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Best public gardens in the Pacific Northwest: 1 down, 59 to go

by Timber Press on September 17, 2014

in Gardening

Header 01aThe Timber Press office takes a field trip to the Portland Japanese Gardens, one of the many featured in The Pacific Northwest Garden Tour.

Donald Olson came from a place where “gardens were yards with mowed grass, shade trees, a few hardy shrubs, and not much else.” Arriving in the Pacific Northwest, the “luxurious abandon” of the region’s gardens was a revelation: “I could always find something in bloom, even in fall and winter. The natural landscapes of this region had a beauty and a grandeur that astounded me then and continue to astound me today.”

In The Pacific Northwest Garden Tour, Olson celebrates 60 of the most noteworthy public gardens to visit in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. On a recent sunny summer day, the Timber Press office made a field trip to one of these places, the Portland Japanese Garden. Our goal was to see for ourselves what Olson claims is “one of the most beautiful gardens in the United States.”

It did not disappoint.

The Portland Japanese Garden is actually five separate gardens, each one an example of ancient Japanese gardening styles. The Strolling Pond Garden (chisen kaiyu shiki teien) is the largest of the five. Most popular during the Edo period (1603–1867), this style was generally used by the aristocracy to display wealth.

Image-03-WEBA view of the Tea Garden from the tea house. Tea gardens (cha-niwa or roji) consist of a pathway linking inner and outer gardens, separated by a bamboo gate (seen here in the background) where guests wait to be greeted by the host. Once admitted, guests stop to rinse their hands and face, cleansing themselves (at least, symbolically) of the outside world. The inner and outer gardens act as a decompression chamber of sorts, detaching guests from their worldly concerns.

Image-01-WEBThe zig-zag bridge links the upper and lower part of the Strolling Pond Garden. Designed to focus visitor’s attention and maximize viewing spots, zig-zag bridges are also said to confuse evil spirits who might inadvertently wander into the garden. On the right, designer Laken Wright stops to capture the beauty of the koi-filled pond.

Image-05b-WEBThe Strolling Pond Garden’s lower pond and waterfall. The towering Douglas fir trees beyond are what’s called “borrowed scenery” in Japanese garden design.

Image-02b-WEBA view of the Sand and Stone Garden from the high steps of the Natural Garden. The Natural Garden (zoki no niwa) is the most contemporary style and uses plants outside the list of traditional Japanese garden plants. A stream and stepping stones lead visitors down the hillside to the Sand and Stone Garden (karesansui). Developed in Japan in the later Kamakura period (1185–1333), sand and stone gardens are often part of a Zen Monastery and their sparse design encourages contemplation.

Image-04b-WEBTimber Press publicist Besse Lynch looks out onto the Flat Garden. A flat garden (hira-niwa) is meant to be seen from a single viewpoint and is usually framed by physical structures such as shoji doors or a veranda. This view can be appreciated in much the same way as a landscape painting. Indeed, the elements of a flat garden are often reminiscent of distant mountains or a shoreline surrounded by water. This garden includes a century-old Japanese laceleaf maple representing autumn and Circle and Gourd Islands which symbolize enlightenment and happiness.

Image-06b-WEBWell, that’s one check mark on our list of the best gardens to visit in the Pacific Northwest. Only 59 to go! Author Donald Olson offers his Pacific Northwest Garden Tour as your (and our) guide to all 60 in one of the nation’s great garden-belts. And don’t let the notoriously wet and gray Northwest weather deter you, he writes, “All I can say to that is, so what? If you’re a plant, or a gardener, this is paradise.”

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.


Author THUMBNAILDonald Olson is a travel writer with a longtime interest in gardens and gardening. His travel stories have appeared in the New York Times and National Geographic. He lives, writes, and gardens in New York and Oregon.



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“A companion for plant lovers and Northwest explorers to revisit for many seasons to come. Olson’s tours are the perfect blend of history, horticulture, and a trip to the art gallery.”—Brian Juenemann, Eugene Register-Guard

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