JARS v48n4 - The Jane Kerr Platt Garden, Portland

The Jane Kerr Platt Garden, Portland
Peter Kendall
Portland, Oregon

By all accounts, the northwestern corner of the United States is recognized as a premier location for those with a horticultural bent of mind. Over the decades of this century a select number of people have found themselves singularly disposed to take advantage of this inviting set of circumstances. The name of Jane Kerr Platt is certainly to be found among them. The evolution of her particular plot of land in Portland, Oregon's West Hills into a collection of the choicest assemblage of plants, arranged with the highest aesthetic standard, came as no accident. Jane was the second daughter of Scotsman Peter Kerr, a prosperous grain merchant of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Kerr himself developed one of the foremost gardens in the Portland area. The garden to which I refer is the one at Elk Rock on the Willamette River, now the headquarters of the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon. This garden was designed at the turn of the century by John Olmstead, son of the noted Frederick Law Olmstead; it was stocked with the finest plants Peter Kerr could acquire both here and abroad. Blessed with artistic inclinations and immersed in this milieu as she grew to adulthood, Jane found her drive to express herself resided most forcefully in her love of the line and texture of growing plants.

Trough garden on the terrace of
the Platt home. R. schlippenbachii
Trough garden on the terrace of the Platt home.
Photo by Peter Kendall
R. schlippenbachii
Photo by Peter Kendall

Upon attaining adulthood, Jane found herself in the fortuitous position of being courted by a man with a most captivating parcel of land. Gently sloping to the south and west, this 2½-acre piece of land was an old orchard richly endowed with some of the finest loam one could imagine. The ensuing marriage of John Platt and Jane Kerr seemed a foregone conclusion. The date of the wedding was April 1939.

The outbreak of World War II forestalled any real progress on the development of a garden, as John was away in service during most of the conflict. Just before the war, however, an old cottage was abandoned as their residence when Pietro Belluschi was commissioned to design a beautiful residence in the Northwest style. This style, in the tradition of such luminaries as Frank Lloyd Wright, was an approach to architecture which tended to marry the structure to the site rather than impeding the merger of house and garden.

With the end of the war, work on the garden broke out in earnest; but just as everything was taking shape, along came the great freeze of 1955 which devastated many supposedly hardy specimens and necessitated a new beginning. This went on in tentative fashion until 1959 when, with the help for three years of a talented young landscape architect, the design of the present garden began to unfold.

Given a broad expanse of undulating land, the garden proper was laid out to provide a number of separate gardens within the whole. The entire rectangular property is surrounded by hedges of Thuja plicata and holly which offer excellent protection in addition to privacy. A sweeping, open sward of lawn is that perfect foil which sets off yet unites the various areas. A structure of thoughtfully articulated paths further ties the separate areas into an entity which invites inspection in the most natural way. Each area, moreover, has its own characteristics and was carefully assessed for the plants that would do best in each.

Jane searched far and wide for the best forms of what she considered the choicest plants. Trees for overstory were the first consideration (only four apple trees from the original orchard were retained). Among these were the finest magnolias in the tradition of her father's estate at Elk Rock. Other magnificent trees included the dove tree ( Davidia involucrata ), Styrax spp., Stewartia spp., Acer spp., Cornus spp., Betula spp. and the sourwood ( Oxydendrum arboreum ). Besides other exquisite deciduous trees, were many conifers such as Sequoiadendron giganteum 'Pendulum', Sciadopitys verticillata , Chamaecyparis nootkatensis , Tsuga mertensiana and Abies pinsapo .

Magnificent shrubs noted for their textures, seasonal colors, captivating traceries and alluring fragrances were situated among and beneath the trees. Such shrubs included Disanthus cercidifolius , Hamamelis spp., Corylopsis spp., and Enkianthus spp. Most numerous of all by a wide margin, however, were the rhododendron species. Only the very best were selected and these were showcased in remarkable fashion.

View across the rock garden. R. albrechtii
View across the rock garden.
Photo by Peter Kendall
R. albrechtii
Photo by Peter Kendall

Beneath the shrubs we find a wealth of the best perennials. Among these are the hellebores, the hostas, the pulmonarias, the euphorbias and a far-ranging collection of the most exquisite wildflowers.

Tulip species in the rock garden. Helleborus orientalis (yellow form)
Tulip species in the rock garden.
Photo by Peter Kendall
Helleborus orientalis (yellow form).
Photo by Peter Kendall

Late in the development of the garden, in the year 1978, Jane realized her ambition to build a superlative rock garden. She and John sought the remnants of an abandoned quarry of basalt on the shoulders of Mt. Hood for use as the underpinnings of a new part of their garden. It was an Herculean effort which she and John undertook personally, she providing much of the aesthetic input and he most of the requisite engineering in securing, transporting and installing the many massive stones. In the ensuing years this area of the garden became an all consuming passion with literally every square inch devoted to some priceless treasure. Jane Platt passed away some five years ago, in her early eighties. Her husband retains the property and continues the Platt tradition of periodically opening the garden to those seeking a glimpse of horticultural excellence.

Peter Kendall is a member of the Portland Chapter.