is a descriptive piece that I sent to Commissioner Novick’s office as well as Suzanne Kahn, PBOT Maintenance Group Manager.  Next is the response I received from Cevero Gonzalez, Constituent Services Coordinator, with the Portland Bureau of Transportation and finally, my interpretation and response to that.  Governments are very ‘conservative’ organizations and are risk averse, meaning they tend to do what they’ve always done avoiding creative solutions that put them outside their comfort zone.  Very often this is exactly what is needed.]

There’s a short strip of ‘street’ a few blocks south of our home and garden at SE Schiller between SE 28th Ave and 27th.   It appears to have never been paved.  It’s not currently passable by vehicles of any type without engineering and improvements.  It’s completely overgrown with several invasive plants and multiple weeds all of which have been left on their own for years providing a significant source of ‘infection’ for the neighboring properties.  It is also a repository for trash.  From maps this appears to be a City of Portland property.   Continue reading


Failing Landscapes, Failing Practices: A Look at Tri-Met’s Landscapes and How We Could Do Them Better!


I include this photo, taken beneath the west approaches to the Marquam Bridge, an ODoT property not Tri-Met, as a reference for what is commonly found in transportation rights-of-way. This is not a problem solely with Tri-Met’s landscapes. It crosses the southern end of South Waterfront Park which was one of my responsibilities for 15 years and so I’m familiar with its level of care or lack thereof. The nearest portion, to just beyond the nearest piers, was entirely neglected for the entire period except for where I cut it down to reduce the amount of weed seed I had to deal with in the Park. There is literally nothing that was intentionally planted in the entire space. It is a landscape composed entirely of weeds and it is possible because landscapes for ODoT are of an extremely low priority. It is the neighboring properties that bear the brunt of their decision. It will be interesting to see if they come under increasing pressure over the years as the expensive and undeveloped properties to their south are developed. Currently the Knight Cancer Institute is developing a hundred yards or more away. The Marriot Residence Inn, immediately to its north, has had no effect on its level of care.

About a year ago I posted a series of three articles on Tri-Met’s landscapes along the new Orange Line.  They were a critical assessment of their design with many photos and explanations for my criticisms.  I had a brief correspondence with the project manager after the first two before he stopped responding.  I had asked about the maintenance schedule that they had with the contractor who would be doing the work.  I did not receive it.  Part of the reason was mine, as new ideas came up for me, my interest wavered and I moved on.  Still, I’ve never received anything.  Now, a year later, I decided to reassess the first portion of the landscape that  I wrote about, as it is a section I regularly walk and ride by bike to downtown or to just get out.  I would encourage readers to see my previously posted reviews. Continue reading

TriMet’s Orange Line Landscapes: SW Lincoln & 4th to SE Milwaukie Ave

[I had been delaying the posting of this entry as I was waiting to meet the project manager with TriMet.  As I’ve heard nothing back from him, I’m going ahead and posting.  It would seem that my earlier posts concerned him, but I suspect now that time has passed and the sky has not fallen…he has moved on to more pressing matters.  It is a common tactic not to engage ‘critics’ so as not to give them any energy.  Ignoring critics can be effective, albeit, a very frustrating treatment to the one who is being ignored.]

Part 3 of the Series

This is an introductory note.  Yes, I realize I started the series in the middle, in a linear thinking world this would have been the first posting, but I live nearest the middle portion of the Line…and I have my own motives. Those of you who don’t know me, I do not mean this to be overly critical in spirit.  I’m a person who is always thinking what next? How can I do this better?  I have similar high expectations of the organizations around me.  Organizations all tend to be conservative in action.  There is a reason mature bureaucracies have a reputation for mediocrity.  It is not my intent to question the intent of TriMet or of its hired contractors.  I am a big supporter of transforming our City into a more livable place and the Orange Line is part of that.  There is nothing to be gained through polarizing a situation or setting someone up as ‘the bad guy’ and putting them unnecessarily on the defensive…having said that, sometimes a ‘push’ is in order.  We live in times of rapid change, many of them destructive, and it does no one any good to not work toward the changes that they see as positive.  That is my intent here.

I began this series with a discussion of scale and how it acts as a magnifier.  I spent some time talking about the problems caused by compacted, heavily disturbed, soils and I emphasized the issues created by a history of bad weed management…this first section of the Orange Line landscapes, from SE 11th to its beginning at SW Lincoln and 4th is heavily impacted by these factors.  Built on heavily graded and or imported fill, often on abandoned industrial sites, on or adjacent to sites that have been out of control weed generators for decades, this section may pose the biggest problem for landscape maintenance of all.

