English gardens are designed for summer's space, for the warm days and long evenings. Not a huge amount of thought is given to how the garden will look in the winter. In the sodden English climate the garden is typically cut back in the late autumn and abandoned till spring begins to move the roots and seeds again. Planning a Japanese garden requires that one give thought to each season equally. This doesn't mean that the garden has to look the same in each season, but that it must offer to its participants throughout the year the qualities of mind and soul for which it was designed.
One product of this all-seasoned approach is that one cannot give too much space to plants that will flower profusely for a just a few months and then be uninviting to the eye. The only element whose contribution to the garden will not significantly change with the season is, of course, stones. A Japanese garden may be designed without a pool, without trees, without a tea-house, without plants even, but it is inconceivable without stones.
The great gardens of the early period yielded to the smaller scale domestic garden after the mid-13th. century. The austere and simplified and more abstract gardens, such as some of the more famous Kyoto temple gardens were the result of Zen Buddhist influences during the 15th. and 16th. centuries, while in Europe (what?). The refinements of Zen gardens led to the quest for both greater simplicity, recognizing the beauty of the informal and irregular, and even the imperfect scattering of formal patterns that nature will always manage. So that search for aggressive neatness, order, and symmetry one finds in many western gardens, is deliberately undermined in the Zen garden. Some famous Tea Masters would say that the sweeping and cleaning of the garden should be given to a boy or an old man, because they would not be excessively scrupulous and neat.
I suppose I should have written something about wabi-sabi before this point, though I am unsure what to write. It is a central and commonly mentioned Japanese aesthetic principle, derived significantly from Zen Buddhist sources, and it lacks an easy definition. It represents a reaction against those aesthetic principles, and styles of life and soul, which glorify symmetry, order, completeness, and so on. It resists the appeal of clean, finished surface, of precise angles, and also of elaborate ornateness. Wabi-sabi involves, by contrast, a recognition of the desirability of incompleteness, or irregularity, of unfinished and rustic surfaces, of the unpretentious and natural. In a room governed by wabi-sabi, there would be nothing outstanding, shown with pride at the expense of other things; all have a place, all are to be undemonstrative, and we are to delight in the imperfect, the incomplete, and the modest.
So I should not be struggling for smooth finishes, symmetry, and precise order&emdash;even if I could achieve any of them. The abuse of wabi-sabi is to see it as a negative principle&emdash;as failure to achieve a professional modern finish&emdash;instead of seeing it as beauty available to a very refined sensibility that goes far beyond conventional good taste. The acceptance and delight in imperfection, of course, can seem confusingly close to the Irish acceptance of imperfection in one's work. But they are really worlds apart, in more senses than one. Wabi-sabi is a positive austerity, whose principles I think will not really dominate my work. I suspect I would have to have greater skill to be able to construct according to wabi-sabi principles.
Beginning the garden
I had earlier built part of the retaining wall for the raised garden, just to have somewhere to throw the soil I was digging out to make the strip in front of the fence where the black bamboo is now growing. By the time I began to work on the garden seriously, it was fall. Even unchanging stones suffer from decaying leaves settling over them. Overhanging the garden site is one half of a birch tree from the condominium garden, and it began to drop early retirees onto the mounds of soil in September, with a wilting promise of tons more to follow. In high winds I watched them, like fallen angels diving down and turning my potential paradise into something that looked rather more like the other place. I was reminded of Milton's magical glimpse in Paradise Lost of the fallen angels "Thick as autumnal leaves that strow the brooks / In Vallombrosa." Except, it turns out, that Milton never visited Vallombrosa, a mountainside valley near Florence. If he had, he'd have seen that it was mainly wooded by conifers.
Well, that's a bit off the point. I needed to negotiate with the chair of the tenants' committee in the condominium to get the tree branch cut off--something I assumed I'd have to pay for. But I could in the meantime go ahead with building up the wall and garden despite the leaves. For a while they would serve as compost, but I'd need to have them out of the way by the time the garden was complete. Also the birch would make the pond impossible, or at least they would make any fish's life impossible. Tall birches are beautiful drifting trees to look at from a distance, but they are dirty beasts close up. They dribble gallons of sticky sap in the spring, strips of end-branches throughout the summer, and a ton of seed and then tons of leaves in the fall. No pond could survive the onslaught. I describe the removal of the tree in the Pond chapter.
