Gretchen Carnaby works with "rose detectives" trying to identify rare 19th Century species in Bush's Pasture Park's oldest rose garden. (Helen Caswell/Special to Salem Reporter)

After more than 30 years of citizen leadership in Bush’s Pasture Park, Gretchen Carnaby is stepping down from her garden duties.

A stalwart band of volunteers called Tuesday Gardeners and the park have benefitted from her service.

 “Gretchen is one of a kind,” says Christine Chute, board president of the Mission Street Parks Conservatory, the organization Carnaby works with. “She brings so much expertise, energy and commitment to the park. It would be a very different place without her leadership.”

Carnaby’s involvement in the park began in 1979 when she answered a public request from the Salem Arts Association for volunteers to care for the plants in the conservatory.

 “I loved the park and wanted to be a supporter,” she recalled.

She started her service propagating geraniums in the conservatory, expanding her responsibilities over the years.

Though she is retiring, Carnaby’s presence will be felt at the conversatory’s annual plant sale in July, which she will lead.

“Gretchen measures to the inch in her schematics where the tables will be placed, where the holding area will be located,” said Chute.

Carnaby even decides how the wooden benches are to be lined up.

“She personally places the plants in all the displays,” Chute said.

The sale is the best venue for the public to see the park in glorious summer, meet the volunteers and buy extraordinary local plants grown by Willamette Valley nurseries. Profits will allow the conservancy to buy more plants and flowers, complete special projects and find a part-time employee to fill Carnaby’s shoes.

For decades, the Tuesday Gardeners, a group of 20 to 30 volunteers under Carnaby’s direction, have worked to create the showplace the park is today.

Bush’s Pasture Park comprises 90 acres of green landscape just south of downtown Salem.

The park has two levels. The lower one is an extensive Oregon white oak grove, its ground filled with native camas blooms in the spring, a rushing stream and numerous shady trails to wander. The upper area features a rose garden with 2,000 bushes and seasonal flowerbeds, an historic Victorian mansion and plant conservatory, a playground and a rhododendron garden.

From March to November, the Tuesday Gardeners turn out to maintain plantings and improve the park. Under Carnaby’s watchful guidance they mulch, prune, weed and replant roses. They remove seasonal bulbs each spring and replace them with summer flowers.

They later install a “hot garden” of flowers and plants that sustain pollinators through the end of the season. They care for the rhododendrons. This spring they planted four catalpa trees to replace those lost in February’s ice storm. 

 “Gretchen was born to be a general,” says Lani O’Callaghan, a former volunteer coordinator. “One time it turned cold and very windy when we were all laying newspapers on top of garden beds. The papers kept flying off, and if we’d taken a vote – there’s no doubt we would have all gone home early. But Gretchen stayed focused, and kept the troops working till the job was done. And we did it!"

Carnaby was a particular force for the park after budget cuts in the 1980s left the city with fewer people to tend Bush’s Pasture Park. At that time, Carnaby noticed that historic hybrids, tea roses and floribundas hadn’t received proper care in many years.

In response, she mobilized volunteers to mulch the rose beds with 120 yards of compost and bark dust. 

Soon after, a friend banged on Carnaby’s door to tell her that the Salem City Council wanted to convert the rose garden into parking.

“We’ve got to do something,” the friend said. 

“Right then, Gretchen said, ‘That’s not going to happen!’ and she got busy organizing,” Chute said.

She engaged volunteers to inventory the rose collection and hand out fliers to the public. Through her efforts and the interest she created, the plants were saved.

“Our rose collection is fabulous,” said Carnaby. “Roses not seen anywhere else, brought across the prairie or around the Horn,” and later collected in the 1930s “from cuttings from old properties and cemeteries.”  

 As the city’s financial support continued to wane, “It became apparent we needed an organization to respond,” Carnaby said.

That led to the formation of Friends of Bush Gardens in 1991. Fueled by a desire to achieve even more, that group evolved into the Mission Streets Park Conservancy in 2016.  The conservancy works in the park under an agreement with the city.

 “I’m very proud of our partnership with the city,” Carnaby said.

The conservancy and Carnaby have undertaken significant enterprises over the years. One was the creation of six interpretive kiosks at strategic park locations. The kiosks provide the history of the area, the importance of camas to native peoples, the native trees and animals, and so on.

“You always see people reading these,” said Jon Christenson, parks chairman of the South Central Association of Neighbors. “The well-designed signage really enhances the park experience for people.”

Gabrielle Schiffer, one of the Tuesday Gardeners at Bush's Pasture Park. Regarding Gretchen Carnaby: "Gretchen has a love for plants and is a protector of plants. She knows each of their names and what they need to grow." (Helen Caswell/Special to Salem Reporter)

 Another conservancy achievement that Carnaby strongly impacted was the ravine project, undertaken to improve the flow of rainwater crossing under the park’s main paved path. For decades, the water collected in a drainage ditch and passed under the path through a pipe.

Ron Miner, a local landscape designer hired for the project, said the goal was to replace bare ground with a natural rock streambed situated among native plantings.

 “Gretchen’s a stickler for detail, and committed to getting things right,” said Miner. “She was very involved in the project from Day 1 and we consulted almost every day.”

He began by designing two separate rock ravines and working out the logistics for a sitting area on the lower side.

“She and I worked closely,” he recalled.

Carnaby contributed to the ravine design and raised money. She also solved an important early problem - acquiring rocks that would make the ravine resemble a realistic Oregon stream.

“It’s not as easy as you would think," Miner said. “The rocks you can get commercially or at the garden store are dynamited from quarries that aren’t even in the state. They’re not what you see naturally in Salem or even in Oregon. We wanted the large, heavily mossed boulders that were native to here. Water looks beautiful and natural running through them. But they’re nearly impossible to find.”

He said Carnaby discovered a “mountain” of such boulders next to Willamette Valley Vineyards, which cleared them for cultivation.

 “We got all the rocks we needed from that single source,” he said.

Carnaby relishes such projects.

“Some of our greatest accomplishments,” she said, “include the funding and building of the Victorian-style gazebo in the rose garden and the restoration of the Bush House conservatory. Our budget consisted of the proceeds from two annual plants sales and fundraising for the larger individual projects.”

The warmth and depth of the Tuesday Gardeners feelings for Carnaby was on display in a recent party during a Tuesday workday – her last as official leader. Snacks were served and gratitude was expressed in both directions.

After the break, as typical for a hard-working team, the gardeners went back to weeding a steep rocky hill behind the rhododendron garden.

“Gretchen’s commitment never flagged,” Chute said. “She is a consistent and inspiring presence in Bush Park, and has been that for 30-plus years.”

Volunteer Carel DeWinkel admired the benefits of working under Carnaby.

“You don’t just garden, you receive the incredible plant knowledge which she’s always interested in teaching us, and when she speaks to us it’s always with respect,” DeWinkel said.

DeWinkel especially valued the end-of-season potluck every winter “where Gretchen went over our accomplishments of that season and showed her appreciation for the volunteers’ hard work.”

“When you see your boss working as hard as you do,” said volunteer Mark Wigg, “that’s inspiring.”

Those feelings are mutual.

“My greatest joy has been the coming together of our group of volunteer gardeners,” Carnaby said. “We have a dear cadre of park enthusiasts who seem to love to get their hands dirty for the good of the park and to enjoy each other’s company.”

Gretchen Carnaby is retiring from her role with the Mission Street Parks Conservatory to care for Bush's Pasture Park. (Helen Caswell/Special to Salem Reporter)

Helen Caswell can be reached at [email protected]

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