Japanese Maples are a vanity plant for gardens in the harsh Zone 9 waterless summers. As the warm weather sets in, the leaves cook slowly and desiccate, struggling even under heavy shade and with wastefully lavish mists to humidify their branches and cool their feet.
Just outside my back door, under shade cloth and watered as often as twice daily in the summer, the two small Japanese maples create a backdrop for the tsukubai or stone water basin that is cool and inviting spot on the hottest days. The basin sits on a reservoir covered with large river stones and housing a small pump that re-circulates the water. Although created to symbolize the Japanese garden concept of inviting guests to humble themselves by kneeling on the center stone, and to purify themselves by washing before entering my garden, the basin now serves the very practical purpose of a conveniently raised water bowl for our aging arthritic dog.
Because it is carefully designed to gather and recycle even irrigation water for the small garden in the middle of a stone-paved patio, the system requires surprisingly little refilling. An occasional capful of bleach keeps the algae from overwhelming and blocking the rubber tube slipped inside the bamboo outlet.
However, the inevitable creep of global warming is making my climate drier and more desert-like than it has been in my 30+ years gardening here. At some point, I will have to forgo the luxury of my Japanese maples, and to replace them with a suitably drought-tolerant small tree – perhaps a Ceanothus or a small Melaleuca with a weeping habit.
Meanwhile however, watching the newly emerged leaves before they shrivel in the coming summer heat and drought, I am enjoying the tsukubai garden. Pictured here, it still serves as a transition from the coarse, harsh dry climate of my back yard into the spiritual cool and verdant oasis of a small Japanese garden.