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Longtime curator will say goodbye during centennial year at Washington Park attraction

COURTESY: PORTLAND PARKS & RECREATION - Thousands of visitors go through the beautiful International Rose Test Garden every year. The Rose Garden marks its 100th anniversary this year.If you want to sting the heart of a man who loves flowers, snatch a rose from the International Rose Test Garden.

Though he hasn't caught anyone doing it in his almost 30 years as curator, Harry Landers knows the beloved Washington Park garden — celebrating its centennial this year — so well that he can feel it when it does happen, which he says is quite frequently.

(Be warned: Not only will you sting Harry's heart if you decide to take a rose, there is a chance of a $500 fine.)

"I take a lot of pride in it. My wife calls it my mistress. The garden's needs come first," Landers says.

He'll be saying goodbye to his mistress in September, however, once he retires.

Go up there now, though, and there aren't any rose heads to hack, just thorned stems where a rose will eventually blossom in all its glory, sometime between now and possibly as late as June, depending on the weather. The earliest bloom on record is March 22, while the latest was June 7.

"So it's all weather related, and if it keeps going cool like it is, we're going to have a later bloom," Landers says.

But that could change in a week, he says.

Still, even without all the colorful, fragrant rose varieties — there are 10,200 roses in total — the garden, started in 1917, still elicits a sense of calm and serenity, even in the midst of ongoing construction. The garden is undergoing renovations to make it more wheelchair accessible, thanks to a parks replacement bond approved by voters in November 2014. Construction will end by June.

Landers likes to get to the garden early to get things going before the craze of the day.

"Getting up at 4:30 (a.m.) is hard, but I get here, and I don't know, the adrenaline starts moving. It's such a positive place to be," he says.

Coming out of winter, attendance is still slower than the normal summer season, but things are picking up as the weather improves.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: LYNDSEY HEWITT - Harry Landers, curator of the International Test Rose Garden in Washington Park, retires this year after nearly 30 years of service. Why go to the garden?

It might come as a surprise to some that the garden doesn't simply serve as a pretty thing to stroll through.

"(It's) for the true enthusiast to come see the roses. Sometimes we get roses a year or two before they're introduced to the market," Landers says.

The garden gets all of its roses from wholesalers out of California, mostly, while a small number come from England and Germany.

The roses grown at the garden must be available in at least three places in the United States, and are listed in a book, the "Combined Rose List" year 2016. If it's not, a rose gets placed on Landers' list for removal.

"Then I contact the rose companies (and ask), 'What do you have that's new that I should have here?' Then I take their list and my list, and combine the two, and decide what comes out," he says.

Between Washington Park, Peninsula Park and Ladds Circle Park, there are between 2,000 and 2,500 new roses planted every year.

Testing

The garden started 100 years ago when breeders in Europe were encouraged to send hybrid roses to the Pacific Northwest to be safe from the war, according to Landers. The city received official notice that it had been selected by the American Rose Society to be the location for the national test garden.

"And they would be evaluated (how they handle) a Pacific Northwest climate because roses grow different here than other parts of the country," Landers says. They grow so well, so luscious and fragrant, because of the region's mild summers and winters, with cool evenings, he says.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: LYNDSEY HEWITT - The rose garden is home to thousands of rose varieties.Roses are "tested" in the Miniature Rose Garden to decide what goes out to market, meaning in catalogs and garden centers across the world. The roses are evaluated by Landers, and he may decide to keep them. After another couple years, that variety may make it to the market.

"You have no idea what goes on behind the scenes," he says. Landers is the only one who will spray, prune and "dead head" the test garden roses, meaning getting rid of the dead petals.

"So to keep the evaluations fair, I do it all," he says. "It takes $3 million to $4 million to get a rose on the market, and eight to 10 years of (testing) and evaluations."

Many of the roses start out as seedlings in Germany. Out of 300,000 rose seedlings and almost a decade, maybe two or three of those will make it out to the world, he says.

Park changes

Washington Park overall sees a lot of foot traffic, and the Rose Garden is one of its star attractions next to the Oregon Zoo and Children's Museum. But it's harder to track attendance since there's no admission fee or process, but they guess around 700,000 annual visitors based on the Japanese Garden admission.

While the garden adds better wheelchair access, it will also install interpretive signs and, in September, a monument to honor garden curators from the past 100 years. Additionally, a special rose will be introduced to commemorate the centennial, a yellow rose, called Centennial Sunshine. Profits from those sold will go to the garden's trust fund, which is used to help with garden expenses that aren't covered in its budget.

The garden relies on volunteers mostly outside of its three paid staff members, inluding himself, which Landers says isn't enough. One of his hopes after he leaves is that the garden gets more help. Although more than 400 volunteers are on a list, only about a quarter are active, he says. There is a lot of weeding, pruning, cleaning the beds and other work to be done for one of the top 10 urban gardens in the world.

It's a sight to see, one that Landers has been helping grow since he first feasted his eyes on it in 1984 when he came to Portland to visit a brother-in-law.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: LYNDSEY HEWITT - At the moment, the rose garden doesn't have any roses. The first bloom could happen between now and as late as June, depending on weather. "When I pulled over, I looked over (the) edge and said, 'Someday I'm going to work here,'" he laughed.

The Rose Garden is divided into smaller sections — the Royal Rosarian Garden, the Shakespeare Garden, and the Miniature Rose Garden. When asked what his favorite one was, he said that was too difficult.

"It's like choosing a favorite child. I just love the beauty of it all," Landers said.

IF YOU GO

Portland Parks & Recreation, along with partners in the rose community, is celebrating 100 years of roses at the garden with commemorative events throughout the year, culminating in a Community Celebration Day on Aug. 26.

Parks officials warn that it will be busy at the garden this year, and parking is limited. They encourage people to take the MAX or bus to Washington Park or the free Washington Park shuttle to get to the gardens and other parts of the park.

For more: www.portlandoregon.gov/parks.

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