As part of our ongoing dedication to our hometown, Portland Leather Goods employees recently ventured out of the workshop on a sunny Saturday to get their hands in the dirt! PLG Volunteers pulled weeds and aided natural habitat restoration efforts at one of Portland’s hidden gems: Leach Botanical Garden!
At nearly 17 acres, this stunning garden in Southeast Portland’s Lents neighborhood has grown into a beloved testament to the natural beauty Portland has to offer. Originally a private residence, the land where Leach Botanical Garden sits was donated to the City of Portland by John and Lilla Leach’s estate upon Lilla’s death in 1980. Purchased as a plot of just over 4 acres in the early 1930s, the “Sleepy Hollow” property became a showcase for the couple’s passion for botany. The Manor House at the heart of the garden has been beautifully restored and maintained, appearing almost exactly as it did when it was built in 1936. The house and surrounding courtyard is now a charming wedding and event space, and is also home to the garden’s gift shop.
John and Lilla Leach were avid outdoor enthusiasts and members of the Mazamas mountaineering organization. Lilla, a self-taught botanist, was responsible for discovering 5 different species of western plants previously unknown to science over the course of the couple’s botanical explorations. John was a pharmacist and was an active member of the Chamber of Commerce in Southeast Portland. His Phoenix Pharmacy building at SE 67th and Foster Road still stands and is currently owned by Foster the Phoenix, an organization dedicated to rescuing the building and restoring it to a place of prominence in Portland’s local economy.
The legacy of John and Lilla Leach lives on through Leach Garden Friends, the non-profit organization responsible for the garden’s care and maintenance. With support from Portland Parks & Recreation, Leach Garden Friends employs 12 staff members to care for the property alongside a dedicated corps of volunteers; the garden offers events and tours, engages underserved communities with hands-on learning, and provides visitor services to more than 45,000 people per year.
“This is one of the lowest income neighborhoods in Portland,” says Horticulture Director Adam Hart, “so it’s really important to us to provide infrastructure and a place for people to be outside, and make it affordable.” Leach Botanical Garden currently charges $5 for adult admission, but for anyone who needs it, they’ve also set aside funds to supplement their Garden For All admissions program. Intended for families and visitors who rely on public assistance programs for support, Garden For All allows free access to the garden and is available to anyone who requests it. “We really just want to share the garden with everyone, and we don’t think it’s fair to exclude anyone who can’t pay to get in,” Hart explains. “Leach Botanical Garden is really special, and most people don’t even know it’s here.”
In the interest of encouraging visitors and putting the garden on the map, Leach Botanical Garden received funds from Portland Parks & Recreation for a much-needed expansion project in 2019. Visitors to the garden can now enjoy the gorgeous Aerial Tree Walk, which winds through the established forest of native Douglas Fir and Western Red Cedar, and from which you can gaze down at native plantings of ferns, trillium, and other Pacific Northwest species. The Tree Walk also provides a bird’s eye view of several heritage trees planted by John and Lilla Leach during their time living on the property. Other features of the recent expansion include a new admissions building and public restrooms, a pollinator meadow, a gathering green, a pavilion and fireside terrace, new paths and connecting trails, an entry courtyard, utilities infrastructure, parking, and sustainable stormwater features. The world-class renovation has provided even more space for community events, which include children’s concerts, educational tours, art classes, and other opportunities to connect with the garden.
After a brief tour, our group of volunteers spent our morning pulling weeds in Leach’s “Back 5,” a five acre portion on the east side of the property that sits just above Johnson Creek. A former pig farm, the area is now a restoration project and teaching site for local environmental science programs. In the early morning sunshine, we clear swathes of jewelweed, pull up patches of celandine, and dig out invasive blackberry seedlings.
“This was all blackberry, nearly twelve feet tall, when we first started,” Hart shares. “It was a mess.” Looking out across the sunlit meadow, it’s hard to imagine. Tall spires of budding goldenrod and the seed pods of just-bloomed lupines wave in the breeze, and a baby rabbit shelters in the shade provided by these native pollinators, nibbling on the vegetation. Down the hill, Johnson Creek trickles lazily through on its way to join with the Willamette River. Looking around this enchanting spot, it’s easy to see why Portlanders in the know are so enamored of Leach Botanical Garden. One of our team members voices the opinion that she can’t think of a better place to be on a summer morning, and the rest of us can’t help but agree! We are so grateful to the staff of Leach Botanical Garden for allowing us to come and be part of the garden, and can’t wait to work together again!
If you want to visit or volunteer at Leach Botanical Garden, you can find out more by visiting www.leachgarden.org