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Keepers of the Craft: A Conversation with Our Gardeners

Hugo Torii teaching pine pruning during a 2018 workshop. Photo by Peter Friedman. / Photo by: Peter Friedman, Volunteer

“Did you grow up gardening?”

“How do you rake the gravel gardens without leaving footprints?”

“How do you know what to prune?”

Those are just some of the questions frequently asked by visitors to Portland Japanese Garden.

The answers?

Some gardeners grew up gardening. Others learned over time.

“I first worked at a flower shop and thought it would be nice to work with plants that had roots,” says Hugo Torii, Director of Ground Maintenance at Portland Japanese Garden. Torii recently moved to Portland from Japan and works closely with Garden Curator, Sadafumi Uchiyama. He oversees the physical aspects of the Garden, its maintenance and development.  

Desirae “Desi” Wood works on the Castle Wall stones

“I grew up in the countryside, so I was always outside playing with plants and mud.  Both of my parents were avid gardeners, so gardening is in my blood,” said Desirae Wood, Project Manager and Curator Assistant at Portland Japanese Garden.

Senior Gardener Adam Hart worked on the Strolling Pond Garden and Flat Garden for many years but now focuses mostly on the Entry Gardens and overseeing maintenance throughout. “I was a pretty big garden ‘geek’ from an early age.  It was a natural progression to pursue it as a career. I studied horticulture in college and went into public horticulture immediately after graduating. I’ve done it ever since,” he said.

Adam Hart at Waza to Kokoro Seminar

He also says raking the gravel is easier than people think.

“Our gardeners walk flat-footed which doesn’t leave much of an impression because the gravel is coarse.”

When it comes to pruning, knowing what to prune takes practice and experience.

“Most often while pruning I am asked how I know what to cut,” said Francheska Snyder, one of the relatively newer members of the team and one of three female gardeners.  “I say different things depending on the situation. The shortest answer is ‘hundreds of hours of training.’ Sometimes, I go into whatever area of the Garden I’m in and how that affects the styling of the specific plant I’m working on. Some people are looking for a fifteen-second answer, which they hope will open their minds to the ‘secrets of Japanese gardening,’ but that’s nearly impossible, considering we teach pruning workshops that last six hours.”

Of the 11 garden department staff members, eight are full time gardeners.

“I loved Portland, and it was basically my dream to be a gardener here, and somehow that dream came true. I worked at a few Japanese gardens around the country before working here, and I had heard that this was one of the best,” said Hart.

Growing up in Colorado, Wood says she has always been drawn to gardens and would frequently visit the Denver Botanic Garden with her family. “One of my favorite gardens there was the Japanese Garden, which Sada renovated. When I moved to Portland years later and learned of this Garden, I visited, was enthralled, and became a horticultural volunteer.”

The gardeners come from all different backgrounds, but what they all share is a passion for gardening and a willingness to learn.

Francheska Snyder laying stone

“Probably the biggest thing I’ve learned is adaptability. Priorities change often, and problems can arise out of nowhere.  I pride myself now on being able to switch tasks quickly, problem solve almost any issue that may arise, and keep the Garden looking well-maintained,” said Hart.

Snyder practices ikebana as a hobby and recently had the opportunity to collaborate with the facilities department to build a new cedar plank roof for the Moon Gate wall in the Natural Garden.  “Before this, I knew very little about woodworking. I guess I still know very little about woodworking, but I learned how intricate this craft can be.”

Torii says the Garden’s tall trees create a deeper mountain atmosphere (深山幽谷 shinzan yuukoku) and overall picture of what a Japanese garden is trying to establish. “I have learned that the Japanese garden experience can be even more appreciated by learning the cultural aspect with it.”

Here are some additional frequently asked gardener questions:

Q: What do you do in the winter? 

A: It’s a common misconception that our work load slows down in the winter months.  We are actually very busy in the winter.  We do much of our cleaning and pruning through the winter months, and also try to get larger projects done while we have lower visitation.

Q: How do you take care of bonsai? 

A: It takes many years of study and apprenticeship to be able to competently care for bonsai.  Luckily, we have a gardener on staff that trained in Japan (Lincoln Proud) and we have a local bonsai consultant that oversees the collection.

Q: Can you come to my house when you’re done here? 

A: Probably not.  When we’re not gardening, we have many other hobbies that take up our time.  We love gardening, but we usually get our fill between work and taking care of our own yards at home.

Q: Did you study in Japan? 

A: Some of us have, some of us haven’t. Some of our team members have degrees in horticulture and have worked in public gardens before. Others have researched, read books on Japanese gardening, and have learned from on-the-job training.

Q: How do you know what to prune? 

A: Lots of practice and experience.  The key is to take it slowly at first, observe and learn from others that know what they’re doing.  In time, it starts to become almost instinctive and you barely need to think about what you’re doing.

Q: How do you get a job here? 

A: The gardeners come from all different backgrounds, but what they all share is a passion for gardening and a willingness to learn.  Gardener jobs don’t come up often.  Our turnover is very low.