Penjing, Landscapes in Miniature

Fujian Tea Penjing (C) Qingquan ZhaoWe look at an ant and consider it tiny. Millions of years ago, a T-Rex would have looked at us and considered us diminutive and an easy catch for dinner. Perhaps the ancient Chinese just wanted to see the world from a T-Rex perspective when they created the art of penjing, the arranging of miniature trees and landscapes in shallow dishes called “pens.”

Though pen pottery has been dated back to the Yangshao culture in Neolithic China (5000 to 3000 BC), the creation of the penjing miniature gardens was rumoured to have started in the third or forth centuries. No written proof has been found earlier than the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907 AD). The earliest drawing, discovered in 1972, dates back to 706 AD and shows servants carrying pots with miniature trees surrounded by small rocks and greenery. These tiny tree landscaped gardens were also called “penzai.”

Originally the dwarf trees were collected from the wild. Artists would seek out trees with the most twisted, asymmetrical and deformed branches. The belief was that these naturally tiny plants that grew wild, away from civilization, were sacred. They were too small to be used as timber or for any other project, so why else would they exist? Eventually Chan Buddhism would influence the collecting and eventual shaping of the trees, using techniques to manipulate the size and shape of the trunks and branches. Though younger plants were being collected and cultivated closer to home, they were made to appear like the wizened specimens found in the mountain wilderness.

It is suspected that Buddhist students returning to Japan from China brought back some penjing during the sixth century. The first visual proof was found in the Kasuga-gongen-genki scrolls dating from 1309 AD. On the fifth scroll was a drawing of a wealthy gentleman with two penjings, one in a flat wooden tray and the other in a Chinese style ceramic container. Once Zen Buddhism became established in Japan, the art form was refined to where one single tree planted in a container with or without the rocks and greenery defined the universe. This is the origin of the Japanese bonsai tree we know today.

Though the Japanese bonsai is derived from the Chinese penjing, each art form has its own style. The Japanese bonsai defines beauty by its simplicity. A single tree is trimmed, sometimes one leaf or needle at a time until the never-quite-finished project appears to mimic a full sized tree. That tree is placed in a monochromatic pot, usually flat and usually earth toned, so that the tree is the focal point.

The penjing art form is just as often placed in colorful ceramic or brass pots. The tiny trees are also coaxed into shapes that mimic their full grown cousins, but the results are often wilder, more rugged and anything but symmetrical. Trunks are gnarled and branches twist in every direction suggesting barely controlled chaos.

Think of a Japanese bonsai as a sleek lined Porsche. If one were to draw that car, it would only take a few fluid brush strokes to convey the suggestion of moving while standing still. The Chinese penjing, on the other hand would perhaps be represented by a vintage MG. More angles, headlights that crest the hood and bumpers that have a definitive curve. Perhaps not as sleek as the fluidic Porsche, but just as cherished and just as capable of delivering an enjoyable driving experience.

Just as we look at the tiny ant and the T-Rex eye-balls us as a potential dino-snack, the Japanese and Chinese cultures look at the natural world from their own perspective. It is this difference in viewpoint that has helped create these two similar, yet distinct miniature landscape art forms.

Penjing, Landscapes in Miniature
within potted worlds
tiny trees are giants made
size is relative

Image courtesy of the NABF (North American Bonsai Society)

The Japanese Gardens of Canada

When one hears the word “Canada” the mind usually moves towards thoughts of red-coated Mounties on sleek horses, or the snow kissed peaks of the Canadian Rockies, or even the cobblestone streets and 400 year old buildings in Old Quebec. But Canada is also a nation of immigrants, among them the Japanese. It is not surprising that these enterprising individuals from the Far East brought their gardening traditions along with them.

One of the most extensive Japanese gardens in all of Canada is at the Montreal Botanical Gardens in Quebec. Opening on June 28, 1988 the 2.5 hectare property features a variety of Japanese gardening styles. Designed by Ken Nakajima, the traditional Tsukiyama garden greets visitors with pathways leading past azaleas, peonies, a mini forest of crab-apple trees, carp filled ponds, stone lanterns and cascading waterfalls.