Here's the beginning of the pond, and look at that magnificent fern. I will transplant that before digging much further, and then maybe transplant it back again, two feet higher, once the garden has been raised. The black fabric is to prevent weeds growing out through the wall. If something is to grow through the chinks in the wall, I'd like to choose what, and plant small rock plants myself. That will require my shoving topsoil into the chinks from the other side.
Now I am the kind of person who reads. I mean pathologically. And while I can't complain, having gained something from literature and being able to manage road signs, there are penalties for excessive literacy. Like many of my bookish ilk, I feel compelled to read whatever is in my line of sight. On a bus, with nothing else to do, having worked my way around the ads., and, fretful at running out of symbol fodder, I will seriously pour over the text on the back of the ticket. So, taking on a good outdoor task like building a Japanese garden has meant that I balance the labor with reading books about Japanese gardens. And there are a lot (and now one more for anyone who might follow with the same affliction).
There is quite a variety of such books. I like most the ones that outline basic Japanese principles, but seem willing to acknowledge that it is, in the end, your garden and you can do what you want. The other extreme includes books, usually by enthusiastic Americans who have made themselves experts, which severely rebuke the reader for any temptation to trespass outside the Japanese garden rules. They write with a presumption of the readers' guilt. They write with pursed lips and transcendental diagrams, laying down rules that you must follow or expect a censorious group of Japanese authorities, armed, to come knocking at your door to exact revenge for your infringing such rules as determine the proper placing of stones.
Now I need to confess the reason I am a bit sensitive about these censorious books. It's not just that I can't always follow exactly how sets of scalene triangles determine how three stones ideally balance each other out. While I was still working on the fence, I kept my eyes open for appropriate plants for the garden area. I wanted things that would look good in all seasons, plants that would provide pleasant contrasts of shape and size, and one or two items that would be striking, in a Japanese kind of way. I had seen a number of pictures of those pom-pom cut junipers, but whenever I found one in a nursery, it was rather bedraggled or mangy. Driving by a small nursery in the fall, I saw out of the corner of my eye a luxuriantly heavy-headed rich green pom-pomed shrub by the side of the road. I pulled left into the next street, left, and left again, till I was back at the nursery. The juniper was just what I had been looking for.
The owner of the nursery came out. He was Asian, which somehow added authenticity.
"How much?" I asked.
"Oh dear. Too much," I said regretfully.
"How much too much?"
Panic and calculation: What was the ideally right answer&emdash;which would save me most and not have him refuse to sell?
Shoot. I should have tried $125. I drove home with the juniper barely contained in the trunk of the car, the big bobbed heads waveing cheerfully at pedestrians. It was bigger than it had seemed by the roadside.
Later I was reading one of the more reproachful books. A chapter on "training" shrubs was largely taken up with instructions on torturing trees by constraining their roots, or nipping their buds, or tying pieces of thick bamboo to their branches and hanging weights on them till they conceded and were crunched into the desired shape. After this, the author had the nerve to say that one should never have in one's garden one of those poodle-cut trees.
The up-tight author claimed that you are allowed to accentuate or exaggerate the tree's or shrub's natural form, but "a tree that is poodled into heavy, dense tufts would hardly resemble the natural form of any species." Another book, to rub it in, talked about those "insensitively poodled" trees. Heigho. Well, one can see his point, of course&emdash;the dwarfing of bonsai and the bud nipping and weighting COULD just about happen in odd circumstances in nature, whereas no natural event could lead to stripping off the lower branches and rounding the greenery on the ends. One may interfere with a tree or shrub in order to exaggerate some natural form, but not create an unnatural shape. But my Irish side had concluded some time ago that Nature is greatly overestimated as an ally in gardening. I say that, while also acknowledging that when we garden we become partakers in the deepest mysteries we face: of the turn of the year, of the growth and death of living things, of our strange place in nature.
Anyway, here is the juniper in its pot, waiting for inspiration to strike me about where to put it, and the wall extending up and around to contain the accumulated soil from the excavation of the pond. You can see Moby Rock peering over the wall. Moby deserves better than that, of course, and I will reduce the height of the wall when the pond is filled in and itself walled round.
But spring is coming, and seems unconcerned to delay because of my bad back&endash;&endash;from all that digging. It is unconcerned that I haven't yet got the pond sorted out. It is unconcerned that the garden area is not ready for planting. We have no choice but to cooperate with the terrible inexorability of time and the seasons that we can't outrun. One might be called to Zen contemplation of the cycles of life and how we are a part of them, but one can also, Irishly, fret at what still needs to be done, recalling Dorothy Parker's eloquent capturing of one component of our complex response to the unstoppable spring: "Every year, back comes Spring, with nasty little birds yapping their fool heads off and the ground all mucked up with plants." Well, in the present case, threatening to get mucked up with all the wrong plants.
