Kyoto on the Kennebec
I was just chatting with a friend ... how many ghastly tales begin like that? The subject was “Japanese” gardens in Maine. I use quotation marks advisedly.
Many of us share an impulse to create some kind of Japanese feeling or atmosphere in our own backyards. Fortunately here in the Northeast — where the landscape does often have a suitably ancient and craggy look — it’s possible to attain such a thing with fewer contortions than in, say, Baltimore.
Unfortunately, when most of us think “Japanese,” we dash to the garden center and purchase one or more of the following:
- a stone lantern
- a little arching footbridge
- a Japanese maple, weeping cherry, or contorted conifer
- a large quarried rock
— which we then arrange somehow in a landscape of mown grass and sacks of mulch (the stone lantern surprisingly often ends up next to a privacy fence) and behold the fruit of our labor. Which looks lamentably un-Japanese.
If we are reckless, we lay on some raked gravel, a water feature, a hardy bamboo, more and better conifers, and a phalanx of clipped azaleas. By dint of willpower, we may finally achieve something garden visitors will recognize as “Japanese.” But it isn’t really Japanese.
I say this not to belittle our native Western mindset. Rather to offer a modest alternative proposal.
If you consider what makes these gardens so appealing — and especially if you visit a place like the Asticou Azalea Garden in Northeast Harbor -—you discover it isn’t a specific checklist of plants or inanimate objects. One hears buzzwords like balance and harmony, but to me there’s a striking mood of fantasy and playfulness too, as if some sly old gardener had waved a magic trowel and transformed the landscape into a perfect miniature world.
From my experience in actual Maine gardens, I’d say the Japanese element we’re seeking arises from these things:
Definite boundaries. Even if the surrounding landscape bears a passing resemblance to Japan, the garden itself must feel contained.
Asymmetry. Japanese gardening style depends on a sense of balance that is often counter-intuitive for us. We just have to develop a feeling for this.
No lawn. An expanse of grass signals "postwar suburban America." It's probably okay to have a tiny area of grass, but it shouldn't look like someplace you could play baseball. Or croquet. Or anything bigger than Go.
Rocks. But only if they exist naturally on your property, or will look as though they came right up out of the soil.
Moss. This makes everything look old and wonderful, and it stays green during awkward times of the year.
A sense of wildness. Of course, a real Japanese garden is among the most intensively "gardened" places on Earth. But our goal is to create the illusion of a miniaturized natural world. This means, in practice, lots of things growing tightly together, without clear or clean boundaries. Intensive plantings at all levels, from ground covers to trees. But then you have to balance this with:
An area of visual calm. (But not lawngrass!) Water, or a moss "lawn," or a woodland floor left bare except for natural-looking ground covers, or some other quiet, flattish area where the eye can rest.
One strong object of focus in the foreground or middle distance, to hold the eye within the boundaries of this made-up landscape. This doesn't have to be a traditional Japanese thing like a stone lantern. Any good-sized, visually arresting item might do -- a boulder, a weathered sculpture, an old upturned boat. You may need to experiment. Avoid flashy objets d'art.
Time. Everything should look settled, and about 500 years old. So let the plantings wander, and the colors fade, and the lichen spread. Prune ruthlessly to simulate age in shrubs and trees.
Reality. In the end, you have to admit that you are who you are, not a Zen monk, and your yard is where it is, not Kyoto. The place isn't going to feel comfortable or tranquil if the whole thing looks fake, or if it's filled with plants for which you have no personal affinity, or if it's achieved at great expense but little emotional investment.
If you can manage all that, then yes — bring on the dwarf red maples and twisted cypresses and cherry trees with names that mean “sunrise viewed from a window with longing.” If you must have bamboo, grow one of these: Fargesia robusta, Sasaella masamuniana ‘Albostriata,’ or Phyllostachys bissettii. Either that, or dust off the calligraphy brush, because next spring you'll be composing haiku of lamentation.