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Come smell (or prune) the roses

Volunteer jobs abound at Washington Park International Rose Test Garden


by: BARBARA SHERMAN - APPRECIATIVE BOSS - Pat and Bob Klum (left) chat with Harry Landers, the rose garden's curator, botanic specialist and only employee, who said he could not do his job without the help of volunteers like the Klums.A group of Portland nurserymen decided in 1917 to start an American rose test garden in Portland's West Hills to serve as a testing ground for new rose varieties, and today it is the oldest public garden of its kind in the United States.

The 4.5-acre terraced site now has more than 10,000 plants, and overseeing the garden for more than a quarter of its existence is Harry Landers, the curator and botanic specialist.

Landers has been working there 25 years, holding one of a few jobs where mostly compliments instead of complaints are heard. Whereas he once had a large staff, including two full-time horticulturists, a full-time curator and five full-time seasonal workers, he is now the only paid staff member, but luckily for him, he has lots of volunteers and helpers.

Landers oversees 60 rose dead-headers and five park hosts during the summer months, and contrary to what you might think, his job isn't done when the first frost hits in the fall.

"If it's above 35 degrees, I'm outside," Landers said.

The garden has 10,194 plants and 650 varieties that include 229 climbing roses, which in the winter are taken down from their trellises, their leaves stripped and then reattached to the trellises.

Also, all the rose bushes must be pruned twice during cold weather, with the first round occurring in mid-November.

"Last fall, we did all of them in only 3 ½ hours using 31 volunteers," Landers said. "In early February, they get pruned down to 18 inches high, and this year we had 43 volunteers. We use the cut-and-drop method, and then six 10-man community-service crews come in, pick them all up and haul truckloads out. It used to take seven days to prune the bushes and collect all the debris."

Landers enjoys being out among the rose garden visitors but does get some odd questions.

"I've been asked, 'Where is the rose garden?' and 'Is all you grow here roses?'" said Landers, adding, "I couldn't do this without all the volunteers."

While the garden provides a lot of beauty, its primary purpose is to serve as a testing ground for new rose varieties. The city of Portland Gold Medal Awards are issued annually to the best introductions, with the first one handed out in 1919, making it the oldest rose-testing program of its kind in the United States.

At this time of year, the rose garden, located at 400 S.W. Kingston Ave., Portland, is open from 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.

For more information on volunteering, call Landers at 503-823-3636.