Having dug out the soil and built the wall, I now have to decide just what I am going to make in the garden area. There are two general kinds of Japanese garden. The Tsukiyama style, in which small hills and stones and shrubs represent mountains and their forest and trees, and in which a pond represents the ocean. And the Karesunsui style, in which sand represents the ocean, and lines of stones represent rivers, and standing stones are mountains. This latter is the style that became prominent with the influence of Zen Buddhism and its monastery gardens. Given the rainforest setting of my garden, I feel less inclined to try to replicate, however inadequately, the sparse elegance and strange harmony of Ryoan-ji. I'll visit Kyoto to enjoy that. I'm more inclined towards stony verdure, lush evergreens amid stones, rounded box or privet and short spiky plants. Well, we'll see how it goes. The garden is unplanned except for these vague ideas, and I will be interested to see what shape it takes, and am now as I write as ignorant as you about how it will turn out.
Much of the general shape of the garden was driven by the building of the bog, described earlier. From the bog, the stream cut the garden into two parts. That gave me a small high patch beside the bog, in which I decided to plant pom-pom tree, a longer but quite narrow curved patch from the bog down to the edge of the pond, largely hidden by the white mass of Moby Rock and slabs of liner, and an irregular slice between the bog wall and the pond, which has the hose snaking across it.
The moss garden.
By chance, visiting Japanese gardening web sites I saw a reference to moss gardens, and discovered there are an amazing number of sites dedicated solely to moss gardens. And there suddenly was the idea that I should make one of the two remaining chunks of garden space a moss garden. I began by setting some of the larger stones I had gathered from earlier digging along the curving strip to the right of the stream. This did some damage to the knees.
I had some time earlier bought the one concession to color in the garden, so far. This was a miniature rhododendron. I planted it near the top of the curve towards the bog, and also added a few small ferns. Around these, and the stones I was ready to fill the space with moss.
I began hunting down chunks of moss from around the garden. I discovered three kinds, and decided on the most plentiful variety, that had made a home under shrubs and in the shade of fences, under ferns and behind the house; anywhere the sun didn't get. Having spent a number of years cursing the prolific moss, and trying to kill the damn stuff, raking it out of the lawn each spring, I now found myself treasuring every couple of square inches I could find. I was particularly irritated when I found a patch that had some of that damn lawn grass growing through it. How to pull the grass out, without breaking apart the beds of moss, was the challenge now.
I was having to be a bit furtive, sneaking under my wife's plants when she was out, slicing under thick pads of moss, and liberating them to what was an inch by inch and foot by foot accumulating moss garden. My fear was that my eagerness to get at the moss, might be undermining some of her plants. I was careful to add spadesfull of soil wherever I seemed in danger of exposing roots.
My harvesting of the rapidly depleted stock of these valuable small green plants became more desperate. I rapaciously loaded every square inch I could find onto my shovel and planted it around the stones, but I was running out of moss and was far from covering the space available. I had to become more furtive The neighbors' garden had lush chunks up against our fence, and under shrubs in their border. It seemed fair game to lean over the fence and pull up a spadefull, as these beds of moss were continuous with those on our side of the fence. But even when I had cleaned out all I could reach, there was still a discouraging acreage of soil showing in the lower half of what was beginning to look like a moss garden. Further toward the edge of their border, under shrubs and plants, I could see rich patches of lush dark green. Moss had come to seem like gold. Knowing that the neighbors, who had just bought the house and weren't yet moved in, were not there, my lust for more moss drove me to skulk into their garden, guilty spade at the ready. They wouldn't want moss growing in their border anyway. I was doing them a favor. And they'd never know it had been there. So the moss garden crept a further couple of feet towards the pond, flowing around the large stones and beginning to converge on Moby Rock.
But I had run out of moss, and there were feet to go. I wandered around, scooping out tiny pieces I had missed earlier. The front garden! I had forgotten the front of the house, and the dark patches under ferns and trees. It was like suddenly coming across a treasure galleon adrift on the ocean near to one's island home. But these large patches were along the edge of the lawn, and mostly had clumps of grass growing through them. Only after I had spent some time irritatedly pulling out pieces of damn grass did the irony strike me. I had spent years killing and raking moss from the lawn, and now was distressed at lawn grass spoiling the purity of the moss.
