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A man for all roses

Test garden expert nurtures, protects and grades city's beauties

When he retires at the end of June, Daryl Johnson plans to tend his roses.

Given that he's been curator of the International Rose Test Garden for 18 years, that's what you call commitment.

'One thing I won't miss is people coming up to me while I'm working on a rose and saying, 'Do they pay you to do this?' ' he says. 'I get that a lot.'

Walk with him up the path from his office behind the soccer field in Washington Park at 9 in the morning, and it's easy to think Johnson has the best job in Portland. Beneath the sequoias and Douglas firs, the gravel road is lost in green shadows. When he emerges into the sunshine, the air is crisp, the sky powder blue.

Johnson's stroll winds up the hill and past the children's playground, until everything is laid out before him: the terraces of the rose garden, the downtown skyline, Mount Hood.

Portland was the Rose City long before the classic rose garden was opened in 1917, thanks to its 200 miles of rose-bordered streets.

It's the climate.

'I grew up in Kansas, where roses would freeze in winter and would fall into summer dormancy in the summer heat,' says Johnson, 54.

At age 6 in Lindsborg, Kan. (population 3,000), he had his own garden. He tended the popular 1940s roses of a neighbor 'Sutter's Gold' and 'Peace' and a few shrub roses on his family farm.

In 1971, he moved here and in 1973 became a downtown gardener with Portland Parks & Recreation. At that time, as now, all the city's gardeners were enlisted to help prune and remove the dead blooms from roses during the fall, so he got to learn the craft.

In 1979, he acquired his current position as top rose gardener, a job that has expanded over the years.

The rose garden curator is responsible for Portland's three main rose gardens: the International Rose Test Garden in Washington Park; Ladd's Addition, at Southeast 16th Avenue and Harrison Street; and Peninsula Park, at 700 N. Portland Blvd. Because of budget cuts, he also has to look after the Pittock Mansion's garden, at 3229 N.W. Pittock Drive, and all 130 acres of Washington Park.

There are three terraces containing about 9,000 rose bushes at the park. The second terrace, with about 200 entries, makes up the test garden. Well-known rose varieties are spread throughout the rest of the garden.

Although he looks stylish in his stylish shirts and straw Stetson hat, life for Johnson is no Smith & Hawken commercial. He manages large crews of staff and volunteers for edging beds, fertilizing plants, spraying pesticides and deadheading, as well as answering questions from the public:

'The number one question is, 'Where can I buy this rose?' '

But he still takes time to stop and smell the roses. All 9,000 of them.

'I never get tired of working with roses,' he says. He joins the paid staff and 60 volunteers in the task of deadheading from June through September. The staff also performs topping, which means cutting them down to 3 feet high for the winter in the third week of November, and final pruning in February, when the gardeners decide which canes need to be cut off.

'Some people think deadheading is boring, but I love the chance to get up close to a plant and see how it's doing.'

The test of time

The International Rose Test Garden is the oldest official, continuously operated public rose test garden in the United States. Three prominent nurserymen met in Portland and decided that it was the perfect spot for an American test garden. It was designed as a safe haven for European roses that might be bombed into extinction in World War I.

Since then it has flourished, becoming the jewel in Portland's tourist crown, with half a million visitors a year.

The United States has 23 other test gardens, where growers send new roses to see if they might be commercially viable.

As an official tester, Johnson studies 14 attributes, including, he says, 'flower form, bud form, plant habit, disease resistance, color, novelty, fragrance and personal opinion.'

Fragrance is a recessive gene in roses, which means that two scented roses can be crossed and produce one with no smell.

'People seem to think modern roses have no fragrance, so we have to explain that a lot,' he says.

They also want to know if there are any pure black or blue roses. 'There aren't,' Johnson responds. 'A black rose would absorb heat and light and get cooked; we're not interested in that. Also, there's no true blue pigment in rose genes. Science is trying to splice genes in, so maybe in the future. For now the 'Black Jade' (which is black in the bud stage, but deep red like wine) is as dark as they come.'

The roses are Johnson's No. 1 priority for three reasons: They draw many visitors, the test program is prestigious, and they are high-maintenance plants.

The last quality means they cost money. The park brings in about $10,000 a year from its metal donation boxes. It also receives 90 percent of the profits from the new rose garden store, which is administered by the Portland Rose Festival Association.

Good intentions

Back in his office, which has the shabby chic of local government photocopied cartoons, steel filing cabinets, stewed coffee Johnson tries to explain his role. Money flows in mysterious ways at the rose garden. Johnson, who considers the park near-perfect, is especially proud of the way he has kept it the same during his tenure.

'There's a tendency for people to try to donate money to add things to the garden sculptures and what have you,' he says. 'I've tried to keep a lot of that out.'

He turned down an overly stylized statue of a woman that just did not fit in. People often offer to pay for new rose beds with their name on a plaque, but he doesn't like losing the freedom to pull out a plant if need be.

'Often they're not really rose lovers,' he says.

Johnson is leaving to run the Wave Crest Hotel, a 1920s gem he bought in Cannon Beach. The salt air and moisture there make growing roses difficult, but he's sure he'll find something usable in the rose test garden's 550 varieties.

And his personal favorites? He grows nothing right now, because he lives in an apartment off Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard. But when he lived on Northeast Schuyler Street, they included 'All That Jazz,' 'Sally Holmes,' 'Little Darling' and Rosa rugosa.

Anyone who fancies being Portland's next rose garden curator had better cram for the civil service exam. When he was hired, Johnson had to answer five essay questions and sit through a formal interview, although there was no practical exam.

Being a shrinking violet is not an option.

'You really have to like doing public presentations,' he says.

If that's not a Rose City ambassador, what is?

Contact Joseph Gallivan at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .