Portland Japanese Garden’s Professional Gardener Work Exchange Program
Portland Japanese Garden has been hailed as the most beautiful and authentic Japanese garden in the world outside of Japan. Unlike any other Japanese garden in North America, Portland Japanese Garden has been continually overseen by a succession of Japan-trained garden craftspeople. The skills and aesthetic vision of these craftspeople has ensured that its gardens remain authentically Japanese in their design and maintenance. Today, both accomplished and beginner-level Japanese garden professionals look to Portland Japanese Garden as a source for training, wisdom, and cultural context that they have never had access to before.
Adding to the dynamism and educational offerings of the Garden is a professional gardener work exchange program that promotes and encourages passionate practitioners from around the world to learn from each other as well as gardening experts from Japan.
“By learning and working together in a bigger team,” Hugo Torii, Garden Curator of Portland Japanese Garden notes, “we seek to share the appreciation of the Garden and strive to help the sustainability of Japanese gardens all over the world.”
Though some version of the program had existed prior to his tenure as Garden Curator, Torii decided to refresh it in 2022. The process of welcoming guest gardeners begins with Torii’s cultivation of relationships with the leaders of other Japanese gardens throughout North America. These conversations help indicate if Torii’s counterparts share enough commonalities and beliefs to make the exchange worthwhile for both gardens. This year has seen two participants, including Trevor Sweet, a gardener from Lake Sacajawea Park’s Japanese garden in Longview, Washington, and most recently, the lead horticulturist of the Richard & Helen DeVos Japanese Garden at the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, Ethan Cote.
The Richard & Helen DeVos Japanese Garden shares a bond with Portland Japanese Garden, having been designed by Hoichi Kurisu, who served as Garden Director of Portland Japanese Garden from 1968 to 1973. Prior to the pandemic, Portland Japanese Garden had sent members of its staff to Michigan to spend time working with their team there. Finally, in 2022, with the world slowly returning to more normal travel conditions and a new programmatic framework initiated by Torii, Cote was able to reciprocate and make the journey west.
Working with a team is something Cote is well familiar with in his work. Still, he was deeply impressed with the collaborative spirit of the gardening department at Portland Japanese Garden. “It’s really apparent that everyone really cares about being here and cares about learning,” Cote said. “There’s a huge element of teamwork that’s really inspiring. It’s been cool to be a part of that.”
“I had a bit of an intro to [Japanese gardening] just in my time as a seasonal gardener and saw that as something that I really wanted to do,” Cote recalled. “I think what initially attracted me to it was how complex it could be, but also how seemingly simple it looked. I think if you talk to any Japanese gardener, they’ll say it’s anything but simple. It’s that whole idea of putting so much energy and effort into it [while making] it look more simple [that] was really appealing to me.”
“Energy and effort” was the theme of Cote’s week in Portland. When asked what he had been doing, he cheerfully responded, “What haven’t we been doing? From day one, it was jumping into the rhythm that’s already moving this time of the year and focusing on cleaning and plant maintenance. I think a [requirement] of, really all gardening, is being able to be flexible. If something comes up, you figure out a solution.”
Working with a team is something Cote is well familiar with in his role at the Richard and Helen DeVos Japanese Garden. Still, he was deeply impressed with the collaborative spirit of the gardening department at Portland Japanese Garden. “It’s really apparent that everyone really cares about being here and cares about learning,” Cote said. “There’s a huge element of teamwork that’s really inspiring. It’s been cool to be a part of that.”
“Even just being around [Hugo] this week…was super valuable,” Cote said of Hugo Torii, Garden Curator of Portland Japanese Garden. “There’s always just these little nuggets of wisdom that are being dropped and you’re like, ‘I wouldn’t have thought of that.’ It’s a really unique perspective. We grabbed dinner and it was good to just kind of catch up and talk about the futures of this garden and our garden in Michigan.”
Upon the conclusion of his time in Portland, Cote had nothing but positive things to say about the experience. “This is, hands down, one of the best places to learn from, outside of Japan,” he shared. “It’s so important to learn from your fellow gardeners. I think you can read all the books in the world and watch all the videos or webinars, but getting hands on experience, doing something is really invaluable.”