Between bouts of moss hunting, I would sit of an evening with my laptop computer on my knees, surfing Internet sites dedicated to moss. I learned that there are around 9,200 varieties, which makes the three I could located in our garden a pretty paltry showing. I couldn't find examples of the kind I have used, so don't know its name. It isn't Irish or Scotch, which are the two I recognize, but one of the 9,188 others.
Here's what it looked like when I reached round Moby Rock to the stones at the side of the pond:
The two-needle black pine and the drama of its planting
You may have been able to tell from my aggressive reaction to the books that sniffily told me that my pom-pomed, poodled juniper was in poor taste and offensive to Japanese gardening principles, that I had been vulnerable to the criticism. And the criticism rankled, mainly because I could see it had merit&emdash;otherwise why get irked? Well, there I was as the months progressed, irked and rankled, and increasingly dissatisfied with the inoffensive juniper. A significant problem with it&emdash;and clearly I don't even now want to confess that the purists' criticisms influence me&emdash;was that the pom-poms all hung over around the same level, and as I had placed it at the top of the garden by the bog, it didn't show its individual bobbles to best effect. They tended to blur into one another. In fact, the plant looked best when one looked down on it rather than up to it. What I needed up there was something dramatic that gave height to that side of the raised garden.
I looked in the Yellow Pages for places that sold evergreen and ornamental trees. One place, outside the town in a suburb I had yet to enter without getting lost, said they had a number of two-needle Japanese black pines. I drove over, and indeed they had acres of shrubs and trees. And there stood a set of half a dozen magnificent pines of just the kind I was looking for. They were each about five to six feet tall. But would they fit the space I had by the bog? And how much were they? $450?! Plus $40 for delivery.
I couldn't afford that. But then it turned out, thanks to you, indirectly, that I could. Now I'm not sure it's proper to discuss this kind of thing with a book's readers, but here we go. I had begun this book by simply writing a bit of text to accompany the pictures I was putting on my WWW Home Page. Then I found some of the incidents either odd or funny and the text became more elaborate. Some kind people said they were enjoying reading the story, and so I extended it a bit further, and then took the plunge of packaging the bits I had then written and sent them off to a literary agent. She was, to my surprise, quite enthusiastic about it, sent it to a publisher, who accepted it, and offered a cash advance. The really sneaky part was that because I was now working at something that had a reasonable prospect of making money, I could write off all the costs against tax. So, I decided that, dammit, I was going to get one of these splendid bonsai-ed pine trees after all.
Outside the shed that clearly served as the office stood a wizened, weathered old Japanese man. As I asked him about the trees, he looked at me through crinkled smiling dark eyes. If you wanted a picture of the perfect ancient sage, here he stood, eyes looking at mine with a luminous intelligence. He nodded slowly as I spoke, encouraging me to go on further about what I was looking for, and where it was to fit. I stopped and waited for his reply, and we looked at each other for a moment in silence. He paused, then seemed ready to tell me what was surely going to be some insight into the nature of pine-things or human life in general, but then gestured at his son approaching on a tractor. The old man didn't speak English.
The son spoke it with confidence, though not with much comprehensibility. We circled the set of pines. They were twenty years old, had been bonsai-ed and would grow very little more for the next twenty years. They had appealing arms and tufts of green needles like deep plates on the end of each branch. I felt I was going from pom-pom poodling to plates, at considerable cost, but the trees were very evocative of Japanese styles I had seen in many pictures. The problem was whether the bole of roots would fit into the space I had. It was agreed that I should go home, measure the space, and then come back and choose my tree.
The pom-pom juniper would look fine, I thought, to the side and rear of the teahouse, but I didn't want to put it there yet as it would likely get damaged by the carelessnesses I had come to recognize as ingredients of my style of building. I dug a hole in the middle of the vegetable garden, now cleared for the coming winter, in preparation for the juniper. My fear was that removing the juniper would destroy the bog. The bog was held in by walls on two sides, by the weight of soil and stones on the side where it flowed into the stream, and by the packed soil at the rear where the juniper sat. If I were to simply dig out the juniper, I could be removing the bog's support, and the weight of stones and water would tear through the liner and pour into the hole.
So, first, I drove about ten six-foot long bamboo poles I had bought for some reason down between the bog and the juniper. Then I added a couple of long metal rods, and hammered some pieces of wood across them. I thought that this should be enough support, and then gingerly dug out the juniper. It came up quite easily, its root bole still largely in the shape of the tub I had bought it in. I dragged it into a wheelbarrow and replanted it in the hole in the vegetable garden. I also dug up the maple I had been sold as an evergreen&emdash;evergreen till its leaves fell in October. I dug this in beside the juniper to await the completion of the teahouse.
