By Ellen Spitaleri
Change is in the air and on the ground at Portland Parks & Recreation’s Leach Botanical Garden, the former estate of botanist Lilla Leach and her husband John. The garden, located near SE 122nd Ave. and Foster Rd., was left to the city of Portland in the 1970s and opened to the public in 1984.
Major improvement projects at the garden include new, accessible visitor facilities, three-season pollinator garden, aerial tree walk with adjoining fireside terrace, a new entry plaza and a grand stairway connecting the upper garden to the west terrace in front of the Manor House.
Another big change: in mid-January, long-time executive director David Porter retired and handed over the leadership of the garden to Mae Lin Plummer, who moved from North Carolina to accept the post.
Plummer previously served as garden director at the Duke Mansion and filled other roles at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte Botanical Gardens.
She noted that when she first visited the garden, she immediately felt that it was a special place.
“[It] aligned with my values and interests in educating and stewarding the relationship between people and plants, eliminating barriers so all feel welcome and a sense of belonging in the garden,” she said.
“Public gardens play an essential role in reminding people of that desire and connection to plants and nature,” Plummer added, “and I believe humanity’s future depends on ensuring that connection is not lost.”
Porter said Plummer stood out for her “career decision to become a garden professional after nearly two decades in the financial industry, her demonstrated passion to equip herself with the needed training and tools, and her engaging, articulate and enthusiastic persona.”
The now-retired Porter started at Leach Botanical Garden in 2010. He hopes to have more family time and to do more writing, painting and volunteering. Looking back, he says he is most proud of “moving the Leach Garden organization from being a ‘kitchen table’ organization run mostly by volunteers to a successful nonprofit business to better serve our community.”
Porter lauds the aerial tree walk, a football-field length steel ellipse which curves through the northwest woodland slope in the central garden. Since the land drops away toward Johnson Creek, the walk allows visitors to be elevated above the forest floor while still being completely accessible.
“My 94-year-old mom and I can walk out on the tree walk into the forest with her walker. It makes being in nature possible for people who can’t easily do that,” he said.
“Walking out on the aerial tree walk is truly a memorable experience and the bird’s-eye view of the garden is beautiful,” said Annie Winn, manager of volunteer services at the garden.
She added that an admission fee will go into effect this spring “to provide essential funding, support enhanced programming and to ensure having a well-maintained, healthy garden.”
That is one goal of several which Plummer supports, including making Leach “as much of a destination and as relevant as the other great gardens of the city and region.”
Another key objective is “to establish the garden as a key player in the economic, social, cultural and environmental development of East Portland and the city.
“None of this is possible without strengthening our partnerships, cultivating new ones and ensuring our long-term financial sustainability,” she added.
“We must also expand access to the gardens and reach new audiences, ensuring we provide opportunity for all to visit and feel welcome to this treasured place.”
Plummer noted that the hardships of the current times have shown that “when humanity faces difficulty, we seek comfort in immersing ourselves in nature…or a house full of plants. There is something deeply calming and comforting about that connection that we seek, whether we are conscious of it or not.”
Leach Botanical Garden reopens Monday, February 1, but the new development areas will not be open to the public until later in March. Public health measures still apply; face coverings must be worn at all times and physical distancing is required.
The construction projects are the culmination of more than five years of planning and design, in partnership between Leach Garden Friends and Portland Parks & Recreation.
Leach Garden Friends raised more than $1.25 million in private funds and other funding included just over $9 million in Parks System Development Charges, $2 million from Prosper Portland and a $188,000 grant from Metro.
More information is at leachgarden.org and portland.gov/parks/leach-botanical-garden.
Leach aerial tree walk photo by Tamra Tiemeyer