Special Reports

Common ground

Drew Perine/The News Tribune
A heron stalks the still waters of the Japanese Garden at Point Defiance. The garden complements the 1914 Pagoda, and has grown in size and authenticity over the years.

When Ebenezer Rhys Roberts became parks superintendent at Point Defiance Park, he pulled up all the signs that read “Keep off the grass.”

The Welshman believed the gardens should belong to the community and the community should be the caretakers of the gardens.

In 1895, Roberts asked Tacoma’s schoolchildren to bring clippings to begin the park’s first rose garden. It was only right that the early park’s premier garden grew from donations.

In a town crazy about its gardens, Point Defiance is the crossroads.

Volunteers organized as garden clubs have cultivated the plants in every garden in the park since the first shoots sprouted. Those volunteers have dedicated endless hours tending the rhododendrons, pruning the rose bushes and deadheading the dahlias.

Now, in Point Defiance’s centennial year, the gardens still serve as a gathering spot for a diverse group of gardeners who otherwise might never intersect. They’re the place where rosarians hob nob with rhododendron breeders, fuchsia fanciers, dahlia aficionados and native plant evangelists.

In the last century, those gardeners have raised money, donated plants and worked the ground with a civic notion in mind: The Point Defiance gardens belong to this community and so long as they do, a community of gardeners will tend them.

Drew Perine/The News Tribune
Tacoma Rose Society members at Point Defiance Park, from left: George Heger, Bruce Lind, Jo Martin, Margaret and Jim Leisner, Ellen Wold and society president Anne Theivagt.


The donated starts that Roberts planted flourished into a display that rose enthusiasts from all over the world flocked to see.

Early pictures show a splendor of roses with 500-foot arbors that marked a walkway. By 1898, more than 75 varieties of roses grew.

By 1937, the garden was a civic showpiece. It was designated a display garden by the newly formed All-America Rose Selections.

But as the decades progressed, the Rose Garden began to show its age. Like most gardens that reach a certain age – and remember the original rose garden was planted in 1895 – it needed resuscitation.

By 1986, it was in sorry shape, recalled Jo Martin, a Tacoma resident and longtime member of the Tacoma Rose Society, the group that has played caretaker of the garden for years.

“The beds were full of moss, the roses were not in good shape,” she said. “(The garden beds) had been filled with whatever soil they could get for free. The roses were leftovers donated from nursery companies. If they died during the winter due to frost damage, there wasn’t a regular system for refurbishment.”

Then the All-America Rose Selections withdrew its accreditation. That’s when “the mobilizing” took place – or at least that’s how Martin characterized what came next.

The rose society solicited donations and applied for grants. Its biggest donation was sweat equity, with members providing 250 hours of labor to shore up the garden beds in the first few months. By 1990, they had planted more than 1,500 rose bushes, and the AARS had granted its re-accreditation.

Drew Perine/The News Tribune
Volunteers Jane Kendall, and Janet Re leave the Rose Garden during a Tacoma Rose Society work party in March.

Today, the thorniest challenge for the Rose Garden has been the deer, who “think of the garden as an all-you-can-eat buffet,” said Steve Herbig, the parks maintenance lead at Point Defiance.

A fence erected in 1994 helped keep the deer from gorging. It would be a perfect world for the Tacoma Rose Society if visitors would just remember to close the gate when they leave.


The Point’s Japanese Garden grew out of the turn-of-the-century push for more sophisticated parks with planned space.

Under Ebenezer Roberts’ sensibility, the early park’s gardens displayed a more rustic tone of the style popular in the mid- to late 1800s. Planters were built from fallen trees, and beds of annuals were randomly scattered throughout the park, along with benches crafted from wood salvaged from the grounds.

“Roberts may have picked it up with his training in the U.K. – that stylized mid-19th century aesthetic was considered beautiful at the time. There was a real sense of taming the wild then,” said Doreen Beard-Simpkins, a historian with Metro Parks Tacoma.

But among the first acts of the newly formed Metropolitan Park District’s board was to hire an outside firm to create an orderly plan for Point Defiance.

One of the recommendations of the 1911 plan by Hare & Hare Architects was to create a Japanese-style garden. It would become the setting for the park’s Pagoda, which was built in 1914 as a waiting room for streetcars.

Drew Perine/The News Tribune
With a surgeons precision, Carole Hicks searches for the right branch to prune on a Countess of Darby rhododendron. Point Defiance's Rhododendron Garden sits on about 5 acres of old-growth forest. Hicks and her husband, Bill, drive from Des Moines to volunteer.

At the time, Japanese decor was all the rage. Its influence extended to surrounding gardens.

The Hare & Hare plan was the first step in the direction of creating park zones, including a defined garden zone that would include the existing Rose Garden and a Japanese Garden to complement the Pagoda.

After its planting, the Japanese Garden existed without much attention paid to its design or upkeep until the 1960s, when the Pagoda’s crumbling condition spurred a campaign by the Capitol District of Garden Clubs – the umbrella organization for a large group of Tacoma-area clubs – to restore the structure.

“The Capitol District raised $12,000 through the sale of cookbooks, which means they sold an awful lot of cookbooks,” recalled Laverne Talbert, a longtime Capitol District member, of the push to refurbish the Pagoda and then establish what would become the current version of the Japanese Garden. The project was massive. “Four hundred tons of rock were brought in, as well as eight varieties of Japanese cherry trees, large and small pines, bamboo and other things. Every year, at least since I have been involved, the Capitol District donates the plants and trees to the Japanese Garden.”

