A Touch of the Far East
Despite popular belief, a Japanese aesthetic can feel very much at home in a Maine garden — if you approach your planning with t
- By: Richard Grant
Photograph by Lee Schneller Sligh
I was just chatting with a friend . . . how many ghastly tales begin like that? The subject was making “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 higgledy-piggledy 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.
Ah, well. If we are never-say-die sorts — as likely we are, being Mainers — we might next 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 might finally achieve something that garden visitors will recognize as “Japanese.” But it isn’t really Japanese.
And that is for a very good reason. If you’ve ever popped open a book about Japanese garden design (there’s a good, accessible one in the Ortho garden-and-landscaping series, and a nice slim volume from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden), you will have discovered that what you’re looking at is not the Joy of Cooking — handy lists of ingredients and simple instructions for combining them. It’s more like an advanced philosophical treatise crossed with a manual of applied botany: not something you can just dip into and get the gist of.
I say this not to belittle our native Western mindset. (And to be fair, as gardening styles go, the English perennial border can be every bit as vexing and recondite.) Instead, I’d like to suggest a modest alternative approach to bringing a Japanese touch to your garden, without coming off like the Mickey Rooney character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
First, let’s consider what makes these places so appealing in their purest form — as we find it, for instance, at the Asticou Azalea Garden in Northeast Harbor. It is not a specific menu of plants or inanimate objects. It’s something much less tangible, an atmosphere we recognize immediately but cannot easily pin down. You hear buzzwords like balance and serenity, but to me there’s a striking mood of fantasy and playfulness there as well — as if some sly old gardener had waved a magic trowel and transformed the landscape into a perfect miniature world.
From my experience in real-life 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 it. No straight lines, except where a perimeter fence or hedge may be involved.
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 it will look as though they came right up out of the soil. Don’t just plop them there — bury them about halfway, and try to arrange them (if you’ve got more than one) to resemble the kind of outcropping that occurs in nature. Examples abound all over Maine.
Moss. This makes everything look old and wonderful, and it stays green during awkward times of the year. Once established, it needs almost zero attention, and even stands up well to drought and to light foot traffic. Here’s one way to get started: Gather handfuls of as many different mosses as you can find, preferably from micro-habitats similar to your own. Throw them in a blender and add an equal amount of buttermilk, plus a tablespoon per quart of seaweed concentrate (available at local garden centers). Lightly blend this into a thick paste. Spread it with a knife where you want it to grow, and keep it moist, not soaking, until it greens up nicely. (What fool said this isn’t the Joy of Cooking?)
A feeling 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, practically speaking, intensive plantings at all levels, from ground covers to trees. Plants should grow tightly together, with no clear or clean boundaries, and no bare patches in between. But then you have to balance this with an area of visual calm — water, a moss “lawn,” a woodland floor left bare except for natural-looking ground covers, or some other quiet, flattish area where the eye can rest. Sand or raked gravel, appealing in theory, usually looks a mess. Have lawn grass if you absolutely must, but keep the area small and irregularly shaped.
An object of focus in the foreground or middle distance to hold the eye within the boundaries of your made-up landscape. And again, only one. (I confess, I do not follow this rule, but it’s a good rule nonetheless.) The object doesn’t have to be a traditional Japanese thing like a stone lantern. Any good-sized, visually arresting item might work: A boulder, a weathered sculpture, an old upturned boat. Avoid flashy objets d’art. You might need to experiment.
Time. Everything should look settled, and about five hundred 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. Your garden won’t 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.
Now if you can manage all that, then, yes, bring on the dwarf red maples, and the twisted cypresses, and the cherry trees with names that mean “sunrise viewed from a window with longing.”
And by all means, grow bamboo. Nobody seems to grow bamboo in Maine, so here’s a chance to wow your friends and neighbors. There are three basic types that will succeed here, and no reason you can’t have them all:
Ground-cover bamboos. These rarely grow taller than eighteen to twenty-four inches, and spread by underground rhizomes. Grow them in broad patches or as striking potted specimens. In Maine they’re semi-evergreen, which means they look ratty (if not dead) by spring; you can shear them to the ground, if you like, and new growth will surpass the old. Varieties that thrive for me are Pleioblastus viridistriatus (and its gold-chartreuse form, ‘Chrysopyllus’, which I prefer) and Sasaella masamuneana ‘Albostriata’. All are charming and trouble-free.
Clump-forming bamboos in the genus Fargesia. These are all, I believe, from the mountains of China. The best is Fargesia robusta, which grows to about six feet for me. Other contenders are F. rufa, murielae, and nitida (in that order, I’d say). All are beautiful; none requires special winter protection. The leaves may die in cold weather; if so, they turn an attractive pale tan and cling to the stems, a pleasant sight above the snow. These don’t spread by runners but make larger clumps over time.
