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An Authentic Sense of Pride in Gardening

Peter Putnicki, Senior Gardener for Seattle Japanese Garden doing pine candling in the Flat Garden. Photo by Portland Japanese Garden.

Portland Japanese Garden Welcomes Second Guest Gardener from Seattle Japanese Garden

Portland Japanese Garden is a “living classroom” that offers tremendous opportunities for experiential learning to all who enter its gates. The lessons of Portland Japanese Garden are many and varied; not only does it speak about the way trees grow and how moss forms on stone, but also about the lives and culture of the people who designed and nurtured this enduring art form. One signature program that uplifts the Garden’s own gardening staff and garden professionals from outside organizations is an initiative led by Garden Curator Hugo Torii.

“The Professional Gardener Work Exchange Program is a collaborative effort between Portland Japanese Garden and other, similar organizations that align with our philosophy and approach,” says Torii. “I work with the leaders of other gardens to create a mutual exchange where gardeners spend time working alongside their fellow practitioners in a new setting. It’s an invaluable experience for these individuals—passionate gardeners can deepen their skills by working alongside each other; we certainly learn a lot from the guests we welcome here.”

Hugo Torii, Garden Curator of Portland Japanese Garden. Photo by Jonathan Ley.

“Looking beyond what this means for the individual practitioner, it is an important initiative for the sustainability of Japanese gardens,” Torii continues. “Portland Japanese Garden has earned its reputation as the most beautiful and authentic Japanese garden outside of Japan because it has been maintained by garden experts for its entire history. As a leader in this field, we have a responsibility to support the wellbeing and authenticity of other Japanese gardens so that more can experience the harmony and peace they generate.”

Gardeners from Portland Japanese Garden, of course, participate in this reciprocal program as well, with members of the team having worked elsewhere. In May, Portland Japanese Garden welcomed Peter Putnicki, Senior Gardener of Seattle Japanese Garden, to become the latest professional to participate in this exciting endeavor. He sat down to chat about his week in Portland.

Peter Putnicki, Senior Gardener for Seattle Japanese Garden. Photo by Portland Japanese Garden.

“I grew up in West Texas, I was there until I was about 15 years old,” Putnicki shared. “Any time that I would see anything that even felt remotely like a forest, it was exciting to me and kind of exotic. When I was probably ten, my family went to the [Japanese Tea Garden] in San Francisco. My mind was blown by the fact that there’s this style of garden that was so lush and so green and also still so interesting and sculptural. It was really exciting to me.”

“I’ve been working professionally as a gardener landscaper since my teens. I never thought about specializing in Japanese gardens because I didn’t realize that was a thing that you could do specifically as a gig. And then, so I was a gardener and then an arborist and then I started realizing that you actually can do focusing on one thing such as Japanese gardening and I have for at least 20 years.”

Putnicki has been working with Seattle Japanese Garden since 2015 after having previously worked with Masa Mizuno, former Garden Director of Portland Japanese Garden (1977-80). In his role as Senior Gardener, his primary responsibility is taking care of the physical landscape and working with his fellow gardeners, including Jose Gonzales who participated in the guest gardener exchange in 2023. He also has to take on a number of other responsibilities, including coordination and organization of programming and events in collaboration with other staff. While Seattle Japanese Garden shares many attributes with Portland Japanese Garden, such as being a natural oasis surrounded by forest near a downtown core and having opened in the 1960s, it is a different ( and yet still wonderful) experience.

“[Seattle Japanese Garden] is a single stroll garden with a few different ecological regions within it:  mountainous areas, soft hills, and an open meadow,” Putnicki shared. “Yet, it’s all still designed as one single uniform garden. It was built in 1960, a designer from Tokyo who was brought over and originally designed the garden sight unseen, just on paper based on what they knew about the land.  As the landscape was built, it featured adaptation as a design concept—they worked to fit it into the space rather than carving a big hole and then putting a garden in it.”

Peter Putnicki, Senior Gardener for Seattle Japanese Garden doing pine candling near the Pavilion. Photo by Portland Japanese Garden.

A longtime resident of the Pacific Northwest and an experienced practitioner in Japanese gardening, Putnicki has been well aware of Portland Japanese Garden—he has not only visited several times, but he has also assisted Curator Emeritus Sadafumi Uchiyama in pruning workshops in the past. He notes that he enjoys the space. “One of the impressions that I always get, and this is something that I hear from everyone else, is the quality of maintenance,” Putnicki offered. “This is one of the best cared for gardens anywhere, especially in North America. Another thing that I noticed maybe more this time were the design details that this garden has. If you just look at some of different stone arrangements, there are small things that are extremely high quality that aren’t necessarily highlighted—it shows the quality that goes deeper than surface.”

Because Japanese gardening is still a highly specialized field in North America, it claims less professionals than other horticultural pursuits. Portland Japanese Garden, seen as the most beautiful and authentic Japanese garden outside of Japan, has taken on the responsibility of fostering connections between organizations and practitioners so that knowledge can flow more freely and so this burgeoning community can grow. The opportunity to connect with fellow professionals was one of the most compelling aspects of the program for Putnicki.

“I know that there’s a lot of new people here on this team and I wanted to get to meet them and work with them hands on,” Putnicki said. “I have known Caleb [Hendrickson, a gardener at Portland Japanese Garden] for a little while because he’s been here for a long time and he came into the exchange with us, but everybody else is new to me.”

Putnicki, who spent the bulk of his time candling (a Japanese approach to pruning) pines, shares that he came away impressed with the Garden Department here. “The communication skills that are baked into how everybody works, the level of how the team organizes themselves to get work done, the level of maintenance that happens—this team is really well run. Everyone is stoked about the work. They’re excited. ‘I get to be a gardener here and here’s what I’m doing and it’s fun.’ That’s awesome. There’s a real sense of authentic pride that I feel like is missing from a lot of people who do this kind of work elsewhere.”

Peter Putnicki, Senior Gardener for Seattle Japanese Garden doing pine candling in the Flat Garden. Photo by Portland Japanese Garden.

Putnicki also had kind words to say about Hugo Torii, the Garden Curator who oversees this group. “Hugo is so remarkably trained and talented and does it all in a way that has this very calm kind of humility,” he said. “He is shockingly skilled but never makes anybody feel bad about what they don’t know. I think that really interesting to be able to do that—it’s hard to balance.”

“I remember talking to him about the exchange program two years ago. He was helping lead a tour that [the North American Japanese Garden Association] did for gardeners in Japan. We were on the train from Tokyo to Kyoto and talked about the idea of a garden exchange program and how it would work. And here we are and I’m doing it.”

“I would absolutely highly recommend [participating in the guest gardener exchange],” Putnicki noted. “I think that especially for somebody who’s newer, an example of a well-organized, well-run large team that’s doing this work, you can take a lot from that, even if you’re not going to do the exact same things in your garden. Even if you don’t have something that’s in a different part of the country and you’re working with different plant material, you can still take a lot of those ideas back with you.”

Portland Japanese Garden has a mission of Inspiring Harmony and Peace. These words resonate with Putnicki, who is now back in Seattle. “Japanese gardens, in particular, are extremely emotionally resonant,” he concluded. “There is a lot of room in these gardens that allows you to consider and feel your fear and your sadness. You’re not being told to cheer up in this garden. You’re being told to have a full emotional experience. It’s not to just make you feel like everything’s great. It’s much more peaceful in a lot of ways than being kind of forced to swallow those bad feelings. You can have them safely here.”

Written by Will Lerner, Communications Manager for Portland Japanese Garden & Japan Institute.