Pacific Gardens

This is part two of my travel report through the Pacific Northwest. One of my goals for this trip was to visit several gardens. The climate along the coast of California, Oregon, and Washington is mediterranean: warm, sunny, with mild winters, and plenty of moist air from the ocean – in other words, the region is ideal for gardening! In this post I will share some pictures, and will briefly describe some of the gardens I visited.

About Gardens

Gardens are among the most interesting places in the world. They mediate our relationship with nature, and they are expressions of culture and human aspirations. They literally embody our vision for a better world.

  1. There are basic elements to every garden: rocks, water, trees, bushes and hedges, gates and fences, mosses, ferns, flowers, lights, sculptures, fountains, etc. Then there are design principles, for instance: symmetry, naturalness, vistas and horizons, vertical structures, integration with the home, and so on. Depending on the tradition, these elements are mixed in different ways. A Japanese garden will have no symmetry, and no flowering plants.

  2. Even though the garden consists of various elements, it is important to remember that the garden itself is a combination of elements – no single one is most important.

  3. Every garden is a unique creation which includes aspects of art, architecture, science, engineering, history, horticulture, and philosophy.

  4. The main purpose of any garden is to bring serenity, joy and nature into our crowded lives. They remind us of a natural landscape, but in fact they are carefully controlled by humans. Gardens are nature-inspired, but they do not grow naturally.

  5. The design and construction of a garden are only the first steps in a very long journey. The journey itself consists of guiding the garden through the seasons by pruning and grooming, and by developing it over the years, if not centuries. A century can be a short time in the life of a garden. The importance of long-term skilled care, and determination, year after year, should not be underestimated.

  6. It is hard to define what a garden really is. Maybe the use of a noun is already misleading: the emphasis should be more on the verb – gardening is something we do. Gardening is an interaction with life, but we design it and we give form to it.

  7. Ultimately, the purpose of a garden is to enhance the quality of human life. By skillfully guiding nature and bringing it into our homes, we create environments that have a life of their own. A garden is something holistic, and our relationship to it is emotional, it is a form of affection.

  8. Gardens also mediate between human action and contemplation, they are created as environments for contemplation and serious reflection. There are benches, open windows, resting places, or elevated outlook points.

  9. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, paradise itself is envisioned as a garden, as the environment in which we humans feel most at home.

  10. A Chinese proverb says: Life begins the day you start a garden.

Mendocino Botanical Garden

The first garden I visited on my drive along the coast up north was the Mendocino Botanical Garden in Fort Bragg. This is a small town of 7500 people, and started as a military installation during the American Civil War. You can reach it in about 4 hours by car from San Francisco. The small town of Mendocino, situated on coastal cliffs a little south of Fort Bragg, is a favorite tourist destination for people from the Bay Area. The botanical garden was started in 1961, and is breathtakingly beautiful; situated on 47 acres of land, overlooking the ocean. Here are some pictures, and here is the link to more photos.

Shore Acres Garden

Further north on the Oregon Coast, close to Coos Bay, is the small Shore Acres State Park, which houses 5 acres of formal gardens in a dramatic setting near the ocean cliffs. The garden was created by a rich timber baron, but since 1942, it belongs to the State of Oregon. The restoration and development started in 1970, and today the garden is really beautiful. It includes a Japanese lily pond, and offers ocean views and beach access. The rose garden, arranged in symmetrical flower beds by expert gardeners, is one of the most classy gardens I have ever seen.

Butchart Gardens in British Columbia

20 miles north of Victoria, on Vancouver Island in Canada, is a major attraction of the Pacific Northwest: Butchart Gardens. It is consistently ranked as one of the most beautiful gardens in the world, and can be visited year-round. It has over a million visitors per year. The gardens employ hundreds of full-time gardeners, operate 26 greenhouses, and spread on 55 acres near the ocean in a sheltered valley. The summers are warm and dry, with wet and cool winters. There is some frost during winter months, with occasional snowfalls. The gardens were created by Robert Pim and Jennie Butchart. The couple bought a property in 1904 as a convenient place to live while operating their adjoining limestone quarry. When the quarry closed in 1909, Jennie decided to make it into a garden which slowly became bigger and bigger. Her descendents continue to manage the gardens and additions are still in progress. Currently, there is an Italian Garden, a Japanese Garden, a Sunken Garden, a Rose Garden, a Star Pond with a French garden design, and several fountains.

Butchart Gardens maintain a high level of perfection in gardening. Every plant or flower is meticulously maintained and pruned, and flowerbeds are full with abundant blossoms, depending on the seasons. You can judge the amount of work by the absence of weeds or wilted leaves. What stands out in the variety of gardens is the sunken garden with is blooms and colors, arranged almost vertically. When people enter it by walking through the hedge that builds a natural gate, you can hear their astonishment and delight.

I left Butchart Gardens with several thoughts:

  • It takes at least a century and strong dedication over several generations of people to build such a masterpiece.

  • Humans attempt to reconcile themselves with nature by building gardens, but what looks so natural requires in reality tremendous work. Even minimalist Japanese gardens are very hard to maintain over time, and eventually the garden will return to nature.

  • Gardens are very popular; at a certain level of development, they become major tourist attractions. This creates a dynamic on its own: A garden also becomes a business.

  • Here is a link to the Butchart Gardens on Wikipedia, and here is the full photo page.

It’s interesting to compare between different garden cultures, and the following pictures will contrast three outstanding examples: a Classical Chinese Garden, a traditional Japanese Garden, and a modern American Garden. They are all located in Portland, Oregon.

