By Meghan Hall
When John and Lilla Leach acquired a portion of an old sawmill outside of Portland in 1931, the pair worked tirelessly to turn the property into a blooming private garden, a tribute to their fascination with plants and botanicals native to the Pacific Northwest. The Leaches hoped to continue to cultivate their garden through the efforts of California-based landscape architect Wilbert Davies, but passed before their vision could be completed. Now, the 17-acre property is part of a Master plan project spearheaded by the City of Portland Parks & Recreation Department and Land Morphology to bring the botanical garden to its full potential. Phase 1 of the $31 million project, which will focus on establishing the upper garden and the spatial framework of the property, will be part of a larger effort to preserve the Leaches’ legacy in southeast Portland.
“It is exciting after all of the collaboration, hard work, visioning and hurdles to see implementation of Phase 1 development for the Upper Garden,” said Lindsey Heller, Land Morphology’s design principal and project manager in a statement. “Perfectly aligned with the new development happening in Southeast Portland, Leach Garden is an exciting opportunity to celebrate the new, reconnect with the past, and provide momentum for the future.”
In addition to Land Morphology and the City of Portland, the Leach Garden Friends, Olson Kunding Architects and Winterbrook Planning were involved in creating the Master Plan, as were numerous other engineering, consulting and cultural organizations. The goal of the project team, according to Richard Hartlage, owner of Land Morphology, was to take a sleepy, undiscovered slice of southeast Portland and transform it into a visible, engaging destination for those both locals and those visiting the Puget Sound to enjoy.
“Originally, the plans were done with an economic development grant because the City of Portland and Portland Parks are interested in investing in southeast Portland,” explained Hartlage. “They wanted to create an experience that is an asset to the local community citywide and courage tourism. Many other public gardens in Portland are culturally-based, so this has a wider appeal focused heavily on the Leaches’ legacy.”
Just south of Foster Rd. at 6704 SE 122nd Ave., the property has grown in size over the decades, from the original 4.5 acres acquired by the Leaches to the 17 now owned by the City today.
Phase One will include a new system of trails that reorganizes the gardens into various collections — separated into natives, exotics, display and themed varieties — for the first time. A 400-foot-long aerial tree walk through a native forest of western cedar and Douglas fir that will overlook the original Leach house and Johnson Creek is also included in the plans. The tree walk will be elevated 30 feet into the air, on the same level as the canopy of the native forest and is described in project plans as a curvilinear necklace that will begin from the Upper Garden and pollinator meadow and connect to the lower gardens.
“The whole point of the tree walk is that when you rise up off the ground, you feel like you’re not just looking at the trees, but that you are experiencing what that upper canopy and ecology was really like,” said Hartlage. “It will be very delicate; the walk itself is see-through so you feel like you’re floating.”
The Pollinator Meadow and Southwest Garden will also be completed as part of the first phase. The Pollinator Meadow will consist of a central gathering green framed by display gardens and the Welcome Center to the north and tree walk to the south, and the Southwest garden will also exhibit a unique display of regional and exotic plants. The Pollinator Garden alone is expected to have 240 unique taxa or different plant varieties. Later phases of the project will include iconic physic, alpine, fen and aquatic settings and continue to build upon the Leaches’ legacy by educating visitors about ecological and environmental stewardship.
The plan also delineates schemes for future site improvements and infrastructure, including utilities, storm water management, parking, and a fireside terrace for future events. The terrace will feature a solid roof with views of the tree walk and once completed, will be used for classes and rental opportunities.
“We wanted to amp it up and bring it forward and begin to play off of [the Leaches’] love of plants, the collections and their strong interest in the alpines, as well as the potential of the site,” said Hartlage of the garden’s future design. “It’s definitely through a modern lens, a modern aesthetic. [We wanted] something that was very visionary and out of the box that would compel people to come visit while also being financially and educationally sustainable into the future.”
Phase One is currently underway and is expected to be completed in June or July of 2020, according to Hartlage. When the entire project is complete, visitors will be able to learn about the preservation of the region’s cultural and native assets, as well as the Leaches’ lasting legacy in Portland.
“Leach Botanical Garden has arrived at an exciting nexus,” states the Master Plan. “It’s time to celebrate the past and embrace a bright and innovative vision of the future — a future that will establish the Garden as a vital cultural attraction in a historically underserved area of the city.”