Erich Petschke / Head Gardener, Kennedy School
"MY MISSION AS A GARDENER at McMenamins is to entertain,” says Erich Petschke. “You want that wow ?factor—for people to experience sensory pleasure in the garden. Especially for people who return regularly, you want to create a sense of surprise and delight each time.”
Kennedy School’s transformation began in 1997, when it was converted from a long-vacant Portland Public Schools building into a vibrant community destination. Born from a desolate schoolyard, the gardens took shape in a matter of months, with sourcing, design, and planting courtesy of McNurney and Kincaid. Petschke got his start in 1999 on the Edgefield garden crew, armed with a fervent interest in plants but little professional experience. Soon, his passion earned him the top job at Kennedy.
“The only thing Mike really insisted on was a homage to the old cherry trees—because this neighborhood was built around orchards at the turn of the century,” says Petschke. And he does take care to heed the site’s history, tending to the vestigial trees and finding new uses in the garden for architectural pieces salvaged from the building. But what Petschke really delights in is the freedom to experiment. “Botanical gardens have strict rules, and you have to go through committees before planting anything. While I do log everything I plant, I don’t have many limitations.”
Kennedy’s gardens contain plenty of Portland stalwarts, like winter daphne and rhododendrons. But at heart, Petschke is a collector, hoping to open minds to the amazing array of plants that can be grown locally. Call it stealth gardening: throughout the property, unusual species are woven in amid the standards. “I see someone admiring the big, showy flowers of a rhododendron,” he says. “Then, next thing I hear is, ‘Hmm, I’ve never seen this before—what is it?’”
Thanks to the urban feel of patios, lawns, fences, and driveways surrounding the central school building, the property is laden with the kind of spaces home gardeners often contend with. Visitors see things they like and adapt them for their own yards. And while Petschke values that connection, he’s also out to turn the idea of a commercial landscape on its head. “Most commercial gardens are static,” he says. “Here, we’re showing what you can do with a property like this.”