A New Day for the Tsuru Island Gresham Japanese Garden in Oregon

NAJGA recently talked to NAJGA member Jim Card and Tomiko Takeuchi, two of the key volunteers behind the “rebirth” of the Tsuru Island Japanese Garden, a 40-year old, volunteer-run garden in the city park of Gresham, Oregon.

NAJGA: How, when and why did the movement for the garden’s renovation get started? 

TT: Jim had been my landscape designer and was always interested in Japanese gardens. So when he talked about retirement, I invited him to see the Gresham Japanese Garden. What a shock when we got there!  It was overgrown and did not resemble a garden at all. Apologetically, I looked at him. His eyes sparkled and said…there is so much potential here. Then he took out his pruners and took 3 snips… the weeping Deodar Cedar that looked like a hill of green amazingly came to life. Ah ha…I could see that you can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear…so to speak. That was the first step, and it just keeps getting better and surprising me at each turn.

iris and border plants

JC: On July 1, 2011, Tomiko and I decided to take on the project although nothing had been touched in several years. The next question from her was how long could this take…off the top of my head…minimum of 5 years. Why did we want to do this? One needs understand the history and the people who built the first garden and to feel the potential that the garden and area around the Island has to offer to the city and its citizens. (Note: The garden was built and donated to the city of Gresham in 1975 by local Japanese farmers through the local Japanese-American Citizens League) 

NAJGA: What have been the key improvements done to the garden since you started the renovation? 

114JC: A complete plan had to be submitted to the City for approval since the island garden is on City property. A complete new design was offered for approval including the installation of a creek bed, boulder placement, plantings that would be added to what was already there, an area for presentations and plans for replacing the bridge and adding a small pavilion. Prior to the “master plan” being written we had to remove 150 cubic yards of over growth and debris from the garden.

Currently we are replacing the bridge which is 55 feet long and 8 feet wide. This will be the highlight of the August celebration that will include the visit of a delegation from Ebetsu, Japan, helping us celebrate.


In 2016 we look forward to offering programs that will include teaching members and the public about the garden maintenance, ikebana, tea ceremonies and we will continue our sponsorship of Taiko and the “sack lunch series”.

NAJGA: Can you tell us more about how you managed the improvements on this garden through volunteers?

IMG_0652JC: We started our efforts with one or two individuals and worked through the City for referrals. We host the volunteers two days a week and the work included the cleanup of the island and surrounding areas. We were fortunate to have had commitments from volunteers for the long run and we offered training and constant communication about what we were currently doing and what could be expected. Everything was done with volunteers.

NAJGA: What is your advice to other small gardens out there who are also relying purely on volunteer help?

JC: Volunteers need to like what they are involved in and that can change for many reasons, most of which are out of your control, do not get discouraged. A plan is the most important factor in the process and the volunteers, as they come, must be made aware of what to expect and they must have an orientation and be constantly kept informed and involved.

Pair them with others that they fit with and ask what they might be able to do physically so that they will feel comfortable and a sense of accomplishment. Allow them to own the project and feel that what they do is the most important thing that is happening…and it is.

Toshi, Wendy and Jenny-Turtle Island
Toshi, Wendy and Jenny-Turtle Island

The garden can be and has become a platform for many things including educating the community about Japanese gardens and proper maintenance, helping change the personality and renewing growth of the area, while offering volunteer opportunities and activities.

A New Day for the Tsuru Island Gresham Japanese Garden in Oregon

From Japan to Minnesota: Q. and A. With John Powell

Japanese garden expert and NAJGA board member John Powell recently shared his thoughts about the experience of training in Japan and applying his knowledge in the North American context, particularly in Minnesota and other areas in the central part of the United States. John will be one of the facilitators of NAJGA’s two-day workshop and garden education tour in the Minnesota area from August 7 to 8.

NAJGA: How did you first become interested in Japanese gardening and what led you towards the path of devoting your career to it? 

JP: I have been involved with gardening since a very early age, studying and working in a variety of fields.  When I first visited Japan in 1993, I was immediately taken by the beauty and quality of the gardens I saw.  I was especially impressed though with residence gardens and their ability to link interior and exterior spaces seamlessly and often with very small areas to work with.

