Nine thousand daffodils dance along a busy street near Portland. In the April rain, their numbers seem to double in the street's wet reflection as they illuminate what horticulture can do to unite an urban community.
We expect today's urban landscapes to do more than what was asked of victory gardens or back-to-nature lifestyles decades ago. City plants must flourish without chemicals or additional water, squeeze into small spaces, feed the hungry, and soften the edges of concrete and asphalt.
Terry Moore's urban horticulture story began eight years ago on Oleson Road in Garden Home, a Portland suburb where she lives. "Oleson Road was to be widened and 450 trees cut down," she said, "and there was nothing we could do about it." The street was slated to become a three-lane truck route, bringing more traffic and exhaust to the three neighborhoods it connects.
Although the trees would have to come down and the street widened, the Garden Home Crossing Committee requested flowers and shrubs, not asphalt and concrete, in the new medians and public right-of-way. The manager of the Oleson project offered to work with the Garden Home community, but they would have to contribute time and money to create the landscape.
Phones started ringing, and soon neighbors were organizing to buy plants, raise money to put in irrigation, and do the work. The Oregon State University Extension office in Washington County helped with funding under an agreement with the county. OSU Master Gardeners Mary Reece and Sally McCormick advised how to design the gardens with native plants that could thrive in Portland weather. Boy Scouts proved effective at "pull and destroy" against blackberry and English ivy. It was a community adventure.
The daffodils and flowering bushes are now well established in flowerbeds along Oleson Road, tended throughout the year by volunteers. "So often people build a fence against the street and live behind it," Moore said. "This street connects me with the people of my community and the landscaping creates a safer street."
Urban horticulture is redefining the relationship of people and landscapes, and OSU's new Oak Creek Center for Urban Horticulture is helping prepare students for this growing market. As head of OSU's horticulture department, Anita Azarenko envisioned a place where students could kneel on the ground, get their hands dirty, and satisfy their desire to grow their own food. She found that place at OSU's Bee Research Lab, an oasis of honeyed tranquility on the edge of campus and surrounded by a tangle of overgrown vegetation.
Now, where neglected trees once stood, students and volunteers help tend organic produce under three greenhouse-like high tunnels, donating boxes of fruits and vegetables to the Linn Benton Food Share throughout the season. "Students who have never worked in a garden get to experiment with their own plots and greenhouse space," said Oak Creek manager Al Shay.
It's also a place to test new urban landscapes, such as a vertical garden Shay is developing for places that lack much horizontal ground. He stoops to trim a few dead branches as he explains the "living fence" that runs the length of a wire fence. "As we plant trees and shrubs next to the fence, we not only produce fruit and nuts, but provide a green space that can sequester carbon dioxide and reduce heat, noise, and air pollution," he said. He's also developing a "green tower," with seven times more planting space than its footprint, ideal for small backyards in urban areas.
Brightly colored flowers invite visitors to walk the rows at the Oak Creek Center's field trials, where researchers are monitoring the performance of many kinds of annual bedding plants for flower breeders who have contracted with the center. Nearby, Shay is also experimenting with the effects of biochar, the charcoal-like material created by burning woody debris at high-temperatures in a low-oxygen environment. Tilled into the top layer of soil, he is measuring biochar's ability to retain moisture and increase microbial activity and crop yields.
Behind the Bee Lab, experiments test a variety of vegetated rooftops—in this case, elevated platforms without the buildings underneath, where John Lambrinos, a landscape ecologist at OSU, tests the suitability of plants that might be grown atop city buildings. "Vegetated roofs can moderate storm water, provide cooling in cities, refresh the air and provide habitat for pollinators and other beneficial insects."
And the creek that winds through the center, Oak Creek itself, is a subject of study. Students in Lambrinos' ecological restoration class created a restoration plan to remove invasive plants and replant native varieties. "The classical view of urban horticulture has been only the aesthetic value of plants, in isolation from nature," Lambrinos said. "But we've come to realize that horticulture is an interaction between plants and people, and many feel that gardening provides spiritual relief. There has been a disconnect in urban areas, and people recognize that it's important to reconnect our everyday lives with nature."
Weston Miller, an OSU Extension horticulturist in Portland, is helping that reconnection. More than 40 community gardens have sprouted in Portland, where vegetables grown on large lots help feed the community, and edible landscapes are replacing suburban lawns. Miller works closely with these community gardens. One of his favorites is the Learning Garden, where last year students with disabilities grew their own dahlias and daffodils and delivered cut flowers by bicycle to area businesses.
"Many people in their 20s and 30s have moved to Portland to be part of growing food and to feel they are in control of what they eat and drink," Miller said. "Urban areas, where land has been degraded and soils compacted, now have many opportunities to harvest peoples' passion for a slice of beauty."
The colors of urban horticulture change as you drive east into the high plains of central Oregon, and water—or lack of it—becomes a vital community issue. Amy Jo Detweiler, a horticulturist with OSU Extension in Deschutes County, teaches gardeners how to design xeriscapes that not only conserve water but also add beauty and fragrance to public areas and private homes.
Xeriscapes are not what you'd see in a desert, Detweiler said. Landscape designers can choose from hundreds of plants, from ornamental grasses to edible serviceberry, and perennial flowers of all colors and shapes. Many are native to Oregon; some attract butterflies and birds; and most resist fire and perform well with little irrigation. With xeriscapes, residential water use for landscaping can be reduced by as much as 60 percent.
To help people get started, Detweiler wrote a 36-page booklet with Bend public works director Patrick Griffiths. Eight mayors in the Bend-Redmond area supported the project with funds to publish and distribute 30,000 copies of An Introduction to Xeriscaping in the High Desert.
"The urban horticulture movement is not a fashion statement," said James Cassidy, an OSU crop and soil science instructor. "It's not just for hippies anymore. All kinds of people of all ages love the idea that they can grow their own food, and they have a better understanding of what it's all about," he said. For more than a decade that passion has fueled OSU's Organic Growers
Club, a student-run organic farm a few miles from campus. Cassidy serves as the faculty advisor, marketing director, and inspiration for the club's 300 members who run the farm and the 400 community clients who buy the students' organic vegetables.
Azarenko, too, has witnessed the evolution of urban horticulture. "We used to think from farm to fork," she said, "but we've expanded the idea to include soil and soul." People in Oregon's urban areas are discovering huge emotional benefits as they watch seeds push through the soil, create pleasing and environmentally friendly landscapes, and harvest generously for their communities.
Learn to make Al Shay's green tower.