Portland’s Lan Su Garden

The first garden we visited as part of the 2014 Garden Bloggers’ Fling was Lan Su, located in Portland’s Chinatown. According to its website, Lan Su is the most authentic Chinese garden outside of China. It was created in the style of a Ming Dynasty “Scholar’s Garden” by craftsmen from Portland’s Chinese sister city of Suzhou.

Moon Locking Pavilion, seen from the Terrace
Moon Locking Pavilion, seen from the Terrace

I’m very glad I got to see this garden, but I could not love it. Even so, Lan Su had some wonderful qualities. (A note about the photographs – I took the pictures here because Judy had to miss the first day of the fling, so please excuse any decline in quality.)

I was occasionally startled by glimpses of office buildings, reminding me that I was in downtown Portland.
I was occasionally startled by glimpses of office buildings, reminding me that I was in downtown Portland.

Behind its walls, this garden makes the visitor feel removed from the intensely urban area that surrounds it. The design creates a sense of space much larger than the single acre it occupies.

View of Scholar's Garden through archway.
Courtyard viewed through archway.

Part of this illusion derives from the framed views that seem to exist in every direction, no matter where in the garden you happen to be. Plus, so many of those views seem to be of distinct but connected spaces. And to visit all the different spaces you can only go by a circuitous route.

2014-07-11 12.58.52 lan su garden


2014-07-11 12.58.23 lan su garden

All of the plants are native to China, and it was a pleasure to examine the plant palette.

2014-07-11 13.02.38 Lan Su garden

But this garden is really more about water and stone than it is about plants.

More water lilies.


2014-07-11 12.55.34 Lan Su water lilies

Though I loved all the water lilies.

Willow, stone and water.
Willow, stone and water.


2014-07-11 13.22.20

And Lan Su does showcase in many ways how water and stone can be beautiful.

Window onto the scholar's garden.
Window onto the Scholar’s Courtyard (I think).

However, if every garden is a compromise between wild and controlled, soft and hard, quiet and drama – for me personally, Lan Su leans too far toward control, hardness, and quiet.  We read in Lan Su’s website that this type of garden was intended to bring nature to the city. While any attempt to emulate nature is artificial to a degree, “nature” in this garden seems a little too stylized.

2014-07-11 13.01.22 Lan Su

Though perhaps my reaction has to do with the type of landscape being emulated. The gardens I love are inspired by the prairie, while Lan Su seems to be about mountains.

2014-07-11 13.14.30 lan su mimosa

I respect the fact that this reflects a cultural tradition of which I am not a part. And yet, we can only love what we love.

Weeping tree.
Weeping tree.


2014-07-11 13.19.14 lan su

In any case, Lan Su is an intricate garden that needs to be experienced slowly, piece by piece.


There were horticulturists available to talk about the garden, and I wish I had taken more advantage of this resource, but there was so much to absorb just by looking.

Tired Flingers in front of the Hall of Brocade Clouds.
Tired Flingers in front of the Hall of Brocade Clouds.

The day was getting hot, though it was still morning. The Flingers were getting tired and ready to get on the coach for a ride to the next garden.

What’s your opinion of Chinese gardens?

44 Comments on “Portland’s Lan Su Garden”

  1. I’m not sure I’ve ever visited a Chinese garden, but have seen many Japanese ones… sadly they do not match the gardens I saw when in Japan many years ago (before I had my own garden). There is always the temptation to add something extra here, and thus to overdo it and spoil the effect, whereas the temple gardens I visited in Japan are understated and and so very peaceful to the eye. I wonder how I would feel returning there as a gardener now though.

  2. Cathy’s comment reminds me of the story of a senior Japanese diplomat visiting the garden of Frank Crisp in his Japanese style garden at Friar park in Henley-on-Thames at the height of the craze for Japanese gardens in the early part of the nineteenth century. He said: ‘How beautiful, we have nothing like this in Japan.’.
    We can try to imitate Japanese or Chinese gardens but it will only be a pastiche because we can’t really grasp the philosophy and theory behind them.
    I think the same thing applies to appreciating them. I can understand your reaction to this garden. It is beautiful but you don’t really get it. I feel the same.
    Still, lovely to look at,, specially with fellow bloggers.

