A Beginner’s Look at Japanese Gardening

One of my favorite parts of working at Wellfield is getting to work with all the trees and shrubs. I find pruning to be fun, relaxing, and rewarding. The garden I spend most of the time pruning is the Island Garden, our Japanese-themed garden, which opened in May of 2020. Unlike in some of our other gardens, in our Island Garden, we focus on giving each plant individual attention on a yearly basis (maybe even more often for some of the vigorous growers), and we are not worried about the trees looking untouched, they way we do in some of our other themed gardens. Since I often get questions while I am pruning in the Island Garden, my goal here is to give something for everyone to look out for when they next visit. I will talk about the concepts of: ma, ramification, movement, line, form, and talk a bit about our plant selection.

When you enter the Japanese garden, ideally, you will notice parts of the garden that feel lightly planted or spots that are much more open than what we are generally used to. This concept of emptiness is called “ma”, and it is probably one of the more well known Japanese design aspects used in our country. Places where you see openness between plants and pockets between boulders are good examples of this in our garden.

We have to focus on all of the concepts of Japanese style while pruning in the Island Garden. One of our largest focuses at this stage of our young garden is starting “ramification”. The goal is to make the trees and shrubs branch in the same way a large older tree does, but within the scale of our small garden. The branches should go from a thick trunk to small twiggy growth gradually, but quickly. If you are familiar with bonsai, you might notice this is the same goal those artists have when pruning a tree; it is really only a difference of scale. It is not yet easy to see this applied in the Island Garden, but if you look at the trees, you will see it starting to  develop.

There is a heavy focus on art in all of the woody plants you will find in the Island Garden. As you go through the garden, you will see a lot of focus on line and form even this early in development. These are not Japanese specific, but they play a big role in the overall look of the garden. The tricky part about making art out of trees is you have to deal with what you are given. Sometimes a tree starts out with some wonderful branching and natural linework you make a focal point, and sometimes you have to forcefully move some branches around to put them in a more pleasing spot. You will notice rope tied to some branches of our trees to force the branch to grow at different angles or directions.

The last piece of the Island Garden I want to comment on is the plant choice. Some of our plants are typical of a Japanese garden; it would feel weird if there were no Japanese maples, pines, azaleas, cherry/plum, or irises in a Japanese garden. But regardless of the specific plants we have chosen for the garden, our focus is on the style. We are a western garden using western plants, and we cannot make some traditional plants work here because the climate is more extreme, and we have different plants we have our own traditions of using. There is also a big focus on native plants in the Japanese style, and we have many different natives in this part of the world. It is not customary to see daisies or day lilies in Japanese gardens, but you will see them in ours. There are also native euonymus and prunus here that are different from the native species used in Japan. Even our azaleas are North American species, not the typical evergreen plants that would be used on the other side of the world.

The world of Japanese Gardens can get complex and I am just a beginner myself. These concepts are a great starting point to look at in our garden and practice them yourself if you like them (I know I do). Take a look at some of these more subtle details next time you come through Wellfield. We put a lot of effort into every cut on every plant in the Island Garden. I hope this article helps you appreciate Wellfield in a new way!

Cody Hoff, Lead Horticulturist

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