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Keeping the Portland Japanese Garden looking beautiful is a year-round job

by: Jim Clark

Maintaining one of Oregon's star outdoor attractions is a year-round job for the staff gardeners and volunteers at the 48-year-old Portland Japanese Garden. From January through December, they labor over big projects such as installing water systems. They also tend to the tiniest of details - faded blossoms that fall onto pathways are scooped up.

Michael Kondo, the head gardener who joined the staff in 1977, hauls stones and prunes shrubs. Alan Baucom, who began volunteering at the garden five or six years ago, has pulled blackberry vines when he's not leading tours. Their work helps draw visitors from around the world to this 6-1/2-acre oasis in Portland's West Hills, considered one of the most authentic Japanese gardens outside of Japan.

The 34-year veteran

Michael Kondo, 58, is an expert pruner who, as head gardener, also oversees garden construction projects. This spring he and his crew have been installing a new water filtration system for the koi-filled Lower Pond and Heavenly Falls, one of the garden's main attractions.

'I like the decorating part of gardening, but I also do a lot of digging and heavy lifting,' Kondo says. 'I consider myself a professional athlete.'

He and his crew work 12 months a year, except in deep snow. 'If we can see the ground, we're working,' he says.

Born and raised in Portland - he attended Madison High School and Oregon State University - Kondo has worked at the garden since 1977, except for the two years he took off to help build a Japanese garden at the Schnitzer family's home on Council Crest.

'When I first started here, we had just three gardeners and one secretary and two gate people (ticket takers), and no money to do construction,' Kondo recalls. 'It's kind of a shock to see pictures from the '70s.'

Now the staff includes six gardeners and a curator, Sadafumi (Sada) Uchiyama, who designs the garden features. Plans are now under way for a major expansion project at the garden, which renowned architect Kengo Kuma has been hired to lead.

The Portland Japanese Garden used to bring in garden directors from Japan to work here, says Kondo, who has been to Japan three times.

And what kind of garden does Kondo grow at his Beaverton home? 'A natural habitat,' he says with a grin, explaining that he tore out the grass and put in gravel.

'I don't want to see anything living at home,' he says. 'My wife loves orchids and has a nice orchid collection.'

'Making people happy'

Alan Baucom, 72, of Battle Ground, Wash., volunteers at the garden as a guide who leads visitors on one-hour tours. He's also been part of the horticultural support team of volunteers who pull weeds, sort gravel and otherwise help keep the garden tidy.

The Oregon native retired in 2005 after working for the Clark County assessor's office in Washington. 'I was a tax man,' he says. 'I figured I wanted to do something to make people happy.'

He started helping at the garden through his friend Dick Doi, who's also a volunteer guide there. Then he joined 'hort support' and started getting a serious workout.

'I actually lost 33 pounds working in horticultural support, from 225 pounds to 192,' he says.

As a guide, Baucom has met visitors from all over the world - Egypt, South America, Ireland, Israel, Macedonia, Ukraine, Uganda - and he's learned a lot about Japanese gardens. Now he's planning to drive to different Japanese gardens in the United States and Canada and volunteer there, too.

'It's something I wanted to do, and sometimes it's hard work, but it's enjoyable work,' he says of volunteering. 'It's worthwhile.'

Portland Japanese Garden

Address: 611 S.W. Kingston Ave., Portland

Hours: Noon to 4 p.m. Monday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday

Phone: 503-223-1321

Website: www.japanesegarden.com