GARDEN THERAPY: Jaw Dropping Japan – December 2018

By Mel Bellar

I have been in Kyoto, Japan for a week now with little time to get this column in before deadline. Last fall when I told my wife that the New York Botanic Garden was offering a trip to Kyoto to look at gardens, she said that I had to go! What a nice wife and wonderful opportunity. The country and the gardens are just beyond amazing and I am having a wonderful experience. Thank you, sweetheart!

I could go on and on (and on) about Japan but I am going to try to keep this focused on the gardens. I have always loved the Japanese aesthetic, as I imagined it, and think that “Japan meets the Catskills” is not incongruous. I have never learned the rules around Japanese garden design (and still haven’t really) and would never pretend to design a real Japanese garden, but I have been using the concepts in my designs for years and was delighted to have my ideas validated on this remarkable journey.

Japanese design elements make total sense to me functionally and aesthetically, and they work very well in gardens in our area. I don’t know about all of Japan, but Kyoto has a similar topography to the Catskills with mountains that are Catskill-sized and almost nothing is on level ground that is away from the rivers. Hence it provides a very similar palette.

There are basically two main styles of gardens in Japan, meditative gardens (my term) or stroll gardens. Meditation or Zen gardens are often “dry” gardens and usually consist of raked gravel with islands and borders of rocks, moss, seriously pruned trees and shrubs, and sometimes an occasional perennial. (I can’t wait to add some raked gravel to some future, lucky client’s garden!) I have seen dozens of these Zen gardens at the multitudes of amazing temples where they are meant to be viewed from a seated position on tatami mats. These are perfectly constructed vignettes with a lot of symbolism and meaning instilled into these landscapes. However, nearly every home, and often a restaurant, has a little internal garden meant to provide a tranquil resting place for the eye. I liken these to our gardens that are meant to be viewed from a patio or porch and not explored. The stroll garden is self-explanatory and is designed to be explored, revealing new delights on the journey; these often involve ponds, streams, waterfalls and really cool bridges. It is important in Japanese design that not too much is revealed from an entrance but rather a mystery is created that draws you in to find out what is just beyond. Vistas are often obscured by plants or berms until a magnificent scene is revealed suddenly that was there all along. The stroll takes you on a journey through a variety of experiences involving as many senses as possible. This is a great design principle and one that I try to employ as often as possible in my Catskill gardens.

The concept of borrowed scenery or shakkei  is a repeated concept in both styles of gardens but is particularly important in a meditation Zen or viewing (my word again) garden. The borrowed scenery can be mountains, trees or beautiful buildings that create an appropriate backdrop, sometimes seen from above an enclosing wall or hedge. Often, the borrowed scenery provides the enclosure as well. I use the concept of borrowed scenery in my designs to maximize the amazing views, both hills and forest, that we share with our Catskill backdrops. Some sort of feature that creates a sense of enclosure with a view beyond provides a comforting feel to a garden.

So wabi sabi (I love to say it) is an elusive Japanese concept, but in landscapes it can be described as the beauty of things imperfect and impermanent. For instance, the leaves are regularly raked off the moss or gravel with bamboo brooms and “dust pans” but, there always needs to be some leaves left or shaken off the tree to make it look authentic and natural. Japanese aesthetics rarely included symmetry and I love the organic shapes and asymmetry, with beautiful lines and pleasing arrangements. Nearly every surface has patina and texture, and steps and paths are mostly created from natural stones that are irregular. When path stones are rectangular, they are usually not lined up in parallel but rather are offset to break up the line and create more interest — not too perfect.

Natural stone and mossy rocks are a mainstay of the Kyoto garden. They are everywhere, and I always say “you can never have too many rocks.” I love the way they use stone. The dry gardens have some rules about stone placement and size to signify deities (often the Buddha), the crane and turtle, fire, earth, etc. The aspirational stones are often the focal point with a strong vertical stone, or several, flanked by some lower, more horizontal stones. I think a grouping of stones with a vertical highlight is a beautiful configuration regardless of the meaning and is great in the Catskills, if you can find a nice tall stone that has the grain running the right way. Whatever the significance, the way the stones are grouped and complemented with tucked-in plants surrounded by gravel or moss is just magnificent. Many of the bridges in the temple gardens, and restaurant gardens for that matter, are created from huge natural pieces of stone.  Ahhhh.

There is lots of gravel of all sizes and shapes used throughout Japanese gardens. You rarely see larger areas of paving stone and, heaven forbid, concrete or asphalt; it is nearly always gravel. The classic raked gravel in the Zen gardens is just one way we see gravel. It is used for major paths and congregation areas as well as to emulate streams and ponds in the form of dry creek beds and ponds. It ranges in size from small pea gravel to dark river rock and larger cobbles.

Perhaps the most recognizable characteristic of Japanese gardens is the pruning. We are all familiar with the image of the beautiful craggy shape of a bonsai. Well, in Japan that effect, and more, is used on nearly every variety of tree and shrub and is everywhere in the landscape. Huge trees are pruned to have beautiful shapes; the street trees are pruned, the shrubs are pruned and, of course, the temple gardens have unimaginably beautiful pruned specimens at every turn. There are a plethora of special tools and specialists to use them and I haven’t seen a single chainsaw on a pole. The idea is to create beautiful shapes, possibly combined with controlling size. This results in many plants that look much older than their size would indicate. Trees are also pruned to create framing for specific views and thinned to create a view through what would normally be a dense cover. Many plants, including azaleas, are shaped to create walls and emulate waves and hills.

The wonders of the Japanese garden are never-ending, and I am really looking forward to incorporating some of my new experiences into future projects.~

 Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes and a passionate Andes gardener