The pathway leads to a Pavilion housing a tea room and, along one of the outside walls, the Bonsai Garden. Thirty tiny trees, including Japanese maples, the Maidenhair tree, azaleas and junipers are on display, some almost 350 years old. On the other side of the Pavilion, a Zen garden, done in the abstract Karesansui style, features eleven stones of blue-green peridotite carefully placed in a sea of white sand

Moving west, we travel to Lethbridge, Alberta to the Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden. The gardens were founded in 1967, the year of the Canadian centennial. The name Nikka is actually taken from the Japanese words for Japan (Nihon) and Canada (Kanada). Designed by Tadashi Kubo, of the Prefecture University in Osaka, the garden uses Japanese methods and local materials to create a miniature model of the Alberta landscape. Kubo took time to travel throughout the province before putting his design to paper.

Rocks, some of them weighing more than a ton, were taken from the Canadian Rockies to line the tranquil ponds and create tumbling waterfalls. One boulder that had the shape of a turtle was placed in the middle of the largest pond. This mini island is a Japanese symbol for long life. Other rocks were used in creating a Karesansui dry garden next to the teahouse.

The cypress wood teahouse, bridges, gates and azumaya shelter were all crafted in Kyoto and shipped to Canada. Hand carved stone lanterns and a bell tower equipped with a bronze Friendship bell were also crafted in Kyoto and imported. Open from May until October, the Nikka Yuko Japanese Gardens are especially lovely in early spring when the azaleas blossom and again in autumn when the maples turn into fiery visions of red and gold.


To visit these gardens, see above map.

Water Orchids

Orchids have moved to rapidly become beloved amongst houseplants due to their gorgeous blooms and their array in kind, colors and sizes. Like any other type of plant, orchids call for the proper growing environment in order to flourish.

Giving your orchid the precise quantity of water is only the initial part of offering your orchid the correct growing environment. While the amount of water essential for your orchid can differ amid dissimilar species of orchids, it is imperative to do research for your particular plant. However, it is useful to comprehend orchids in general and from where the come.

You’ll find orchid plants typically in tropical areas around the earth. Vast amounts of rain fall in the areas where many orchid plants are found. Also, it can be incredibly humid in their local habitats. As a matter of fact, the ultimate humidity level for most orchids is right around 80%. Taking into consideration that a room that is kept at 80% humidity would be exceedingly uncomfortable and unbearable for most human beings, one needs to find other strategies to maintain orchid’s health and happiness. One trouble-free way to humidify your orchids is to give them with a stable supply of rain water. Orchid owners should buy a orchid pot, deep saucer and a few bags of pebbles. You should dispense the stones into the saucer. Now, position your orchid pot on top of the pebbles that are within the saucer and then you can water the pebbles. You should make certain that the water doesn’t ever touch the actual orchid pot. By doing all of this you’re able to set up a synthetic high-humidity environment around the orchids.

It seems that one of the prevalent missteps people make when taking care of their orchids is over-watering. By and large it is understood by a few owners that when the potting soil looks dry as a bone the plant requires to be watered. This is so not true, especially when dealing with orchids. Even though the potting bark may seem to appear dry, the bark itself holds humidity. The general rule of thumb for watering your orchid plant once every seven days or every other week, scarcely. When one is growing an orchid plant in their home, be sure to let the potting bark dry out entirely prior to watering them. Some species of orchids have been known to grow on the trunks and branches of trees. In their local habitats it’s completely ordinary for their roots to dry out before being given any water again. You’ll find that orchid plants need to be fertilized but in moderation as well. You can purchase orchid fertilizer at most garden shops within your local area. By creating a good schedule for fertilizing and watering your orchid is an outstanding way to warranty that you’ll be able to take pleasure in these exotic flowers for an extensive time.

You will find that orchids will prosper in your home atmosphere if they are given the right care together with the right total of potting bark, just the right quantity of water, and the correct amount of sunlight and if they are fertilized sporadically. Even though they are quite stunning, they can also be unpredictable. However, by understanding how to care for them appropriately, orchids are not that complex and you can grow these exotic and striking plants.

Travis Waack is a gardening enthusiast and flower lover. His website offers simple, yet effective easy to follow directions for raising beautiful, healthy orchids. Travis’ Free E-course “Orchid Tips & Secrets” is packed with tips and techniques for the orchid enthusiasts. Subscribe for FREE by visiting us at

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Aucuba Japonica 'Gold Dust'

All gardens have problem spots – those areas where it seems that nothing will grow. Often, this tends to be in the shade – either under a large tree or the eves of a house. This week we are featuring an evergreen that will solve the problem of bare, shaded areas and will add eye catching color and interest to your garden – Aucuba japonica ‘Gold Dust.’

