A Most Respected Garden

I somehow agreed to an 8:30 am tour at the Portland Japanese Garden in early March. I wondered what could possibly be interesting about a slow stroll through the damp, the cold, the bare-branches? I’m sometimes reluctant to go with Alan on his frequent visits; I prefer unkempt forest trails and meandering streams, where nature has its way. But the Garden is a photographer’s dream, and membership comes with perks, early entry and special tours. The date arrived, and March in Portland brought temps in the mid-thirties, an atmospheric river heading our way, and dirty patches of snow still on the ground (and more falling as I write). Resigned, off I went.

Our tour was with the Chief Curator, Sadafumi Uchiyama, who oversees maintenance of the garden’s design. No matter the topic, time with the person in charge is always worthwhile. I remembered the FreshGrass Music Festival at the fascinating MASS MoCa, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. My brother Steven recognized the art museum’s director in the crowd, and we spent a long while chatting about art, music, and museums. Uchiyama was no less fascinating, and even moved me to tears by the end.

The Japanese Garden sparks a new frame of mind with each visit. In an interview, Uchiyama said, “There’s no prescription for how to enjoy the garden…. [Visitors] have their own reasons for coming…. It could be for tourism or because someone lost a loved one or had a new baby.” A 4th generation Japanese gardener, Uchiyama has been with this garden for over 20 years. Just returned from North Dakota, because he consults with other gardens, he said it was -2 degrees there. I quit my inner whining.

As I heard about the long traditions behind each feature, and each well-considered detail, I understood that nothing at the garden could be seen at face value. Familiar scenes appeared new, and an unseen plant or path became a highlight.

Well thought out transitions stitch each garden area together. The paths are the only parts of the garden that visitors touch, so thoughtful transitions vary in surface materials – gravel, slate, stone, moss, and so on. Other variations use slopes, borders, and fences, with attention to heights, sizes, and shapes. Transitions are gradual, going from wide to narrow, from dark to light, and from hidden to the reveal. It’s a subtle dance, nuanced but powerful, and every walkway became more alive to me.

Pointing out some transitions along the path

We came to a path I’d been on many times, but now Uchiyama pointed out how the way grew darker with surrounding plants, how curves hid the way forward, and how the path narrowed in anticipation. After a final turn we were in the open, in the light, and on the graceful Moon Bridge, with the pond spread out before us.

A hemlock shrub bordered a path near a hemlock tree that towered above us. “Japanese gardeners make the large small, and the small large,” he said. “It’s the same plant, just pruned differently.”

The five story Sapporo stone lantern is placed at a slight angle from the path. That perspective gives it a textured 3D appearance instead of looking flat when you see it head on. The shrubs behind were topped into a flat line, and the contrasting curves and heights of nearby branches, shrubs, and fences created a tableau I hadn’t noticed before.

The paths are constructed to obey the flow of water, either running alongside, or at a perpendicular crossing. “You don’t fight gravity when it comes to water.” How well we now know this in our own frequently flooding yard, which we have fought every year.

Until now I’d only admired the size and colors of the enormous koi in the Strolling Pond Garden. Brightly speckled in orange, white, grey and black, their languid movements are mesmerizing. But there’s more. These 45 koi come from a single Japanese village, as do 80% of koi in the world. They’re naturally found in rice paddies, a healthier habitat. “The ponds we see are good for us, but not good for the koi!” There’s no medicine for fish; you can only strengthen their immune systems. To that end, there’s an indoor “fish infirmary” which provides a warm, dark, murky environment. And yes, among the 140 employees, there is a koi and pond expert. I wondered if anyone ever thinks, I want to be a fish veterinarian when I grow up?

Uchiyama answered questions as they arose. What about pruning? Cut from the inside, he said, to let in more light and save the lower branches. This is especially true in our climate, where the sun stays low in the winter. “I don’t recommend the PGE way of pruning,” he said, laughing, referring to the way they lop off treetops to avoid electrical wires. The tops will always survive because they get the light; it’s the bottom branches that need care.

