Week #39: Portland Parks/Horticulturist

in Job Update

My superhuman and fabulous leaders this week:  Parks Supervisor,  Danielle (Dani) Ferguson,  and  Lead Maintenance Horticulturist, Robin Akers

It was a real coup to score this Parks gig.  I was referred to Dani from another Parks supervisor who knew I wanted to spend a week working with plants.  Even with her ridiculously busy schedule (along with being a Parks Supervisor, she also owns and runs a nursery in St. Paul:  www.fragrantnursery.com), Dani somehow found the time to answer one of my many phone calls.   She graciously offered me a one week stint learning about horticulture and what it takes to maintain the downtown parks and get them ready for Rose Festival— chiefly, our  massive, gorgeous and urban Washington Park.

Dani is one of the warmest, exuberant people I’ve ever met (according to Robin: “she’s without a doubt the most positive person around”).  I was greeted with a big bear hug as we commiserated about losing loved ones (she lost her husband two years ago), and she told me about her love for nature and animals (she has a three-legged lab that she is looking to place in a good home–ohhhh so tempting).  I knew after meeting her–and after working with her for a week–that this is a woman I’d like to keep in touch with–and a boss I’d love to work for,



 Robin and I drove up to Pittock Mansion to work with the Monday Master Gardeners– volunteers who clean up and beautify the plants around the Mansion

Robin was given the daunting responsibility all week of not only teaching me about plants and planting, but giving me doable tasks for a beginner.  Robin is a soft-spoken mentor and one of the hardest working guys I’ve met; his job is one of constant physical labor and I watched him quietly and steadfastly put in long hours day after day–and all this with two hip replacements, a fused ankle and arthritis in the other one.  He made my week so comfortable and enjoyable with his interesting conversation (he too loves Fresh Air with Terry Gross!), pointing out plants along the way (“look at our conifer and heather garden”)and chuckling as we rode in his truck and worked side by side.  In addition, I discovered nooks and crannies of Washington Park (410 acres) that I never knew existed.

Worked with Master Gardener Beasts, Connie and Leslie, to clear a bank for planting

Me clearing the bank

De-heading rhodies                                                                      Getting doggie love



One of the best things about working in the Park all week  was arriving early in the morning and smelling those sweet nature smells, listening to the birds and being in a green, calm oasis before “customers” arrived.  This, to me, is the ideal work environment.

On this day, Robin and I started out the morning by weeding the grounds of the Holocaust memorial.  I used my hands and gloves; Robin used an electric weed-eater: ” One of my rules is don’t waste your energy using your own strength if a machine can do it better.”  As we worked, Robin pointed out trees and plants and gave a wealth of information and history about each one.  His favorite tree is the Eastern White Pine; evidently one of the ways the British tried to sock it to the colonies (apologies, my British friends…) was to fell all the Eastern white pines and use them for ship masts.  Thus, our first flag depicted this beautiful tree.

Eastern White Pine

My handiwork at the peaceful and poignant Holocaust Memorial

We headed to the Pearl district to assess a new park, The Fields, that had only been open a month.  We met up with Dani, Lance (the other Master Horticulturist) and Susan, who worked with the contrators responsible for planting the park.  I learned first-hand the challenges of constructing a park such as this.  First, the soil is on an industrial waste site, so the plants ( with help from their humans)have to work extra hard to survive,  Second, it is often the case that groups are at cross-purposes, e.g. horticulturists’ expertise is sometimes put on the back burner of development.


Our group at The Fields;  ribbons tied  to signify dying plants; inspecting “street tree” to see if getting enough water

 We walked around the park inspecting every plant’s health (hundreds of plants) and designing an action plan for the ones faring poorly, and I heard comments such as: *These plants may not doing well because of the sun and the angle of the slope, *These’ll get over a foot tall which may not be the best right by the path, *This weed just takes over–it’s super hard to pull, *This is invasive and came in the pot–it was not here to start with, *Why is this plant in the sun and all by itself?  I don’t know how competitive it will be, *This tree is looking a bit unhealthy–the water system may not be funneling water next to the root ball.  These folks are plant lovers  Truly.  These are people who know about, value, care for and do everything they can to help plants  thrive.  The plants are lucky to have their love.



As Robin and I drove through the park, we stopped at Pittock Mansion to gather and haul debris from Monday’s work and water “our” bank to get ready for planting.  We then drove to the Vietnam Memorial to check on the plants and soil there.  An oft-repeated quiet lament from Robin was that because of City budget cuts, the park is down to a reduced crew that is stretched thin to adequately maintain this huge space.

 One of Robin’s jobs is to shepherd the many groups who volunteer their time to help pick up the slack and keep up the grounds (for instance  Master Gardeners, court-ordered community service groups, prison inmates, boy scouts and the Portland Garden Club to name a few).  Of course, they all adore him (I heard him called Sweet Robin, and Angel Robin which is probably going to make him blush when he reads this).

Robin and assistant, Tommy, inspecting sprinkler system.  During the economic downturn, Tommy lost his job co-owning a restaurant –and along with it, his boats, his house and all the perks from that lifestyle.  He found his way to his current job in Parks and now says that he is grateful for losing everything because he has found his passion and loves this job!

DAY 4 & 5

My biggest task this week was to assist Robin in re-planting the front bed of Washington Park (for you Portlanders, it is the flower slope behind the stone wall that you first see as you wind to the top of Salmon St.).  After loading plants, equipment and mulch into the truck (and then unloading!), Robin and I dug holes, pruned and fed roses, and prepared the soil for planting.  Discovery: working on a steep slope is hard on the ankles and knees!

 Unloading mulch                                                                  Feeding smallest roses                                                      Planting grasses on edges

We worked with a community service group (court-ordered) to finish up the project–it was awesome to see how many hands made our creation go quickly!

Front flower plot finished!  So proud:)

For our last task, Robin took me to the “Himalayan Cloud Forest”–an incredible three year endeavor that has seen a huge hillside of unruly forest filled with homeless camps (one deceased camper was  found…) become a pristine, state-of the art creation that includes over 200 varieties of rhododendrons among other plants.  According to Robin, this has been a daunting but highly rewarding project;  I recommend checking it out!

Cloud Forest: getting ready to plant in the hole Robin dug (with his electric tool, of course!)

On my last hour at the park, I walked up to the Rose Garden to take in some of the festivities with the Rose Princesses and join in the crowd that had come to see the park and the goings on:


I didn’t stay long as crowds are not really my thing–but as I observed people enjoying the beauty of the park and the roses, I felt ownership in the care and dedication that goes into maintaining this magnificence.  I now know firsthand the passion and expertise of the Parks staff–and how, with limited resources, they are doing all they can to keep Portland parks beautiful.

 I’ve always noticed that those who work in the outdoors–in nature–seem calm, energized and alive.  As I walked down the serene forested path away from the crowds –back to my car to head home –this is how I felt.  I loved working with Robin and Dani this week, and I loved working in nature.  I’ll be back…stay tuned:)


Favorite rose and tree in the park

Park kitty, Bailey (cared for by maintenance staff:)


  • cheryl

    Wow! I could just feel the air and smell the dirt and flowers in your writing! And they have a Park kitty? I think I need to apply to work there!

  • yiha

    What a great week, what a great time to be in such an amazing park working outdoors with a great team. This weeks gives deeper meaning to being “hands on.”…yiha