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