If you had 100 acres, someone asked, what’s the first thing you’d do to build a garden? “Define the borders,” he said, “contain the scene.” Elevation, grading, fences, and trees, then you work on the details. I thought about what we could change in our own garden. At the Pavilion overlooking the Flat Gardens, Uchiyama pointed out the layers of trees that provide boundaries. The mid-height deciduous maples and dogwoods reveal the outer foliage in winter, but in summer provide a light green fringe against the tall evergreens.

Layers of trees provide boundaries

Someone asked what makes this one of the most admired Japanese gardens out of the 300 in North America. “Maintenance,” Uchiyama answered quickly. “No question. It’s the level of care that sets this garden apart.” We all marveled at the lack of weeds. “There’s no such thing as a low maintenance garden. That’s a buzzword.” You have to weed every day. Prune every day. (Except in blossoming season, late April to June). This is where a staff of 140 would be useful, I think. Three years of daily weeding, he said, to make a garden weed free. My joints ached with despair just thinking about our weedy garden. Sigh.

“We were once offered a half million dollars to hold a wedding here,” Uchiyama told us. Audible gasps, hard to imagine. Weddings are a big potential money maker, but they have refused because of how it would change the garden. Their priority is the public.

I came away with a deeper understanding and appreciation for the ways of the garden, and felt transformed. And isn’t that how we shed our prejudices and misunderstandings? As we ended, this lovely man told us about the calls they get about homeless people or young partiers who enter at night, since there are no fences. He seemed unconcerned, and I was moved to tears when he said that unlike the Rose Garden and other nearby areas, they don’t get graffiti, nor is trash left behind. “Why?” I asked, surprised. “The garden demands respect,” he said. Simple.

See my past Japanese Garden posts here in Spring and here in Fall

16 thoughts on “A Most Respected Garden

  1. I bet they don’t have buttercup. Probably because the garden demands respect. It slinks up the interstate to my house instead.

    This is beautiful. Thank you. I love the paths story. When the vegetation isn’t all spring and summer glitz, one can see the bones of the hardscape, what holds it all together. (Along with 140 staff.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lots of gardens in our writing today! Yours is the sort of garden that is more my style, beauty in the wild. Buttercup is certainly a scourge. Perhaps some day roaches and buttercup will have a fight to the death. Until then, I’ll go out on my hands and knees, though it may be black plastic time. Does that actually work? Thanks for reading Gretchen!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Well, it works to a point. I don’t think anything is permanent. Might work better if I spray it first. I find it pretty impossible to dig out (completely impossible to pull). You miss one bit, and it come right back. It is truly evil. That gawd there are no cockroaches here. I had quite enough of them in Mississippi. Also fire ants. And my Raleigh garden had poison ivy and copperheads (tho I never saw the latter). So, things to be grateful for the absence of! Of course, there are moles. Sigh. People who garden are gluttons for punishment. Or insane. Or both.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, I was happy to leave roaches behind in Texas, but there are some things that never leave your nervous system. As for gardens, I can imagine being happy to move to a small room overlooking the Columbia Gorge and never leaving my rocking chair. But I have lots to do before that day comes.


  2. I would love to do a walk through this garden! I visit two beautiful gardens in Seattle (Kubota and Seattle Japanese Garden). They are both fairly small and I can’t imagine a large staff caring for them. This spring I’m hoping to do a tea ceremony in the Seattle Japanese Garden and (of course) get some photos on the property. I love how you share the history of this place. Every season a new story emerges. And I’m impressed that you headed out in the grey to see it in spare winter. A curated walk is perfect to understand the purpose and care of what happens on the path. How very Zen! Brava to your growing northwest hardiness 💚

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Seattle garden is also high up on the “best” list. There’s also a small one in Olympia. I haven’t been to either (yet).
      I’m always happy to impress you, though I feel like I’m usually eating your dust. No wait, I’m inspired, not daunted. 🙂 I realize I do complain a fair bit, but you are right, each season has its glories. Thanks for being here Bonnie Rae.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Having spent some time here, I so enjoyed the new perspectives and information about this magical place. Amazing how when we drag ourselves out it usually ends in delight! Thanks for sharing your experience, can’t wait to go back soon!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Nancy,
    As a result of your blog I have a new appreciation for our Japanese garden!! great photos as usual and insights from the Master …weeding and pruning everyday…whoa job security.

    Liked by 1 person

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