Leach Botanical Garden’s “Back 5;” a Hidden Gem’s Hidden Gem

Tucked back off SE Foster Road, where 122nd Avenue crosses Johnson Creek, is one of Portland’s lesser-known treasures: Leach Botanical Garden, named for John and Lilla Leach, who lived on the property beginning in the 1930s. They transformed “Sleepy Hollow,” as they called it then, from a pig farm to a showcase for plants, with an emphasis on Oregon native species (Lilla, a prominent botanist, made significant contributions to western scientific knowledge of Oregon’s flora). The Leaches willed their property to the Metropolitan Park District (later the Portland Park Bureau); the gardens have since expanded from the original 4.5-acre parcel to their present 17 acres.

One of those expansions—a roughly 5-acre lot at the upstream end of the property—has been “left fallow” since becoming part of the garden in 1999. Encompassing a steep, partly-forested slope, a riparian wetland (an uncommon feature of the lower reaches of Johnson Creek, due to the rock wall that lines most of the lower 15 miles of its channel), and more than 500’ of the north bank of the creek, the property is badly overrun with Armenian blackberry, English ivy, and other non-native species that suppress the regeneration of native plants. Thanks to a very exciting partnership, that is about to change.

The Leach Garden Friends, Wisdom of the Elders, the Blueprint Foundation, and JCWC will be teaming up with students from David Douglas High School and community volunteers over the next several years to begin native reforestation on this parcel. Just as importantly, we’ll be using this as a kind of “living laboratory,” where students and partner groups will be studying the flora and fauna that are present, how they change over the course of the work, and other aspects of the site (soils and geology, etc.). Those observations, in turn, will help inform the restoration work as it progresses, giving those involved a genuine sense of investment and ownership in the habitat they’ll be helping to create. With generous support from the Oregon Community Foundation, the Community Watershed Stewardship Program, and a private donor, we’re poised to begin a whole array of improvements to vegetation, amphibian habitat, and stream health. Partners from Wisdom and Blueprint have begun pre-project site assessments; crews from Wisdom will start clearing blackberry in July. With such a large site, we’ll just be working on the first acre (closest to the garden) for the first year, moving on to the second once the first is on a trajectory toward success. Data collection will continue regularly, in parallel with the restoration work. Stay tuned for future updates on this exciting project!

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