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Japanese gardens turn water into art
by Janet Davis
by Janet Davis


Janet Davis is a freelance garden writer and horticultural photographer whose stories and images have been featured in numerous publications. Magazines featuring her work include Canadian Gardening, Canadian Living, Gardening Life, President’s Choice Magazine, Chatelaine Gardens and, in the United States, Fine Gardening and Country Living Gardener.


June 20, 1999

There's nothing quite like the splash of water to bring life to a garden. Birds are drawn to running water, particularly if flat rocks are positioned carefully at water level to provide a safe perch for a cool drink or bath, and there are shrubs or trees nearby where they can take refuge. The sound of trickling water also creates a sense of tranquility in the garden, dulling noises and the din of traffic in the street.

Japanese landscape design has long used water as a vital component, along with rock and a subdued palette of mostly green plants. Even in gardens without water, smooth river stones might be arranged to form dry stream beds. In Zen landscapes, sand or gravel is carefully raked until it resembles waves, with rocks placed strategically within the gravel to resemble islands in a lake.

Many modern Japanese gardens feature a tsukabai (pronounced skoo-bye), a stone basin historically used in temple gardens for ritual handwashing before the tea ceremony. One type of tsukabai has a bamboo flume or spout mounted nearby which trickles water onto the surface of the basin. The water overflows from the basin onto rocks placed at its base, then into a receptacle under a grate holding the rocks, where it's pumped back to the bamboo shoot via a small recirculating pump.

It isn't even necessary to have the pump and bamboo spout. Still water left standing in an attractive basin, such as an Oriental pickling jar or a large glazed bowl, makes a very effective feature, especially in a small garden. The water merely needs to be changed from time to time.

Another interesting Japanese water feature that can be adapted to fit into a small garden or Oriental design is the deer-scarer, the sozu or shishi-odoshi, once used to deter marauding deer or wild boar that might have threatened the Japanese farmer's crop. Water trickles slowly through a hollow bamboo flume down into the shorter end of a second piece of drilled bamboo that's been mounted, swivel-like, on a pin between bamboo uprights that are anchored in rocks. One end is either capped or left sealed (bamboo has natural segmented partitions in its stem) to hold the water. When enough water has filled the lower piece of bamboo, the weight forces it to pivot suddenly, emptying, then swing backward, with the closed end clacking noisily on a rock placed below, presumably scaring the wild boars.

Because the amount of stored water necessary to create this effect is not large, you could use a plastic or enamel laundry tub as a below-ground receptacle, or dig a hole and line it with PVC plastic or EPDM rubber pond liner. Place the recirculation pump in the water receptacle, attach a length of flexible tubing to the outlet, and thread it up and out before covering the grate with smooth river stones, with one positioned to receive the "clack".

Insert the pump tubing into the fixed bamboo spout, which needs to be mounted nearby, perhaps nestled in rocks that anchor it while they disguise the tubing leading into it, or fastened to bamboo uprights. A small pump is sufficient, and even then, a clamp may be needed to restrict flow.

A friend who installed a shishi-odoshi in a small wooden pool on her deck got into trouble with the next-door neighbours, who hated the clacking sound. She settled for turning the pump on only for dinners or parties -- hopefully to scare away those mild bores next door.

Originally published Toronto Sun

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