It is dangerous to assume that a new urban landscape is created on a ‘blank slate’.  Merely scraping a landscape off and beginning anew does not return it magically to its ‘pristine’ condition prior to the arrival of ‘modern’ white American culture and all of our accumulative impacts.  To be successful some effort must be expended to ameliorate at least the worst of these conditions.  Even if we make our ‘best’ effort to do this, landscapes such as these with their ‘heavy’ impact histories will present a powerful challenge to those charged with maintenance.  It is easy to underestimate the severity of this problem.  We have developed an ‘alien’ aesthetic that really doesn’t belong anywhere and as such is outside the bounds of the function of the normal cycling of energy and resources common to nature.  We impose this aesthetic and our designs on our landscapes and then expend a great deal of energy, in the form of labor and chemistry, to maintain them, or they quickly degenerate.  In some ways it would have made maintenance much simpler to have buried all of the surface beneath concrete sealing the problems beneath it.  But then the priorities of urban tree canopy, the capture and ‘treatment’ onsite  of stormwater would have been negated, the possibility of groundwater recharge further reduced and the ‘softening’ of a very hard edged urban ‘landscape’ stymied. Continue reading

Tri-Met’s Orange Line Landscapes: Bybee Stop to Oak Grove

Part 2 of the Orange Line series

Looking south from the top of the stairs at the Bybee Stop. This is pretty much the same view as looking north with respect to the landscape.

Looking south from the top of the stairs at the Bybee Stop. This is pretty much the same view as looking north with respect to the landscape.  BNSF’s tracks lie to the left, the east.  The railroads have their own ‘landscape’ maintenance standards set primarily for safety reasons.  Within so many feet of their tracks they have a zero tolerance for plant growth and use sterilants.  There is also a zone within which the will ‘brush back’ trees and shrubs to keep site lines open.  Metro will have its own standard.  The two side by side show their combined effect.  Also, typically railroads do not fence off their tracks making clear sight lines a more pressing safety concern.  Trimet has fenced off the tracks from casual pedestrian ‘conflicts’.  Fencelines are problematic for maintenance unless ‘dead zones’ are expanded to include both sides.

Heading south of the Harold St. overpass the Orange Line leaves the most urbanized portion of its route, or at least its most densely populated stretch.  Traveling south to the Bybee, the Tacoma/Sellwood and then the Milwaukie stops, the line run alongside the BNSF tracks and there is very little ‘landscaping’ of the corridor.  The railroads contract out maintenance of their thousands of miles of tracks. (For a brief look into their approach check this link.) Continue reading

Tri-Met’s Orange Line Landscapes: Clinton & SE 12th to Harold St.

This shows the banded pattern common today in long mass plantings each swath a single species.

This shows the banded pattern common today in long mass plantings each swath a single species going for a kind of landscape scale ‘graphic’ pattern that is less concerned with ‘fit’.  This is near the Clinton/ SE 12th stop.

Size matters.  In horticulture it changes everything.  Things that are inconsequential, or maybe even enjoyable in the backyard garden, can quickly become daunting or onerous when the scale is ramped up.  Working at a commercial or institutional scale has to change your entire approach to the landscape.  In a small garden it is easier to accommodate mistakes, the conflicted combinations and those issues of horticultural ‘fit’ that we missed when we design or install.  Scale, however, rubs our faces in it everyday, makes us pay with aching backs as unintended consequences play out across the thousands of sq.ft. and acres.  It becomes a matter of physical survival and undermines your professionalism.  You become perforce part laborer, part diagnostician, designer, plantsman and critic….Out of necessity you sharpen your critical thinking skills and the last thing you ever wanted, your sales skills, as you work to sell your ideas to management who are absurdly ignorant of the problems you face everyday in the field.  And, then, eventually, you retire, but you don’t turn it off…you can’t.

Which brings me to the MAX Orange Line and its landscapes.  When I did horticultural design review for large capital Parks projects, it often felt like a dueling match.  I would pour over the design, whatever the stage it was in, match that with my particular knowledge of site conditions and my maintenance experience within Parks.  I would state my concerns on paper and in meetings with the Project Managers and Architects.  I was stubborn and consistently found myself up against a process that undervalued horticulture and my input.  Good horticultural practice was regularly placed in a losing position opposite not just that of the Landscape Architects but of a very political process that tried to give the public what it wanted as long as it fit within the Architect’s vision.  Horticulture always came out a poor third, even though good horticulture always saves money in the mid and long runs.  It was exasperating.  The public, by and large is ignorant of horticultural practice and no effort is made to educate them at any level. Continue reading

On Healing the ‘Broken’ Urban Landscape: Portland’s Holgate Overpass & the Brooklyn Yards

This is the section south and adjacent to the west approach. It was rough mown in early June down slope to the Blackberries and east to the Box Elder in the background.  You can see the blue flowers of the Chickory.