NAJGA:  As the first Westerner to be invited to train with the garden staff of the Adachi Museum in Japan, what were the important lessons you took away from this and the rest of your training experience in Japan?

Adachi_Museum_of_Art_Garden_02JP: Besides the obvious lessons of improved techniques in the presentation and maintenance of a high-quality Japanese garden, I told myself on my first day at the museum that I would forget everything I thought I knew about landscape gardening and just absorb everything anew.  I had done this with the first company I had trained and worked with in Japan with great results.  This I feel is an important approach to anyone trying to learn from our Japanese friends.  

So many maintenance activities are technique driven, and while things like shearing and sweeping look simple enough and require no explanation, they in fact take time to master to do them quickly and efficiently.  When working at the Adachi Museum, it is like performing on stage in front of a large audience.  When everyone works together in the same rhythm, it looks effortless and almost choreographed and the work of caring for the garden is not a distraction to the guest.  When it is done out of sync, then it becomes a distraction to the guests experience of the garden as a whole.

NAJGA:  Aside from Adachi, what are some of the gardens that you admire and which represent your ideals of Japanese gardening? 

JP: There are many gardens in Japan and in the United States that I admire for their attention to quality of both garden and guest experience.  To the gardener, the garden is never finished.  Trees need to be pruned, paths swept, stones adjusted. It is never ending.  When all of these tasks are applied, the gardener can elevate even a garden of mediocre design to a higher status that leaves the guest feeling refreshed and rejuvenated.  Without the commitment to maintenance though, the experience is diminished and disappointing.  

(In this video, taken during a 2014 NAJGA workshop at the Garden of the Phoenix, Chicago,  John explains how the construction of a short section of nobedan during the course of the workshop is a response to how the guests have been moving around in the garden.)  

The garden is also alive and ever changing and because of this, something I find most admirable are the gardens that understand this and are able to respond to the changes.  In many cases, the gardens are attractions for guests, and without adequate care and improvement, they cease to become exciting anymore and viewership drops.  Even the best of the best have room for improvement.

NAJGA: As a consultant for three of the Japanese gardens that will be featured in NAJGA’s Minnesota event, what are the unique challenges and the opportunities that you see in the practice of Japanese gardening in the area?

JP: The gardens in Minnesota are all quite good and excellent examples of a variety of styles.  Without question, the climate is the greatest challenge.  Spring through fall is delightful, but the winter is very long and usually extremely cold.  Winters are hardest on the plant material and it seems every spring provides a new challenge in response to winter damage. Construction techniques are also slightly different due to the extreme freeze and thaw potential of the soil.  

There is, however, a great availability of plants and materials for garden construction.  Many natives and well-adapted plants, while not usually seen in Japan, make excellent contributors to the garden.  The people that visit these gardens also seem to thoroughly enjoy them, which gives us all an opportunity to show how these gardens are not solely culturally specific creations, but pleasing arrangements of form and function that can be integrated into everyone’s life.

(Photo shows the Como Park tea house entry and the Normandale Japanese Garden)

Como Park Tea House Entry        Normandale accross the pond

NAJGA:  Can you tell us more about the scope of your services as a garden consultant and what are the other gardens you are involved in, past and present? 

JP: My work focuses on two things.  Improving guest experience, and creating a sustainable system of maintenance that allows the garden to remain viable for decades to come.  Within those two basic concepts, however, are a variety of services including design and implementation of hard scape improvements such as placement of garden stones, fence building, pathways, structure conservation, to name a few, and a considerable amount of contract pruning of specialized plant material, and instruction to permanent garden staff about proper care of the garden as a whole.  

For garden educators I also provide insight into proper discussion of garden elements and design intent that is passed on to the garden guests.  In addition to the public gardens at Como Park, Carleton College and Normandale Community College in Minnesota, I provide similar services for gardens in Arkansas, Colorado, Tennessee and in my home state of Texas.


John Powell is the principal behind Zoen LLC Associates, a consultancy firm specializing in Japanese garden creation and maintenance. E-mail: jp_zoen@yahoo.com; Tel: (817) 829-4335.

From Japan to Minnesota: Q. and A. With John Powell