Lan Su Chinese Garden

Poetically named Garden of Awakening Orchids, Lan Su Yuan, the Portland Classical Chinese Garden is the product of a city cooperation between Portland and the historic city of Suzhou, China. The garden is an example of Chinese garden culture that flourished in Suzhou during China’s Ming dynasty (1368-1644). The planning started in the 1980s, and the Garden finally opened in 2000, after a year-long construction process. Over 70 architects, landscape designers, and craftsmen from Suzhou designed and built the Garden in cooperation with their American counterparts. Most of the Garden’s structures and other landscape design elements had been handcrafted and shipped from China. More than 500 tons of stone and rock were brought in. Among these stones are highly valued Lake Tai stones from one of China’s largest freshwater lakes. They symbolize tall mountain peaks throughout the Garden’s landscape.

There are over 400 species of trees, orchids, water plants, perennials, bamboos, and unusual shrubs located throughout the garden. Most of these plants grow also in China, or have Chinese origins. The dominant feature is the artificial lake at the center of the garden. It also includes examples of typical structures common to Chinese gardens, for instance covered walkways, bridges, and pavilions with an open design.

In the classical Chinese tradition, each aspect of the garden should convey artistic effect and should have symbolic importance. The design principle is the harmony between yin and yang: water and stone, shadow and light, inside and outside, are balanced to manifest the Tao, the Way of Nature. The sound of water flowing over the rocks draws you away from the noise of the city; and the fragrant smells of jasmine, camellia, wintersweet, and other flowers are intended to awaken the senses throughout the seasons. Curved walkways, a bridge across the lake, and open pavilions provide visual structures from which visitors can observe or wander through a living landscape painting.

No Chinese garden is complete without artwork and poetry. Inscribed on rocks, doorways, buildings, and pavilions, poetry allows for a conversation across time and place between gardens, poets, and visitors. The Garden offers an authentic teahouse, and celebrates Chinese festivals throughout the year. Art exhibits and storytelling, tours, lectures, and concerts bring Chinese cultural traditions to the US. The following poem by Wen Zhengming, a Ming poet-artist (1470-1559) is inscribed on a panel in “Flowers Bathing in Spring Rain Pavilion”:

Most cherished in this mundane world is a place without traffic;

Truly in the midst of the city there can be mountain and forest.

Japanese Garden in Portland

Japanese Gardens have similar elements and design principles compared to the Chinese garden, but the results are strikingly different. What counts for the Japanese are taste, simplicity, quality, and natural patterns. They reject over-blown symbolism. They also want to create the garden as a whole – garden, house, and people should be integrated. The buildings and the garden should feel like two halves of a whole. In both traditions gardens are internal worlds: the view from inside the home is important, but the view from the street is not.

Many contemporary gardening ideas and trends come from Japan. These include the appreciation of bamboo, rock, sand, water, moss, koi, and aesthetically pruned trees. The interplay of these elements finds a beautiful expression in the Portland Japanese Garden. It covers 5.5 acres of land, and is currently expanded by another 3 acres. 1 It is designed for the visitor to realize a sense of peace, harmony, and tranquility, and to experience the feeling of being a part of nature.

Stones are an essential element in the creation of the garden. They don’t represent mountain tops like the Chinese garden philosophy suggested; but they are the “bones” of the landscape – good stone composition is essential for creating a well-designed Japanese garden. Water, the complementary element to stones, is the life-giving force. The Portland garden also uses symmetrically patterned sand, which symbolizes the ocean, or the formless element from which everything arises. Plants are the life of the garden, they form the tapestry of the four seasons. Trees are carefully selected and expertly pruned. The Japanese garden is asymmetrical, which creates a sense of naturalness, and it represents an idealized and often miniaturized nature. The garden aims to be close to the human scale, so that the visitor feels that he is a part of the environment, and not overpowered by it.

The planning for the garden started in 1963; it opened to the public in 1967. In 2004, the Journal of Japanese Gardening ranked it second out of 300 Japanese gardens outside Japan for highest quality, and the Japanese ambassador to the U.S. said: “I believe this garden to be the most authentic Japanese garden, including those in Japan.”

International Rose Test Garden

The Japanese Garden and the International Rose Test Garden in Portland are located in the same park, but they form the opposite ends of a spectrum, which makes their contrast so interesting. The Rose Garden has a linear, rectangular shape, and focuses on the beauty of roses, rich colors, and intoxicating fragrances. It is an operational test garden and evaluates individual plants in relation to each other – the outcome of this competition is very impressive. It houses over 7,000 rose plants of approximately 550 varieties. The roses bloom from April through October with the peak in June. The garden started in 1917, because Portland, which was already known as the “rose city,” decided to save some hybrid roses in Europe from the devastation of war and offered to house them. The garden was created on the slopes of a hill in Washington Park, and has 4.5 acres in several tiers, facing downtown Portland and the Willamette River. It is a collaboration between the Park service and the Portland Rose Society, which supplies the volunteers and the continuing enthusiasm for roses. There is a “Portland Rose Festival,” which happens in the first week of June, when the bloom is most spectacular.

New rose breeds are continually sent to the garden from many parts of the world in order to receive certificates or awards. 2 They are judged by eleven attributes: disease resistance, vigor, foliage proportion & attractiveness, plant habit, flowering effect/bloom abundance, rebloom habit, bloom form/attractiveness, aging quality of blooms, fragrance, hardiness, general impression. No fungicide spraying occurs; roses receive only basic maintenance and fertilization. The following pictures will give you only a partial impression, because you miss the fragrance.


  1. This expansion will cost an estimated 33.5 million

  2. Rose trials run for two years, and during the testing period, all roses are only identified by code numbers.