Traveling I-5, I don’t know how many times I’d passed the sign: The Oregon Garden, Exit 263. Big and bold in brown and white lettering. Each time, I wondered, what is that? I didn’t know anyone who’d visited the park. I didn’t remember it being there as a child. Somehow, even as a plant enthusiast, the sign always seemed a little off putting.
Maybe it was the name. Too generic. Like seeing Liquor Store emblazoned on a strip mall store. Sure, Liquor Store probably sells top-shelf brands, but all you can picture is a shady paper bag in someone’s hand. Shouldn’t a garden’s names have a bit of mystery, charm, whimsy, elegance? The bluffs of Shore Acres. The unpronounceable Butchart Gardens. Bedgebury National Pinetum. (Yes, this is real. Ten thousand plus conifers in Kent, England.)
I felt like the Oregon Garden wasn’t telling me everything. It didn’t help that most travel sites described it as a resort. I pictured children splashing in spools, themed restaurants and waterslides. Those mental pictures didn’t mesh with images of trim rose beds and stately tree-lined walkways.
But, recently I took a chance. With nothing to do on a bright sunny day, I drove the 40 minutes south to Silverton, OR, to see just how much “garden”, and “Oregon”, were in the Oregon Garden.
The Oregon Garden is easily accessible just off of Silverton’s Main Street. After passing under a huge plank entrance sign, follow a short, winding road to the parking area, where a bevy of flowers awaits. Bees, butterflies and clumps of lilies, salvia, red hot poker plants, hydrangeas and an assortment of annuals and conifers. A colorful welcome, which changes with the seasons.
After paying at the visitor center, visitors walk out into the A-mazing Water Garden. This is one of many water features scattered throughout the gardens. The water garden comprises several lily pad-covered ponds, bordered by rushes and birch trees. A whimsical white dragon thrusts itself above the water’s surface to greet visitors.
Water lily at the A-mazing Water Garden
From here the park opens out onto several paths. To the left, you can follow the trail into the wetlands area. To the right, you can skirt the perimeter and walk through several smaller areas, including the Sensory Garden and Medicinal Garden. If you continue on, you will pass a large open area at the bottom of a hill and the J. Frank Schmidt Jr. Pavilion, both spaces for events. Nestled down here you also will find a small rose garden, currently awaiting additions; a pet-friendly garden; and the Fire Safety House. This latter one, informational above anything else.
The path branches at the Fire Safety House. Take the right-hand trail around the outer perimeter of the gardens. This area puts the fire suppression practices into place in a natural environment. This is one of the “Oregon” areas of the park. On the trail you pass under white oaks, read interpretive signs about native wildlife and have the opportunity to look out over the distant agricultural fields of the Willamette Valley. This loop will eventually take you to the rear gardens near the Axis Fountain.
Tiger swallowtail butterfly at the Oregon Gardens
Had you walked straight ahead from the A-mazing Water Garden, you would have entered the Bosque. Bosque means an oasis of trees, usually occuring in arid environments along rivers or streams. It is taken from the Spanish word for forest. The effect is reproduced here by singular trees in raised, square brick planters set in long pools. The canopy overhead creates a shaded, peaceful effect, as you take in the shifting reflections on the dark water.
From the center of the Bosque, you can see two other fountains. To your left, you will glimpse the Axis Fountain. The fountain pokes out at the summit of a small rise, overlooking interwoven diamond-shaped flower beds. To your right, you will see the Rose Petal Fountain, which, as the name implies, burbles in the middle of beds in a rose design. The pattern is more visible from a high vantage point than ground level. There also is a unique sculpture here, the Lupine Fugue: two shimmering steel spires of juxtaposed shapes. Taking the path by the Rose Petal Fountain, will bring you to the event areas previously mentioned.
Around the Axis Fountain lies the remaining quadrant of the park. Much of this area is dedicated to more utilitarian practices: farmland, a vegetable garden, a children’s garden and play area, and gardens for native species. There is also a lilac garden here, and one more interesting water feature: a long recumbent trough of water that flows leisurely until tumbling off an embankment in a small waterfall. The waterfall also marks the end of the native oak trail.
Water feature near the Market Garden
In all, the Oregon Garden boasts 5 miles of paths. A free, guided tram tour runs through the park, allowing visitors to disembark at six stops. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Gordon House also is sited at the Oregon Garden and is open for tours. You will have to backtrack along the park’s entrance road to reach the Gordon House, or repark at the house’s separate lot as you leave. The Oregon Garden Resort sits on the periphery of the property. It is not visible from the main gardens, but a tram does drop visitors to and from the resort grounds. The resort seems to be a subdued affair, with no thrill rides in sight. It does, however, offer a spa, restaurant and site for weddings.
The Oregon Garden is fairly new. Dedicated in 1999, it still feels like it has a bit of growing to do. It seems caught between taking itself too seriously, potentially alienating a wider, younger audience. And, not taking itself seriously enough, which might alienate patrons expecting stiff, formal gardens. There is a lot of whimsy in the design, which sometimes borders on the “rustic”, as well as a lot of a lot of things. Many of the smaller garden areas seem to have been lost in the shuffle. Editing might be the order of the day. The outer areas also could use some refinement on defining the park edges. One frequently feels like they’ve wandered back into the parking lot or service areas. All things considered, the Oregon Garden is definitely worth a visit to garden lovers of all ages.
During the summer, the Oregon Garden is open every day from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Admission is $12, M-Thu, and $14, F-Su. Admission for children varies depending on their age.
Tips: Stop in bustling downtown Silverton for lunch. Visit the Oregon Garden, then continue down Highway 214 to Silver Falls State Park. Take in more photo opportunities on the Trail of 10 Falls or in the park’s back country hiking. Camping and day-use areas are available.