Leslie Buck tackles a Japanese maple at a client’s home in Berkeley, Calif. (Maya Blum Photography)
Gardening columnist

Almost every tree and shrub in the garden can be improved by a knowledgeable pruner and ruined by an incompetent one.

Deft pruning will make a plant more handsome but is done principally for practical reasons — to establish a strong single leader, to remove rubbing branches or to repair damage, for example.

In Japan, pruning is a near-sacred art practiced by skilled gardeners who can spend as long as 15 years in a formal apprenticeship. There, the driver is artistry. One of the key objectives is to render trees as they might look in nature after a century or two, though in a somewhat shrunken form and a shorter timeline. And no conifer or maple or azalea is pruned for itself alone. They are treated as interrelated players in a carefully considered scene.

Leslie Buck thought she understood this, training under a Japanese American mentor in her home town of Berkeley, Calif. She belongs to a subset of professional gardeners called aesthetic-pruners. But when she attended conferences, the message was clear: If you want to perfect this, you have to make a pilgrimage to Japan.

Leslie Buck sharpens a saw during her apprenticeship in Kyoto. Japanese gardeners wear cloth boots called jikatabi. (Courtesy of Leslie Buck)

What followed was a three-month stint with a venerable company of gardeners from Kyoto. If this conjures the image of Buck contemplating a twig for three hours to the sound of a bamboo flute before making a snip, think again.

In her mid-30s, she found herself in a form of horticultural boot camp, with an all-male crew of manic gardeners led by a boss who was as tough as a drill sergeant. Buck later discovered that “Bossman” was much older than he looked and had been trained as a kamikaze pilot in World War II. But the divine wind blew him toward a long life. In his 70s, he was as strong and indefatigable as men in his crew who were half his age.

They worked at a breakneck pace for 10 hours a day, six days a week. They pruned on precarious bamboo poles lashed between high branches, and they worked through thunderstorms, freezing downpours and even an earthquake. They observed the strict boundaries of etiquette in a hierarchical system Buck was now a part of. She learned to check her feelings and keep her mouth shut, aided somewhat by her limited knowledge of Japanese. The frustrations and sense of cultural isolation built.

The experience left Buck physically drained and an emotional wreck. She could not open a journal she had kept there until three years had lapsed. “I almost had a nervous breakdown.”

In time, she worked and reworked her diaries into a book, newly published and titled “Cutting Back: My Apprenticeship in the Gardens of Kyoto.”

As is generally the case with boot camp, though, she came through it stronger and with a sense of self-respect that endures 17 years later.

Bossman would shout and ridicule, but Buck came to see that he was pushing her to become both tough and skilled. And when she returned to the United States, she realized she had polished her craft. About 20 percent of the gardens she works on in the Bay Area are Japanese in style, but all her work is informed by those underlying sensibilities.

“I still think, how is everything working together, and am I getting drama into this garden?” she said. When she returns to a favorite Japanese maple during its early years, she sees herself as the tutor, the plant her pupil. She is guiding its growth, not controlling it.

In Japan, she learned that pruning maples — either the upright shrubby and treelike forms or the weeping dissectums — had to do with considering not the structure of the branches but the space between them.

Pine trees were another frequent player in the gardens, both the prized red pine and the highly sculptural black pines. Pruners would shape them in the spring and fall in ways unthinkable in most American gardens. The spring pruning would involve cutting back the fresh bundles of needles, the candles, but also hand-pulling older needles. The measures would force a flush of secondary growth that was denser and shorter. In the fall, the pruner returned to style and opened up the new foliage, with more needle pulling. This not only gave a sense of great age but worked to reveal the beauty of the bark. In the book, Buck recounts arriving at one garden where pruners have paid twice yearly visits to the pines for 350 years.

Her writings, inevitably, are a reflection on the contrasts between the roles of the gardener in two very different cultures.

In the United States, the person who designs a garden is put on a pedestal above the people building it, never mind the invisible souls who maintain it. In Japan, they are all of the same high standing. The clients, who paid well for their teams of expert pruners, would observe them at work as a form of timeless cultural spectacle.

This respect, in turn, drove them to push themselves.

“The ongoing friendly chitchat between my American gardener friends and me did not exist for Japanese craftsmen,” Buck wrote. “They seemed intent on trying to outdo each other in pruning, speed and effort, with hardly a word exchanged.”

Why did they do it? “It was a sense of pride, and it doesn’t come from money,” she told me. “They worked as hard as they could, every day.”

Now 51 and still climbing maples to beautify and venerate them, Buck says the book was written over a period of 15 years. She thought if she could not find a publisher, she could live with the fact that she tried, and move on.

When Timber Press stepped up, she was thrilled.

“In my heart, I wanted this book for the gardeners in the United States. We are isolated, we don’t get paid much, but we are still willing to do it. And I wanted them to know that there are other people out there who are proud of what they are doing.”

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