  3. I enjoyed reading your “interpretations” of this garden. They seemed fair and helpful as I looked at the photos. I agree: “You love what you love.” I probably wouldn’t have loved this garden as a whole – but parts of it were intriguing….

  4. I adore the details of this garden…how the roof tiles make the rain drip in a necklace of pearls and how each of the 40 different leak windows (which reveal a secret view into another space) are patterned on nature. It is not my personal style but I do love it. I would like to go for a whole day and move from one place to another watching the shadows change and people move through the garden. And I would like to go in every season, especially winter when the Prunus mume blooms, softening the garden with its color and fragrance. Built by Chinese artisans from Portland’s sister city Suzhou, it is the most authentic Chinese garden outside of China. And it’s a rare treat! Visitors should go with a open mind and plan to leave with a full heart.

  5. I just loved the water features, I’d die happy if I had a pond with lilies and a boat like your pic. I thought it was absolutely beautiful and would love to visit. I like my own garden a little wilder though and never would have time to keep a garden looking as good as this.xxx

  6. Wow, between you and a Flickr friend of mine, from Portland, I think Portland must be a very interesting city. Too bad it’s so far away. Seems like there is always something interesting to see there. Lovely photos!

  7. I agree with Marian above. My garden is not at all Chinese but from your pictures, Lan Su seems lovery to me. I only know the Chinese garden in the Montreal Botanical garden and, like this one, it was designed and built by Chinese people (in this case from Shanghai). What I like is the world apart feeling, the great deal of attention to details, the beauty you cannot guess at from the outside that takes you by surprise when you walk in. Also the feeling that you are looking at the result of hundred of years of tradition.

  8. Glad you got to tour this garden. I have mixed emotions about Chinese gardens. I do like the rocks and statues but all to often they are lacking in color. I really liked that path you photographed up there and that boat among the lily pads is stunning! Wishing you a wonderful weekend! More open garden days in the area on Sunday!!! Nicole

  9. Beautiful garden, they always seem to have a peaceful restfulness to them and really demand that you slow down and think about what you’re looking at. Still I agree with others that I look for something else in my garden. More color and energy and change. I like strolling around everyday to see where I am in the big rush through the seasons. Maybe it is a whole different mindset.

  10. Thanks for your honest opinion. Not every gardener has the same tastes and isn’t that a wonderful thing! Doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate what another garden looks like but it does mean we create gardens that are unique and individual to us and to the places we live in. It’s one of the things I appreciate about the garden fling, they always go someplace new and there’s so much new to discover and learn about. I’ve never gone but I do appreciate the posts of those who attend. The gardens the flingers write about are as culturally diverse as the people who create them.

  11. Jason, why you didn’t love this garden? Lovely lotus, the Courtyard viewed through archway is stunning!
    Of course this Chinese style garden is completely different of English garden style but it has its charm.
    Your photos are pretty, you’re a good photographer!

  12. Jason, I appreciate the freshness of your post. I admired this garden, and I actually think quite highly of gardens that value hardscape and stone. But I did not fall in love with this garden either. I’ll have to give some thought as to why (most likely, a cultural “lost in translation”). Did you feel the same about the Japanese Garden, by any chance? I loved it much more.

  13. This was my second visit to the Chinese Garden, and I loved it! I enjoy the centuries-old tradition behind all the elements, and I like the fact that it is like an oasis in the middle of the city. But I understand your opinion, Jason; I would never try to imitate something like this. I prefer prairie plants or colorful blooms. The Japanese Garden is another story, though; I don’t think the Chinese Garden evokes the same sense of serenity that you get when you walk into the Japanese Garden.

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