- Marc Peter Keane, The Japanese Tea Garden
The weird thing about trying to learn today about Japanese gardens, which were invented when Japanese monks traveled to see Chinese gardens and applied a Zen minimalism, is that you have to read books. That’s not the weird thing. The weird thing is that the way real Chinese and Japanese gardeners learned their craft was not by reading but by doing. And they didn’t have teachers that lectured. The apprentice just watched, and watched. As did Keane, to learn his art. The student has become the master, Grasshopper.
Then again, Terry Pratchett thinks you can take those goofy Zen riddles a bit too far. He says that the sound one hand clapping makes is something like “cl”. At any rate, here are some of my favorite books on the subject of Japanese and Chinese Gardening.
You can learn about large Japanese gardens in the Taschen (aka beautifully illustrated) book “Japanese Gardens: Right Angle and Natural Form” by Gunter Nitschke. It is a history book of (mostly) large garden spaces from their origins to the present day. One of the nicer things in this book is the interpretation of the principles accompanying the pictures of some of the most famous gardens in Japan. The thing I like best about it is that it includes a lot about the role of rocks in the garden, and in plants that mimic other forms in nature like plants and trees that mimic mountains and streams.
If you want to go back further, look into Chinese gardens. “Gardens of Longevity in China and Japan, by Pierre and Susanne Rambach. This is another lovely coffee-table picture book that could be used as an art history text because it explains how Chinese landscape painting was packed full of geomancy and symbolism. I believe to make an authentic Japanese garden you need to understand some of the theory that many early European students of Chinese art completely missed. From deconstructing the elaborate mountainside paintings to the calligraphically minimalist drawings, the authors then connect actual gardens to actual paintings. Some are large gardens and some are miniaturized versions. This book is one of the best at showing the relationship and cross-pollination of Chinese and Japanese.
If you want to skip the theory and just have a pretty, authentic Asian-inspired backyard garden or a small pot planted with a bonsai or entire miniature landscape including rocks, you go straight to projects. A good book for this is “Japanese Gardens in a Weekend” by Robert Ketchell. The subtitle says it all: Projects for 1, 2 or 3 weekends. Although I found them to be more like 1 -3 month- projects.
A better book is a mix of theory and practical projects: “The Art of Japanese Gardens: Designing & Making Your Own Peaceful Space, by Herb Gustafson. I have a paperback version of what I’m sure is even prettier in hardback. The book combines great illustrations, brief but thorough explanations, and excellent practical recommendations.
But my current favorite one is Kean’s tea garden book quoted above. I first knew of him because he learned Japanese gardening in the traditional way and at one point was not only designing gardens in Kyoto, he was on the faculty at Kyoto University of Art and Design. His 2001 co-translation of one of the first written Japanese Garden books called the Sakuteiki, and later “Japanese Garden Design” which draws heavily on his own training and expertise to interpret these gardens from the inside out: from the intent of the designer.
My favorite thing that comes through in all these books is what drew me to these types of gardens in the first place. In order to create a garden that that encourages a sense of peace, you must include a sense of time - an indispensible part of the tradition of Japanese and Chines gardening. Landscape is something you can do over a weekend or two. If you want a place to go to find peace and stillness, a place to bring you into the present, you need a place that understands and expresses the past. You need a place where the stones are alive with the magic of the flora and fauna that have passed through their eyes like a speeded-up film over long periods of time.
Trees can live longer than people. Flowers can live for briefer periods. The land has been here since it’s been here. As Terry Pratchett says in Wyrd Sisters when the Kingdom is getting angry because the new king doesn’t like it, two witches discuss the problem:
“…How come this one takes offense all of a sudden?”
”It’s been here a long time,” said Granny.
“So’s everywhere,” said Nanny…”Everywhere’s been where it is ever since it was first put there. It’s called geography.”
“That’s just about land,’ said Granny. “It’s not the same as a kingdom. A kingdom is made up of all sorts of things. Ideas. Loyalties. Memories. It all sort of exists together. And then all these things create some kind of life made up of everything that’s alive and what they’re thinking. And what the people before them though.”
My backyard is succumbing to the drought. Our once large waterfall has been made into a tiny tumble over some rocks waving with hair algae – not a good thing. The pond cannot support koi because it is built on decomposing granite and is barely two feet deep. Koi need four feet of depth to hide from predatory (and protected) wildlife like migrating egrets. I’ve had a few.
My tiny tsukubai recirculating pump quit working months ago and the thyme that had strugled in poverty for years finally pulled up its roots and migrated. That’s my story anyway. I can no longer hear the splash of the water like I could when my bedroom door was feet away. Not only am I practically deaf, I sleep at the other end of the house now. But I want to see it, and the hummingbirds it attracts when the water is running.
I debated getting a shishi-odoshi. I could hear the thunk on the rock and recall that sound from one we had further back in the garden years ago. Not only did it quit working, the electrical line powering its pump has been cut and the old original pond has become a bog that supports water plants and has lured a few unsuspecting visitors who mistake the covering of azolla for a solid lawn. But that would take more room, and require a bigger investment of my limited energy because I’d have to install a pool liner to cover a larger spill area. Higher maintenance and higher evaporation loss are no longer options.
So I finally confirmed my earlier troubleshooting: the pump was dead. I got a new pump and carelessly didn’t realize it wasn’t powerful enough to lift the water up the 30” pipe to drip into the stone basin.
I’m going to try Korean grass based on my theory that it’s fatter and acts like its own mulch and maybe won’t let the ground get so dry like the doomed thyme. I’ve also got some chicken manure, some steer manure and some topsoil to add to the sorry dead dirt. I want to take the stupid micro spray heads that surround the perimeter sticking up 6 inches like mutant black plastic sentinels from some animae nightmare, and plant them deeper to be more level with the ground so they don’t spoil the entire effect.
My goal is to get out and use my newly flexible limbs to garden again, to get some sunshine after a dark winter, to get my fingernails dirty and to make a modest place for some peace, and to soak in some time. I guess that’s more than one goal. And since I just decided to replace the old splitting bamboo, I now have to wait a week for the internets to bring me a new one. My beautifully aged Natsume basin is worn smooth with a patina of age that has turned the once factory looking grey concrete a deep black. Too bad I can’t grow moss in this climate.
My longer term goal is to have a small tsukubai garden with properly named and placed stones, and the deeply symbolic and appropriate three-friends of winter planting: a pine, a plum, and a bamboo. I’m going to have to replace that impractical weeping cherry with a western redbud and try to figure out how to prune it into a dwarf size to fit the small garden. Time for that later. Meanwhile, it will be another ten years for the black pine to catch up while keeping the small but spreading bamboo from swallowing everything. Plenty of time for a fast-growing redbud to thrive.
I am not in a hurry to make this happen because I’m willing to invest some time into making a drought tolerant yet traditionally Japanese space that looks like it’s been around a while and that will be around a little while longer. Someplace that looks like it’s been here ever since it was first put here.