The Elusive Oriental Garden
by Carla Allen
November 10, 1999

I'll never forget the one and only Japanese garden I ever had the experience of visiting. Ten years ago I attended a perennial plant symposium in Georgia and one of our scheduled day trips was to the Atlanta Botanical Gardens. We were behind schedule and dusk was beginning to fall. So much to see, in so little time! I walked through the herb knot garden as staff were occupying themselves with the lighting of torches planted in each corner, trotted on down the trail to the Scented Garden, rounded a corner and found myself in a tiny oriental garden.

The designer had truly captured the spirit of this most special form of gardening. Tears sprang to my eyes as I drank in all of the details. A ramshackle lean-to was positioned to overlook the view - a pool the size of a footbath, moss covered stones, a pine pruned to suggest a wind-swept veteran. A bamboo fence enclosed the area and a few rushes and small shrubs were there as well. Simple. It was all so simple, yet the emotions I felt from this collection were so strong, I didn't want to leave.

The Japanese style of gardening is a rare one for several reasons, yet it appeals to most people. Properly designed, their beauty is apparent throughout the year, with trees and shrubs even shaped to catch the snow in beautiful ways. "Shibusa" is a word the Japanese often use to describe gardens. Translators have found the word rich in connotations - restraint, truth, nobility, good taste, simplicity and elegance. "Restraint and simplicity" are two qualities which many gardeners find hard to adapt.

It seems most of us in the Northern hemisphere must have one of each - in red, white, pink, blue..... Colorful, bountiful blooms are an important requirement for a majority of homeowners. A few gardeners find the idea of owning a Japanese garden appealing, having the misconception that they require no maintenance. The sand or gravel which often forms a significant part of Oriental garden designs must be raked and "shaped" daily for best appearance. There are still weeds to pull, they would be even more out of place in the sparse landscape afforded by this type of garden. And as mentioned above, pruning is an important practise. The basic foundations for all Japanese gardens are water, plants and stones. Moss is great too! Hey, you're probably thinking, my backyard is full of stones and moss. You may indeed have the rudimentary beginnings of a Japanese garden. The next thing to develop is an Oriental philosophy. The Japanese have throughout the centuries, always believed that NATURE, not man creates the garden. Color is only temporary, a reminder of the changing seasons. The Japanese find security in age and antiquity with traditional materials like wood, stone and bronze. The lichened tree, rusted fence and mossed stone suggest infinity and are highly regarded. Rocks portray the solidity of nature and are a calm, stable force. Gardens are enclosed, either by bamboo, wood, stone or living material. Being enclosed removes noise distractions, defines the limits and frames the area. Evergreens are used as a major skeleton and a structural background with deciduous trees and flowering shrubs as interest points. Contrasting colors and textures can be seen with the use of grasses and ferns in poorly drained areas.

Less is best when it comes to using plants in the design. Some of the smaller Japanese gardens are composed of no more than a single stone and tree arranged harmoniously with a few small ground covering plants. It's best to consider Japanese gardening as a form of artwork and as such, not everyone who sets out to create these special gardens will find themselves having a "knack" for it.

There are no "Step-by-step How -to-Build a Japanese Garden" aids, since the Oriental garden is created by feelings, symbolism and codes of ethics which are impossible to completely define. Yet one should never withhold the paintbrush from a hand which desires to never knows the talent buried within.

Carla Allen and her husband David operate South Cove Nursery Ltd. near Yarmouth N.S. Carla writes The Vine for the Yarmouth Vanguard and is the editorial coordinator for East Coast Gardener. E-mail: this is the end

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