I dug out as much soil as I dared from the hole by the bog, in preparation for the pine. I had a space of about two feet by a bit less than two feet. It would be tight.
A few days later I went back to the nursery and chose the tree I wanted. None of the men whom I had met previously was there, but this time I was helped by a big, tough-looking man who seemed like a samurai warrior out of place and time. He thought the tree would fit into the space I described, and at $450 one might expect him not to be too doubtful or irresolute. It would be $50 to deliver. I said it had been $40 last Sunday, so he shrugged and said $40. It would take two of them to deliver it, and they would show up later in the day.
He arrived with another man whom I had not seen on either of my two previous trips. The samurai looked at the hole, and told me to dig out more soil, pointing particularly at the bog side. I said I feared the bog collapsing. This he clearly felt was a weakling's fear, and he gestured that I should get to work while he wheeled the tree up the garden. The two struggled with it. Even allowing for the fact that the second man was anorexically slight, the samurai was also having trouble with the tree. It didn't seem to have that much more bulk that the juniper, but I guess its root bole was much bigger, and it was maybe three feet taller.
"Which way round? Once in, it stay so. Decide now," the samurai ordered. He and his miniature helper held it on the wall by the hole. Alas, I thought I wanted it exactly the opposite way around from the way they held it. With much grunting, they slowly moved it round. Then I was told to dig out even more soil. I did so, and then the samurai took a spade and sliced away further at the thin support of the bog.
The remaining problem was the bamboo canes I had supporting the bog. The two branches on that side had to be able to stretch out beyond the bamboo, so I pulled the bamboo sideways to enlarge the space where the branches could slide in. The other main obstacle to the root bole was the wooden supports I had slammed in place against the bamboo.
He said something in Japanese, and the sword carrier grabbed and pulled the first support, but the bamboo held, and I was instructed to pull the other. One doesn't quibble with one of nature's samurai, even though I was much less confident than he was that disaster wouldn't follow. I pulled it out, and all was still well. He still wasn't convinced he had enough room, so hacked some more soil away. Then the two of them with what was probably exquisite Japanese cursing eased the tree off the stones, and tried to maneuver it into the space. It didn't go easily, and there was some tugging as a branch got caught in the fence and another in the quince, and when parts of the root bole stuck against the bamboo strips, and when the bog side branches had to be slotted between the bamboo poles. In each of these maneuvers, the aspect of the tree I had wanted to face the teahouse was turned a bit and then a bit more, until it finished up about 45° from where I had wanted it. But with all the cursing and sweating and struggling, I didn't have the heart to point it out, deciding that it looked good from all angles, and, as I'd only had a minute to decide, maybe fate would make as good an aesthetic choice as I had.
And then it was in. The samurai stood on the wall and kicked the top of the root bole down. But it was hindered on the bog side, so he wanted the bamboo poles removed. We took them out, and the sudden rush of stones and water still didn't happen. The tree went in, with a few more foot stomps onto the top of the bole. He quickly tossed soil around, and began soaking the whole area with water, carrying the soil down around the roots. When it was flooded, he paused, let the water sink, then piled on more soil and repeated the process.
Then he clearly decided that I could handle the rest, gave me instructions to repeat the process till the soil was up to there&emdash;he emphasized, pointing insistently, till I indicated with my finger on the narrow trunk of the tree where I was to stop piling soil. Fertilize next spring with 14-14-40, two spoonfuls only. I think. Then do it again a month later. Shoot water from hose up through the pine needles to release dead ones. And away they went. Leaving me to admire the handsome pine:
Here is what it looks like from where the teahouse will be:
It is odd to be doing all this when some features of the aesthetic of Japanese gardens don't appeal to me at all. The problem with that statement, of course, is that it suggests there is a single graspable aesthetic. But I mean the kinds of things one sees in typical books about Japanese gardens. What does appeal, even though I don't think I will be able to replicate it in any way, is the stark clear areas of crushed granite gravel, with well placed dark stones, with a few stately stands of sparse bamboo, with perhaps a couple of thoughtful ferns. There is a narrow line between the careful wabi-sabi refined elegance of the casual unpressured naturalness and a simple mess, and the season's change, with untrained growth and autumn leaves can easily cross the line. Unless one is there everyday preserving the apparent randomness.
Go to Part II
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