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Bright light, amazing flowers

Glorious garden was devised as an answer to city's sewage woes

With 17 distinct areas, seven stunning water features and thousands of plants, the Oregon Garden makes the state's must-see list for an estimated 200,000 visitors a year.

The 70 acres are loaded with color, from the tangerine-orange globeflower, to the rosy purple of Chinese foxglove, to the variegated foliage of the dappled willow with its white, green and pink leaves.

In addition, the Silverton garden is home to the Gordon House, designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

Now three years into the life of this new garden, there is room to expand, and plans call for it to top out at 240 acres within 20 years.

Debbie Montoya of Lake Oswego spent the day there for her birthday earlier this month and was delighted by the passionflower blooming profusely on the iron railings of the A-Mazing Water Garden. She also was captivated by 'the picture-perfect waterlilies pink, yellow and white.'

'Repeat visitors are astounded at how much of a change has occurred in the garden,' says Rick Gustafson, executive director of the garden. 'They are amazed.'

'Our conifer (trees and shrubs) collection is considered one of the finest in botanic gardens,' Gustafson says. The garden has seven full-time horticulture workers, and that grows to more than 20 in the summer. Overall, the garden has 22 full-time employees.

Gustafson likes guests to know that one of the garden's flowers, Lewisia, was named by Meriwether Lewis during the Lewis & Clark Voyage of Discovery nearly 200 years ago. The pink beauty is tucked into the conifer collection.

The garden was born out of a vision and a municipal need.

The Oregon Association of Nurserymen wanted a fabulous garden. After all, the state exports 75 percent of its nursery stock ($500 million a year) across the United States. They wondered why they couldn't put that stock to work here at home.

Enter the city of Silverton, with a big sewage problem and no quick fix. The city built an industrial park on a wetland in town and needed to mitigate the loss of that land. 'There was a lot of conversation about a garden, but no action,' says Clayton Hannon, retired executive director of the Oregon Association of Nurserymen.

Then, in 1993, things began to happen. And Hannon says that a decade ago nobody thought such a beautiful spot would happen so quickly.

Construction started in 1997, and by the time the garden gates opened in April 2000, much of the $25 million in startup costs went into the ground. They created the bones of the garden, the filtration system, the paths and structures. The fountains circulate the same treated water over and over, but other than that, the garden uses no city water for its plants, trees and grass.

Ben Gentile of the Oregon Garden says the old water eventually trickles through ponds and 'goes into underground storage tanks. We'll use that water for our irrigation in the dry summer months.'

There's no other water purification system like it in the world, Oregon Garden employees note.

Although the garden averages almost 200,000 visitors a year, it will need twice that many and then some to become self-sufficient. To help out in the meantime, the current 'Cultivate the Vision' campaign is soliciting half a million dollars a year for the next five years from Oregon nursery growers. 'Not because the garden is struggling financially,' says campaign chairman Norbert Kinen, but because the garden 'must stand on its own two feet over the next five years, and we've got to make sure the support, growth, care and plantings will not be interrupted' until they do.

It's a huge amount of land, with a huge learning curve for the people in charge.

Jessica Sall, the Oregon Garden's adult education coordinator, says despite all the water they pour onto some plants, 'it's still a harsh site for some plants because of the full hot sun.' It's no secret the soil is 'hardscrabble' in some places and being improved at every turn. The sloped site gets sun dawn to dusk until the trees grow large enough to supply a canopy.

Even the experts have learned that some plants, such as rhododendrons and azaleas, don't seem to perform up to expectations. But there are some thrilling surprises too. Cistus (rockrose) loves the site, as does penstemon (beard tongue), ceanothus (California lilac) and many more.

Sall and her colleagues say to be sure not to miss the Japanese forest grass; Shishi gashira (Lion's head) Japanese maple; the purple and white passionflower; and the rich, dark foliage of the purple beech tree.