The appeal of the Japanese Garden also extended to one community gardener who was known around Tacoma as a landscape marvel – Dick Todd. Todd, who died in 2000, was a tireless volunteer in the Japanese Garden.

Park officials estimated he donated more than $100,000 to the garden in the form of building materials, trees and free labor since he started tending the garden in the 1960s.

Today, after the death of Todd and with the work of the Capitol District focused elsewhere, Metro Parks employees tend the garden and plant new elements every year.


Although the birth of the current Rhododendron Garden was in 1968, members of the Tacoma Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society remember when there was a smaller version planted in 1956 along a slope above the Rose Garden.

A zoo expansion in 1968 relocated the garden to its current site along Five Mile Drive, said Bill Hicks, a longtime member of the Tacoma chapter, which conceived the notion of a public rhododendron species garden.

Drew Perine/The News Tribune
A bee clings to an Iris pseudacorus petal while waiting for its wings to dry in the humid air. Then it was off to collect more pollen.

A far-flung group of rhody enthusiasts saw the garden to fruition.

“It was a few telephone calls here and there and people would bring their trucks down and donate all the plants we wanted,” said Hicks.

One of the most revered of those rhody gardeners who showed up with truckloads of donations was Seattle grower Halfdan Lem.

Lem was a flower enthusiast who developed unusual hybrid rhododendrons at his Aurora nursery. In 1970, he developed a stunning white rhododendron – edged in red that fades to nearly pure white – that he named the Point Defiance in honor of the garden he loved.

“That rhododendron he developed is still in the garden,” said Hicks.

Recently, society members began a revival of the 5-acre garden.

“We decided three years ago to do an in-depth assessment of the garden. One of the immediate things we took on was a general cleanup,” Hicks said. “Since then, we’ve planted over 170 deciduous azaleas, and we put in a pathway where you enter the garden. We’ve received grants from the American Rhododendron Society for a number of projects.”

Ultimately, the garden will take an educational role, said Hicks: “One of the purposes of the garden is to help the general public identify rhododendrons and help gardeners find a purpose for their garden with the different species of rhododendrons.”

After that mission is completed, society members hope to become accredited by the American Rhododendron Society as a display garden. Last month, the local chapter hosted a rededication of the garden by planting another Point Defiance rhododendron.

Drew Perine/The News Tribune
Daffodils are still fair game for herbivores at Point Defiance. This deer helped itself early one morning before the arrival of park staff. Fences have been put up to protect the Rose Garden and the Northwest Native Plant Garden from the same fate.


In 1964, decades before the native plant movement would gain momentum in the Northwest, members of the Tacoma Garden Club planted a showcase for the region’s indigenous flora. The Northwest Native Plant Garden was a pet project of club members, who sometimes brought their personal gardeners to work on the landscape.

But over the years, as pivotal members retired from the club, the native garden grew neglected. By the late 1990s, some members were ready to abandon it.

“It was in a state where it needed to clearly have more attention paid,” said Kathryn van Wagenen, a member of the Tacoma Garden Club who once served as chair of the native plant garden. Members put the matter to a vote.

“It was clear after we voted that the members thought it was still a good project. And in fact, they decided we should have a task force look into the future of the garden,” she said.

A task force formed and members raised several thousand dollars to revamp the garden. They built a fence, hired landscape architect Thomas Church and overhauled the garden’s pond and waterfall.

Members decided to return to the original intent of the garden – to educate gardeners about native plant gardening.

“There was always interest in it being an educational venue, we’re just re-emphasizing it,” said van Wagenen.

They’re planning to create a curriculum for students and to reach out to gardeners interested in Northwest native plants.


Although small groups of species enthusiasts worked side by side at Point Defiance for decades, there was no event that really drew them together – until 1958.

Gardeners’ Paradise Days captured the essence of the Tacoma garden community. The outdoor flower show ran every spring from 1958 to 1974 and attracted crowds of 50,000 or more. It was a chance for gardeners of all kinds to gather and display the flowers they spent so much time cultivating.

Drew Perine/The News Tribune
Friendship and laughter, too, sprout in the park's fardens as Clair Boussum, left, of Auburn and Rita Butler of University Place weed among the irises.

Those who remember the big flower and garden show recall the horticulturist who was behind it. Howard Harmon, who worked for Metro Parks for several decades until he retired in 1974, was so entrenched in producing the annual show that when he retired, so did the show.

“Dad always did everything he could to promote gardening and the enjoyment of gardens,” recalled his son Howard Earl Harmon, who is retired and lives in Newberg, Ore. “There were so many people involved in putting on that show. Every garden club in town was involved. It was an amazing undertaking.”

This year, another generation of volunteer gardens and parks employees decided to revive the tradition of a big outdoor show in the park. As part of the park’s centennial celebration, The Point Defiance Flower & Garden Show begins Friday and continues through Sunday.

Hundreds of volunteer gardeners will oversee such attractions as window boxes, a children’s garden, a container display, a floral display show, a wine garden and a garden exhibition.

Debi Schmid, director of the show, said it wasn’t difficult to find the more than 350 volunteers who’ve signed up to help.

“One of the reasons people wanted to volunteer is that they feel they’re supporting the park system. It has been an easy thing for them to consider volunteering for,” she said. “The people here love the gardens, and they’ll always want to do something to help.”

Sue Kidd: 253-597-8270