Gresham's natural sanctuary
Paul Siefert first discovered the Gresham Japanese Garden last fall while looking to de-stress in the midst of his move to Multnomah County.
He was feeling overwhelmed by unpacking boxes and trying to get settled in his new home, so he ventured out that first afternoon seeking refuge. What he discovered is a tucked-away green space in the heart of Gresham.
"It was the most beautiful place I had seen," Siefert said. "I knew right away I wanted to help out."
So Siefert joined a dedicated group of volunteers who support the Tsuru Island Japanese Garden — working hard weekly through inclement weather and a global pandemic to maintain the space and provide a beautiful place for those similarly seeking an escape.
The Japanese Garden, located in the middle of Main City Park, 219 S. Main Ave., was reborn in the spring of 2014 after thousands of volunteer hours led to a new design. The centerpiece was the reconstruction of a new purple heart wooden bridge that serves as the gateway to Tsuru Island. Since then, more development has turned the Japanese Garden into a destination in Gresham.
The Gresham Japanese Garden has also split into its own nonprofit organization, breaking from the Gresham-Ebetsu Sister City Association to simplify things financially for both sides.
Volunteers care for four sites: Tsuru Island; Ebetsu Plaza, the entryway to Main City Park via the Springwater Corridor Trail; a newly constructed greenhouse that operates as a teaching space and center for plant sales; and the Ambleside Annex on the far end of the spur trail, which will soon receive a revamp to make it more appealing for visitors.
"This is a destination people want to visit," said Jim Card, director of the Gresham Japanese Garden. "They come to hear the running water, see the beautiful colors, and take their mind somewhere else."
It is the volunteers who keep the gardens pristine. They prune, weed, clean, remove graffiti, sweep, build new structures and do whatever else is needed to care for the greenspace. The work has been more crucial than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the number of visitors has skyrocketed with people seeking respite from the doldrums of social distancing.
The main work day is Saturday — referred to as Saturday Garden Days. A team of volunteers come together to help from 9 a.m. to noon, practicing proper social distancing while in the garden. Those who want to join the group, or need an excuse to get out of the house for a few hours, are more than welcome. Gloves and tools are available to borrow.
Hundreds of volunteers have rotated through, with about 20 regularly visiting the park. Since 2011, the group has completed more than 25,000 volunteer hours in the gardens. Some have been unable to help during the pandemic, including students with the Gresham-Barlow Adult Living Program who were pioneers in the greenhouse.
"I've always had a major appreciation for our volunteers — nothing would happen without them," Card said. "We are lucky they are here."
Lending a hand
Alyson Huntting first started volunteering in late 2017, and has since become a crucial force in the greenhouse.
She is helming the new plant sale that takes place on Saturdays, cultivating the plants and putting on her best saleswoman cap when visitors duck into the greenhouse. One of the most popular items have been the "Main City Tomatoes." All of the money sold through the plant sale is put back into the program.
"Volunteering in the garden is a way to get out of the house — being here is like being in a whole new world," Huntting said. "The time gets away from you."
Like Huntting in the greenhouse, many of the volunteers take ownership of projects. Siefert drew on his construction background to craft the tables in the greenhouse, and Ron Ture has been spearheading the planting of Japanese maple trees along a fence that separates the Springwater Trail from the park.
Ture, who is heavily involved with the Gresham-Ebetsu Sister City Association, is one of the longest serving volunteers, having been alongside Card during the reimagining of the garden.
"I like to work outdoors, these are all great people," Ture said. "We get so many visitors who compliment the garden and are appreciative of what we do."
It is those visitors that keep the volunteers excited to continue lending a hand at the Gresham Japanese Garden.
One afternoon last month, in the middle of the pandemic's peak, Card visited with two women while weeding on Tsuru Island. He learned they were visiting on a day trip from Gig Harbor, Washington, and had discovered the natural space after searching online for picnic spots.
A few weeks later Card chatted with a professional photographer, who had stumbled on the garden and was happily taking photos with his phone, enamored with the blossoming Akebono cherry trees planted in Ebetsu Plaza to honor Gresham's sister city in Japan.
"(The photographer) said, 'I'll be back with my equipment — this place is stunning,'" Card remembered with a smile. "Hearing that is so encouraging."
To volunteer or learn more about the Gresham Japanese Garden, visit greshamjapanesegarden.com
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