The Oregon Garden, located in Silverton, Oregon, was founded by influential members of the Oregon Association of Nurseries to showcase the beauty of ornamental plants, promote Oregon’s nurseries, and demonstrate the economic benefits of the Oregon nursery industry—a billion-dollar economic powerhouse. The climate of the state is ideal for growing a wide diversity of plants, from sod to shade trees, and it’s estimated that 75-80% of the plants grown in Oregon are exported to other states. Oregon is the top producer in the United States for ornamental and flowering trees and only California and Florida have greater plant production statistics.
Silverton Becomes the Garden’s Home
Now known as Oregon’s “Garden City,” Silverton is a former logging town with a charming downtown and close proximity to Oregon’s popular hiking destination, Silver Falls State Park. A twenty-minute drive from Salem, the state capital, and an hour from Portland, the state’s most populated city, it can feel off the beaten path for some travelers. But that is what makes it a perfect destination for those looking for a respite from urban life.
During the 1990s, the City of Silverton found their treated wastewater was too warm to be able to release downstream. The water’s temperature, when combined with creek flow, made the creek uninhabitable for salmon. Facing large fines from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, they needed a method to cool the water before returning it to the watershed. As a solution, the Silverton Wastewater Treatment Plant and The Oregon Garden Foundation explored a plan to combine both their goals. When the Garden’s task force visited the proposed garden site, they witnessed the breathtaking view from the top of the property. Now called the Garden at the Axis Fountain, the site offers views of the expanse of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and in winter, snowcapped mountains in the distance. With the promise of free irrigation water, a garden partnership was born.
The city-owned land parcel was a former Arabian horse ranch. It included a 200-year-old remnant Oregon white oak savannah, natural wetlands, and a Christmas tree farm. The original horse arena became the property’s largest event space, the J. Frank Schmidt Jr. Pavilion, named for the founder of one of Oregon’s most influential tree-growing companies and an avid supporter of the project. The Pavilion houses countless community events, conventions, weddings, and the Oregon Association of Nurseries Hall of Fame.
Plant Collections and Wildlife Areas
It took four years to construct the garden, and in 2001 it opened to the public. Via artfully designed demonstration gardens, The Oregon Garden shows visitors the results possible when landscape design is combined with environmental mitigation. The 80-acre garden contains more than twenty unique garden designs ranging from classical to modern, and educational demonstration plantings with interpretive signs about growing edible ornamentals, composting, and how to protect your landscape and home from wildfire.
The mission of The Oregon Garden is to celebrate the biodiversity that thrives in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and to provide garden education to gardeners of all skill levels. The property includes plantings for drought-tolerant gardens and a large natural area. These minimally-maintained areas include the endangered Oregon white oak prairie and savannah, the land surrounding the wetlands, and areas of unmanaged woodland.
The crown jewel of the property is the renowned Conifer Garden, an American Conifer Society Reference Garden. Within one acre there are 3,000 taxa of plants. The Conifer Garden displays the immense variety of increasingly popular dwarf conifers developed by the horticulture industry. There is a sub-collection of rare witch’s brooms, with unusual perennials planted among the conifers.
Horticultural biodiversity abounds throughout the property, from manicured formal beds, culinary and medicinal herbs, to roses, tropical foliage, and expansive open landscapes. Some unique specimens can be found throughout the premises, including a 400-year-old oak tree, a sequoia that survived a lightning strike, and a rare collection of Northwest native trilliums. The variety and complexity provides visitors with a rare opportunity to expand their knowledge of gardens and plants.
The entire living plant collection includes an estimated 8,000 distinct plants. Each year over 40,000 annuals and vegetables are grown on-site by the horticulture department to fill the summer season with color and the Silverton Market Garden with fresh produce.
The Oregon Garden Today
Unlike gardens of comparable size, The Oregon Garden was not founded from an historic home and did not possess a large endowment nor belong to a government park system. At the official groundbreaking in 1997, The Oregon Garden was unprecedented in its public-nonprofit partnership, and built entirely with donations and development grants.
Events take place throughout the year, bringing new visitors to the property. Guests who stay overnight at the neighboring Oregon Garden Resort are able to enter the Garden from sunrise to sunset, providing them a most memorable experience. The Oregon Garden Resort also produces a Christmas event based on traditional German winter festivals that boasts over one million holiday lights for attendees to enjoy.
Being forty miles outside of the Portland metropolitan area has made it challenging to attract large crowds to the Garden. The early years were full of press and interest, free admission was offered, and membership sales increased annually. But, as with many public gardens, it is an ongoing effort to obtain funding for operations and continuing development.
The wetlands remain as an essential infrastructure function to the City’s water treatment. During the summer, the effluent water is used to maintain the Garden’s wetland ponds and distributed as irrigation to the 80 developed acres. The water system is unprecedented for its innovation, and it continues to win national awards for sustainability and wastewater mitigation.
The Oregon Garden consistently attracts over 100,000 visitors annually. In 2019 an economic development award from Marion County secured a new tram. The Oregon Garden is one of only a handful of botanical gardens to include an extremely popular narrated tram tour with garden admission. The tram and the miles of smooth paths provide ADA-compliant access for those who might not otherwise be able to visit. Things were looking favorable at the beginning of 2020.
The impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic stressed both operations and fundraising. The annual Spring Garden Gala was canceled in April 2020, significant layoffs were necessary, and the Garden closed. After a seven-week closure, the re-opening brought heightened awareness of the Garden’s benefit to the public as a safe outdoor space for respite in difficult times. The Garden easily allows physical distance and has ample space for walking. Modified events are now scheduled, such as drive-in movies and small concerts. The Garden offers the community a reprieve from the stress of home isolation. Many amenities however, including the tram, have been put on hiatus for the remainder of 2020.
Future goals for The Oregon Garden include a publicly accessible online plant database, giving visitors the ability to learn about all the plants at the Garden from anywhere in the world. The database will also allow for tracking and documentation of research on the effects of climate change on cultivated plants. The Oregon Garden Foundation is updating its collections policy and applying for national accreditation for the many unique plant collections.
As the climate changes throughout the world and on the Pacific Coast, public gardens have the potential to educate our residents and visitors about the impact of climate change and best practices to adapt and mitigate it if possible. The Garden faced the all-too-real symptoms of climate change when Silverton and surrounding communities were evacuated when threatened by the Beachie Creek Fire in September of 2020.
While The Oregon Garden has remained important to Oregon’s tourism community for over twenty years, there is now a new aspect of our work. As species extinction escalates and becomes a very tangible threat to biodiversity, the benefit of a living plant collection for botanical conservation steadily increases. Despite growing pains along the way, The Oregon Garden continues to grow and mature, and remains committed to its educational mission.
Learn more at www.oregongarden.org