Head gardener at city moves on

A move to a new town usually means saying goodbye to people and places.

For Donn Todt, long-time head gardener for the Ashland Parks & Recreation Department, his move to Corvallis meant bidding farewell to people, places and plants.

"Vegetationally, this will always be my home," he said on his last day of work for the parks department earlier this month.

Todt started working for the parks department in 1980 at a time when Lithia Park had still not recovered from a flood in 1974. Current Parks Superintendent Steve Gies was hired at about the same time, and with then-Parks Director Ken Mickelsen, they built up a small crew.

"Ken and I had a deal," Todt recalled. "He would take care of the politics and I would take care of the plants."

After working for the parks department for 24 years, Mickelsen left to head a parks department in Maple Valley, Wash., and was replaced by current Parks Director Don Robertson in 2004.

Todt's duties as head gardener have included deciding which plants and trees should go where, protecting soils and root systems and maintaining historic continuity for Lithia Park.

But he has always found time outside his job to do even more work related to plants.

For 20 years, Todt tracked acorn production at five sites scattered from outside White City to near Emigrant Lake. His research showed that trees have boom and bust cycles when it comes to producing acorns, meaning that American Indians who used acorns for food probably had to store acorns, trade with distant groups where acorn production was good and find alternate food sources.

Todt ended his acorn study last fall and now wants to spend time putting the data into charts and graphs.

He has a number of ethnobotanical studies that are only partially written. He hopes to finish writing those studies in Corvallis.

Todt has already been published in a number of venues, including the Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology, the Journal of Ethnobiology and Southern Oregon Heritage Today.

After spending about a year wrapping up his unwritten research findings, Todt said he may do contract work on projects like ethnobotanical surveys of archeological sites.

"It's reading back into the past to determine what kinds of plants were important," he said.

Todt already has experience digging into the past through numerous projects.

On one, Todt and his wife, Nan Hannon, poured over the diaries, logs and invoices of pioneer, photographer and orchardist Peter Britt to determine what plants and trees Britt planted on his Jacksonville property.

They found that Britt planted rhododendrons, which were not suited to the Southern Oregon climate and perished. However, an early palm tree made it for almost 100 years, Todt said.

A slogan states that Southern Oregon is "Where the palm tree meets the pine," referring to the region's relatively mild climate while also promoting its mountainous terrain.

"Probably where the original palm tree met the pine was at the Peter Britt property," Todt said.

Todt called his years with the Ashland Parks & Recreation Department a "good run."

He credited not only the people who work hands-on with plants as being important for the parks system, but also the parks director and elected Ashland Parks & Recreation Commissioners, custodial staff who deal with garbage and graffiti, the many citizen volunteers, civic groups and even the people who are sentenced to do work in the parks on community service crews.

"It's been a thoroughly enjoyable experience. I love the people I work with and for — the citizens of Ashland. I'll always be checking back in on people and plants," he said. "That's what I'm most interested in — the relationship between people and plants."

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.

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