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From Moss to the Machiai – The Natural Garden, a Silent Wonderment

Photo by Dina Avila

“Human beings are naturally drawn in like a forest.”

“In many ways, it feels like being in the Columbia River Gorge.”

Statements from our members and garden staff always seem to have a common theme when we ask them what makes the Natural Garden such a special place.

“The Natural Garden is the closest experience to the Gorge and a native forest you can get, but visitors don’t need to drive an hour to the Gorge to get it. They can just come here and immerse themselves in the forest,” said Garden Curator, Sadafumi Uchiyama.

Photo by Erica Heartquist

The Natural Garden is considered the most quiet and informal garden at Portland Japanese Garden. It was designed to encourage visitors to slow down and stroll the meandering pathways. Uchiyama said the passageways are intentionally designed for one person, so there are fewer people walking through at a time, creating a more private experience for each visitor.

Prior to the Cultural Crossing expansion in 2017, the Natural Garden was the most recent garden addition, redesigned in the early 1970’s and again in 1990. Like the name suggests, it’s natural. Most of the Garden staff will tell you it is not only their favorite garden, but one of the hardest to maintain, especially with pruning. Pruning in a natural way, without visitors noticing, takes an immense amount of skill.

“It’s funny how you have to work so hard to make something look natural. But that’s what I love about it. People will walk through here and they won’t see the work that I do, but they’ll experience it. That’s what it’s all about,” -Francheska Snyder, the gardener tasked with daily maintenance of the Natural Garden.

The most contemporary of the original five gardens, the hillside in the Natural Garden has been a challenge for several garden directors. Since the terrain is sloped, there have been irrigation issues over the years. “Irrigation is a big deal in the Natural Garden. Members will notice that the irrigation line work is now complete, but it took three and a half years to fix because there is only a short window when it’snot winter, we’re working while the Garden is still open, and we were dealing with the difficult slope,” said Uchiyama. Many visitors might not know that the area was originally planned as a moss garden. In the early 1970s, the Natural Garden was in direct, bright sunlight so gardeners were unable to successfully grow moss after several attempts.

Photo by Don Schwartz

Now? “Now it’s a perfect environment for the moss,” said Snyder. “The trees have grown up and around bringing in a lot of shade and dappled sunlight.” It took more than 40 years, but the trees and deciduous plants in the Natural Garden now envelope visitors as they walk through. But it’s not just the plants and moss that our visitors love about the Natural Garden. According to Uchiyama, the Natural Garden’s machiai (shown top left) is the most popular spot in all of Portland Japanese Garden, particularly in the summertime.

“Some people just go straight there and sit, especially the members, first thing in the morning. That’s where they go,” he said. Originally built around 1980, the machiai was handcrafted with traditional design and workmanship, without nails. This traditional design allows the structure to be replaced piece-by-piece rather than demolished, and it has been slated for renewal in 2020.

“We don’t concrete everything together. That way, we can pull each piece out as needed to repair it. Everything is built with special care especially without nails the first time around, so you can pull things out and repair as needed,” he said. The roof will undergo a renewal as well. “It’s a very private shelter and really gives you a sense of ownership so you are totally immersed in that space. It’s a key fixture in the Natural Garden.”

Donate now to be a part of helping renew the machiai.