Running bamboos in the genus Phyllostachys — a large genus of which only some species are Maine-hardy. The best, for me, is P. bissetii, which reaches nine feet with an elegant arching habit. Others that will grow here, with varying degrees of vigor, are P. decora — the fastest runner of the bunch — aureosulcata (which has two lovely selected forms), atrovaginata, and nuda. You may hear dire warnings about these bamboos. In Maine, the chief problem is getting them through winter. For young plants, I suggest bending the canes down until the tips touch the ground, then weighting them with evergreen boughs, around Thanksgiving. This should (but doesn’t always) keep them green. After the first year or two, clumps will be well enough established that, even if they die back, they’ll put out vigorous new shoots next spring. At that point, you do need to think about how far they might spread and whether you actually want them there. (Probably you should have thought about this a couple of years ago. I never have.)
There are other exciting bamboos out there, many of which have not been rigorously tested for winter hardiness. I’d love for somebody to try them. Meanwhile I will dust off the calligraphy brush, because by next spring we’ll probably be composing a haiku of lamentation.
Secrets of a Japanese Garden
Perhaps more than any other cultivation discipline, Japanese gardening is about creating a meditative state of mind. Lee Schneller Sligh, who acquired her interest in gardens while working as a translator in Tokyo, specializes in applying Japanese aesthetics and design principles to the New England landscape. Her Cushing-based business, Lee Schneller Fine Gardens, has designed and created more than two hundred gardens in Maine, and it restored the stone settings at the renowned Asticou Azalea Garden in Northeast Harbor. Sligh also developed a technique for building a continuously blooming perennial garden, which she details in her book, The Ever-Blooming Flower Garden: A Blueprint for Continuous Color. Here she reveals some of her secrets for creating gardens that induce contemplation and reflection in the Japanese tradition.
How does one capture the ambiance of a Japanese garden in Maine?
A Japanese garden should be harmonious with its environment. In Japan, the gardens contain the same plants that are growing outside the garden, such as bamboo and certain kinds of evergreens. The gardens are tranquil, but that doesn’t have anything to do with using exotic plants. In fact, that’s contrary to a main tenet of Japanese garden design.
When you transfer that aesthetic to New England, you want to use native plants and what I call near-natives — plants that look in place here but are not true natives. That’s what looks natural and creates that sense of tranquility that people love about Japanese gardens. It’s not jarring or foreign-looking like the kitschy, gimmicky, mini-golf course type of garden with features like bamboo and red bridges. If you do use bamboo, create some kind of transition so you know you are entering a different space.
What are some of the native plants and materials you like to use?
We’re lucky because moss loves Maine. With very little manipulation, you can make a garden with a lot of moss look Japanese. We also have lots of fabulous rocks with great patina readily available.
There are a lot of really nice native plants that look great in Japanese gardens. Pitch pine, Pinus rigida, has a naturally irregular shape and doesn’t require a lot of pruning. Another favorite is sweetgale, Myrica gale, a small, gorgeous shrub with a lovely habit and bluish green leaves that grows on the banks of streams and ponds. It looks very natural and believable in a garden that has a water feature. Sweet fern is a massing ground cover with fabulous texture, and bearberry is a terrific ground cover for sunny spots.
Japanese gardens have a spare quality. They seem deceptively simple.
There is something called the beauty of empty space or, in Japanese, yohaku no bi. This might be an expanse of raked sand or moss, an area that is not cluttered and not planted that balances the areas that are more intensely planted. Placing these areas in nice juxtaposition to each other make a garden look Japanese very quickly. The beauty of empty space is a very foreign concept; we naturally want to put stuff there.
What are some other key features of Japanese gardens?
Japanese gardens are about how it feels to be there and not nearly so much about color, and that sort of thing.
Keeping the lines simple is one design feature. Another is called ’hide and reveal.’ That’s all about designing the garden, even a small one, so you can’t see the whole thing at once. Things are deliberately hidden with a shrub or fence so you are enticed to explore and see what’s beyond.
What is the role of color in a Japanese garden?
Japanese gardens usually don’t have many flowering plants or variegated foliage. They are mostly green, cool, and shady, which is very soothing. There also is a way of appreciating things that do bloom that is unique to Japanese gardens. Each plant should be very separate in bloom time, so that leading up to blooming, there is a delicious sense of anticipation. While it is blooming, there is a ceremony or gathering of friends to enjoy the blossoming of this special plant. After it blooms, there is a bittersweet time of appreciation and memory.
Lee Schneller Sligh gives talks and design workshops on Japanese-style gardening and continuously blooming perennial gardens. For a schedule, visit www.leeschneller.com
- By: Richard Grant