This is the section south and adjacent to the west approach. It was rough mown in early June down slope to the Blackberries and east to the Box Elder in the background. You can see the blue flowers of the Chickory and the Fennel.

Walking the Holgate overpass across the Brooklyn Switching Yard, with its adjacent container operation, is anything but pleasant. Trucks, trains, blasting horns and the four lanes of traffic whizzing by next to the 5′ wide sidewalks wipe away the positives of the views across the river and to downtown.  Most people probably don’t think of places like this as ‘landscapes’, but in the broader sense they are. Landscapes, most simply, are the places that we occupy, whether they are artfully designed, narrowly utilitarian, neglected, forgotten or simply dismissed. They become ‘landscapes’ through our occupying them or merely perceiving them. They are places we are in relationship with. Holgate is a traffic corridor for automobiles. Here is where it crosses the north south railroad line and the region’s major container handling yard. Car and truck traffic are heavy, at times, nearly non-stop. This is the only east-west route between Powell Blvd. and Bybee, and Bybee is intended for, and used by, more local traffic. It is loud. Traffic typically is moving a 35-45 mph although it’s posted 30.  The sidewalk is relatively narrow and this zone of unpleasantness is over a third of a mile long, an expanse from which there is no ‘escape’ for the pedestrian beyond enduring it. Since I retired, and weather permitting, I walk it once or twice a week on my way to the gym for a swim. Continue reading

Gardening as a Political Act: Growing a Better Public Landscape – The Ross Island Bridge West Approach

Peeling off towards downtown from the bridge westbound

Peeling off towards downtown from the bridge westbound.  The little landscape Roses and new trees…one mown down by a car further down.

I’ve said it before that everything we choose to do is a political act. Politics is not something practiced by ‘politicians’ exclusively. We are social animals. What we choose to do effects those around us…gardening is political. We have chosen to invest our time and energies into growing plants and maintaining our gardens. We do this as individuals. They feed our spirits and those of our friends and families. Beyond this are our neighbors and, to some degree, commuters passing by. I’ve had people I don’t know stop by and tell me, “I’ve been walking/riding/driving by your house for years and I just wanted to tell you how much I’ve enjoyed it.” There’s the bus driver who used to stop in his turn at our corner, open the doors and tell me how much he loved my Wisteria (now gone…Sad for him, good for me), the guy from BES who stopped one day to quiz me about a Grevillea and many others. People, gardeners or not, may be buoyed by your gardens. We change the world for the better. Politics need not be limited to the big divisive social, economic and environmental issues of the day. In fact, if we want to make a positive difference we better start on the little things that we can.

Continue reading

Choosing a Tree: Issues of Structure and Growth

Right Plant Right Place covers a lot. Usually when you hear it used the speaker is referring to matching the plant with the growing conditions: soil, sun, climatic conditions, size, etc. Here, I’m going to address the physical structure and growth of a tree as it relates to place, Carpinus betulus ‘Fastigiata’, in this case, as it is often used as a ‘street tree’. The Upright European Hornbeam has proven its value as a street tree. It is very adaptable to conditions in our region that exist at the curb. That being said there are questions of structure and growth that need to be asked if such a planting is going to be aesthetically successful over the longer term.

Hornbeams across the street from my house after pruning

Hornbeams across the street from my house after pruning

Continue reading

Dispatches from Bend, OR

I’m over here in Bend for the Labor Day weekend doing family stuff, visiting my dad and Julie’s parents…dealing.  I worked my way through the first draft of an article/posting on everyone’s favorite Manzanita, isn’t it, Arctostaphylos patula, with a sustainable landscape spin.  I met two old friends at the 6th Annual Little Woody, a celebration of beers aged in barrels, mostly bourbon or wine, 24 breweries with 40 decisions to make.  Needless to say they got easier as we worked our way around.  If you’re a beer snob and like to wow your friends with talk of original and final gravity, A.B.V. and what the right balance of I.B.U.s might be, this is for you.  It’s still a modest sized crowd that attends.  Don’t expect pints, just good beer, with a twist and extra ooomph!

Today, though I’m between things and went for a walk with plants in mind, Arctostaphylos foremost, and set out to look a little closer at some of Bend’s more public ‘scapes, in their roadways not their Parks.  Bend is known for its ubiquitous and proliferating traffic circles so I checked this one out on SW 14th, on Bend’s westside.  They are all planted from a native palette.  A couple of bronze deer were curious what I was doing.  The light was glaring and my pictures less than I had hoped.

After that I was cutting through some commercial spaces on my way to check out Bend’s newest booze joint, Back Drop Distilling, it’s sharing space with Good Life Brewing, but the sign says they won’t be open until sometime later this fall, when I saw these Rhamnus frangula ‘Asplenifolia’ at a little US Bank branch office.   Continue reading