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The Shared Responsibility of Supporting Japanese Gardens

Portland Japanese Garden Senior Gardener gestures toward a maple in the Strolling Pond Garden as he discusses plans with guest gardener Jose Gonzales of Seattle Japanese Garden.

Portland Japanese Garden Welcomes 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.”

Garden Curator Hugo Torii.

“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.”

“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.”

Garden Curator Hugo Torii

Gardeners from Portland Japanese Garden, of course, participate in this reciprocal program as well, with members of the team having worked elsewhere, such as Seattle Japanese Garden. After welcoming gardeners from the Japanese Garden in Lake Sacajawea Park in Longview, Washington and the Richard & Helen DeVos Japanese Garden at the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 2022, Portland Japanese Garden welcomed its first guest gardener of 2023: Jose Gonzales of the aforementioned Seattle Japanese Garden.

Click here to read about a participant in the Professional Gardener Work Exchange Program in in 2022.

Gonzales has been with Seattle Japanese Garden as one of its gardeners since 2022. Still new to the field, Gonzales entered the horticultural field in a nontraditional manner. “I got my start in gardening through painting,” he shared in a conversation with Garden staff. “I was studying impressionists: Monet, Pissarro, Cézanne. I was impressed that they could create a garden and then paint their garden. I started getting into gardening through Impressionism, then moved into a house where I had a space to do gardening. I just immersed myself in it.”

Eager to expand his skills, Gonzales was very excited when a new learning opportunity was presented to him. “Hugo made contact with [Seattle Japanese Garden Head Gardener Pete Putnicki] and they talked about the exchange,” Gonzales shared. “Pete was really into it. Last fall we had one of Portland Japanese Garden’s gardeners here, Caleb [Hendrickson], during our November pine pruning. I jumped at the opportunity to come to Portland, to work in another garden with another team, and see what their approaches would be.”

Jose Gonzales prunes a maple tree in Portland Japanese Garden’s Strolling Pond Garden.

“I was surprised by the slopes and elevation changes,” Gonzales said, sharing his first impressions of Portland Japanese Garden. “The Flat Garden is stunning. I was really struck by the Natural Garden, too. I love the pathways and the stonework that is done there. I like all the different materials they use. And the Heavenly Falls? Wow! Amazing. That’s stunning. It’s like you are looking at a Japanese painting.”

“This garden is very dramatic and intense,” he continued. “It’s demanding a lot from the gardeners – I like that. I like it when the bar is raised. When I came here, I saw how very focused and disciplined the gardeners are. They’re also super open, super friendly, and very welcoming. I just wanted to fit right in and throw myself in there.”

Gonzales would spend his week in a variety of locales throughout the Garden’s 12 acres. He sheared azaleas and boxwood, set stones (“the essence of Japanese gardening”), raked the Flat and Sand and Stone Gardens, pruned maples, built fences, and participated in a special exercise titled “Gazing at the Roji,” an activity that took place in the Tea Garden that encouraged Gonzales and the staff of the Garden Department to experience the space from a visitor’s perspective. “That was a wonderful exercise because it put us in the mindset of someone who has never seen the Garden before,” Gonzales shared. “As gardeners working in a particular garden, we become so familiar with everything that we can lose sight of what it is to see it with fresh eyes. That exercise [Garden Department Administrative Manager Kanako Yanagi] led was just awesome.”

Jose Gonzales (right) alongside Portland Japanese Garden Lead Gardener Jacob Knapp (middle) and Gardener Jonathon VanderSloot participating in a Garden Department exercise.

Working with Torii was a high note for Gonzales. “I love getting feedback from him,” Gonzales said. “Of course, you want to make sure what you’re doing will get a [passing grade]. And when you get the pass from someone like Hugo, you’re like, ‘Alright! Sounds good!’ But I’m always looking for feedback. What can I improve? And he was willing to give that to me, which is so helpful because now I can take that with me. Now that I’ve built more skill here, I want to take that energy and keep that growth going, not only for Seattle Japanese Garden but also my own garden.”

Gonzales responded enthusiastically when asked if he would recommend this program to other practitioners. “It’s so important, I think, to give you different perspectives, give you new ideas, new thoughts, new ways of thinking, or different ways of thinking of something you’re already familiar with. I loved hearing from all the gardeners.”

Gonzales demonstrated one of the most important qualities of those seeking to improve their skills and techniques in Japanese gardening: beginner’s mind. This approach asks even the more seasoned practitioner to place aside their experience and take the work on with fresh eyes and an open heart. “I now know a little bit about Japanese gardening, but I am just going to be like a sponge. I just want to soak it all up and have no pre-judgment of how things should go,” he shared.

Gardener Jose Gonzales of Seattle Japanese Garden.

Portland Japanese Garden’s Garden Department has ten individuals who are responsible for all 12 acres of the organization’s space in Washington Park. In addition to their duties that include all phases of landscape maintenance, plant care, and oversight of the structures in the garden spaces, they help enrichen the Garden by participating in professional training that improves not only their skills, but their colleagues as well.