Green Scene: A Japanese garden's natural serenity

By Joel M. Lerner
Saturday, August 14, 2010; F01

The objective of a Japanese garden is to establish a space that creates a mood of serenity and symbolism inspired by nature, designed in a very controlled fashion. Typically this includes the use of rocks, gravel, water, statuary, bridges, wood and some plants that appear to be hundreds of years old. In a traditional Japanese garden, elements are representational of nature in human proportions.

Japanese gardens generally incorporate bonsai as a primary feature. Bonsai are used as accents, often displayed on individual stands because they remain small enough to be kept in a pot.

These shrubs or trees are living sculptures, some of which have been grown and meticulously maintained for generations. Reducing trees that, in nature, might grow to 100 feet or taller to a few inches or a few feet tall is accomplished by rigorous pruning of branches and roots and is accompanied by careful care and nourishing. However, landscape-size plants are also used and trained to look like bonsai.

Having bonsai in your Japanese garden or indoors does not require growing genetically dwarfed plants, just working with seedling flora from companies that specialize in this type of stock. The same cultivation techniques are used: pruning, root reduction, potting, defoliation and grafting to produce small trees and shrubs that mimic the shape and style of mature, full-size plants.

This spring, I spoke with two award-winning bonsai artists who participated in the Potomac Bonsai Association juried show at the National Arboretum's Bonsai and Penjing Museum. Bob Chilton won first place this year, and Todd Stewart won second place in 2009. They are owners of Gardens Unlimited in Ladysmith, Va.

After I viewed their entries, it was clear that bonsai was their calling. And because I love to talk shop, the conversation turned toward landscape design, including Japanese garden design. They mentioned a project their company was working on in Richmond's Montrose Heights, a 1920s and '30s neighborhood of ancient oaks and Arts and Crafts-style homes, and invited my wife, Sandy, and me to visit. They integrated a diversity of materials and originality to create a Japanese garden where bonsai is an integral part.

When we arrived at the home, our eyes were drawn toward a closed Japanese entrance gate to the side of the house. The gate is connected to a bamboo fence that follows the property line into the back yard, providing screening. The path leading to the gate is made of crushed gravel with inlaid rectangular stones and millstones. Mounded beds of 10 percent fine gravel, 40 percent composted bark and 50 percent soil grace the sides of the walkway approaching the gates. The mounds have moss-laden rocks on them and were planted with a dwarf Japanese maple (murasaki kiyohime), hinoki falsecypress and satsuki azaleas.

The 400-year-old elm entry doors and surrounding supporting wooden structure are built entirely with customized wooden joints and pegs -- no nails or screws. The centuries-old gate is basic, fitting into the neighborhood. When the gate opened, a world of wooden walkways, stones and plants appeared, following a serpentine dry creek bed lined with rocks and vegetation.

Golden bamboo is planted in spaces throughout the garden in 30-inch-deep, in-ground containers, with four-inch-tall edges to ensure that the bamboo doesn't grow out into the other areas.

This garden is striking, with an array of plant material reflecting Japanese simplicity. There are statues, rocks, small self-contained water features, a bamboo water flute, square and round steppingstones and millstones, a round brick patio with a raked gravel edge and fire pit in the center, stands holding bonsai, and a stone bridge.

The site's amenities and plants are tastefully incorporated into the garden on the ground, and on vertical and overhead planes. There is a maturing blue atlas cedar that appears to be wired and propped up bonsai style, and a weeping willow pruned to control the canopy. Edges at ground level are softened with hakone grass, acorus and satsuki azaleas. Big-leafed tropical plants in variegated and green forms brush your hand as you enter the house from the garden.

Gardens Unlimited employed art objects in innovative ways. Some were prohibitively weighty "art." They needed a boom truck and a crane to set some of the rocks and an iron sculpture. Operators moved 10,000-to-12,000-pound stone specimens into the garden one at a time, including rocks, sculptural elements and a piece of curbing that was installed to serve as seating and built into a stone wall. Taken from various times in antiquity, these elements fit together in a delightful, eclectic fashion that literally stopped us in our tracks as we journeyed through the garden. A powerful waterfall appeared to be part of a dry streambed that is the dominant theme running through the garden, but this waterfall is a component of a separate, self-contained, re-circulating body of water containing Japanese koi fish and tropical waterlilies. The water from this feature flows into the dry streambed only during periods of heavy rain.

One of the most interesting aspects of the garden's evolution was that it started with a drainage problem the landscape designers were called upon to fix. This house had endured flooding from virtually every heavy rain for decades, but the owners have had no water problems since installation was completed. The designers approached the problem with the understanding and common sense of diverting storm water downhill and away from the house. That's the purpose of the dry streambed.

The home is in a neighborhood of modest-size lots. The property is a little less than 10,000 square feet -- about a third of it dedicated to the Japanese and bonsai garden. The walkway through the back yard parallels the dry streambed. The drainage swale is designed as the primary visual axis throughout the garden and was contoured to accommodate the flow of storm water, allowing it to percolate into the soil and flow into open pipes during heavy rains.

Creating a garden like this requires a cooperative effort among the designers, homeowners, carpenters, equipment operators and other innovative thinkers. Gardens Unlimited considered every aspect of construction, down to the 6,000-gallon-per-hour pump, external filtering system and grading of the dry streambed. Chilton and Stewart recently decided to increase pumping to about 9,000 gallons per hour -- an excellent example of the ongoing process of landscape design.

Joel M. Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park.

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