Unlike most garden plants that only tolerate shade, Aucubas prefer shade and will thrive in the shadiest of spots, even under trees where no grass grows.

Native to Japan, Aucubas are a small group of evergreen shrubs that belong to the same family as dogwoods, but look nothing like them. ‘Gold Dust’ is one of the most popular of the Aucubas, named for its speckled leaves that look as if someone had sprinkled gold dust on them. These handsome leaves are the reason why most folks add this shrub to their garden. ‘Gold Dust’ will flower in late March and produce red berries in October, but neither is very noticeable next to the striking foliage.

Planting and Care
‘Gold Dust’ will mature as a rounded shrub six feet to eight feet tall by six feet wide. It can be kept severely pruned to a compact three foot by three foot shrub. ‘Gold Dust’ grows almost one foot per year. It is ideal as a dense screen; also in difficult spots in foundation plantings. Very pollution tolerant; excellent for urban sites.

  • Very easy to grow.
  • Plant in a shady location. Will tolerate morning sun. In Zones 6 and 7, avoid exposure to cold winter winds.
  • Prefers well-drained soil. Once established ‘Gold Dust’ is extremely drought tolerant.
  • If needed, prune in the spring before new growth begins.
  • Hardy in Zones 7-10 (6 with protection). ‘Gold Dust’ is one of the hardiest of the Aucubas.
  • Fertilize in spring with Plant-Tone or Cottonseed Meal.
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    Zen Gardens, Imagination in the Making


    By their very nature Zen gardens encourage you to use your imagination.  Using carefully placed rocks and stones and open spaces filled with sand or gravel these gardens tend to capture the eye and the mind and hold both. Soon one can see the waves undulating in the sand ponds as they push around the rock islands that break their flow. The carefully placed rocks along the shoreline become craggy mountain ranges. Perhaps a bit of moss adds a hint of color and the impression of a hidden valley between those ranges. As you sit deep in thought and relaxed, you realize the garden has indeed captured you.

    Zen gardens are done in the Japanese dry gardening style of Karesansui. It was developed in the 13th century by a Japanese priest in Kyoto, the site of one of the world’s most famous Zen meditative gardens. Created over 500 years ago, the Zen garden at the Ryoan-ji Temple is one of the most visited sites in Japan. It contains no plants at all within its 30 metre by 10 metre design. Fifteen rocks are cleverly arranged on a bed of gravel and sand in such a fashion that one can only see fourteen of them at one time.

    Kyoto is also home to Nanzenji, a Zen temple located at the foot of the city’s eastern hills. It is the head temple for the Rinzai sect’s Nanzenji Zen Buddhism school of thought and is famous not only for its contemplative Zen garden but for its artwork and rich history that dates back to 1291. The Seiryo-den is the main building, where hand painted sliding doors, called fusuma, open to the rock garden. The entrance gate, called the Sanmon, was completed in 1628.

    Zen gardens have found their way to other parts of the world as well. In Portland, Oregon, sister city to Sapporo, Japan, the popular Japanese Gardens have included a Zen garden in their design. The creator, Professor Takuma Tono based his layout on a 2,000 year old legend that tells of Buddha saving a starving tiger and cubs that were trapped in a ravine. The expanse of combed gravel is accented by four smaller stones and one upright, all covered with a patina of moss after standing for fifty years.

    Zen gardens may one day invite contemplation on the moon, or beyond. The National Space Society held a design contest for lunar space station layouts. Artist Ayako Ono from Japan entered her “Lunar Zen Garden” painting. It features a lunar layout with several domed buildings, solar panels and all else you would expect to find in a space colony. What was not expected was the groomed circles around the domed buildings and strategically placed rocks that seem to have no other function than to capture the imagination. Of course on the moon, limiting your gardening materials to rocks, sands and gravels isn’t much of an issue.

    Why not try to sculpt your own Japanese Garden or create a Japanese Water Garden.

    Ryoan-ji Temple, The Temple of the Peaceful Dragon.

    San Francisco’s Japanese Tea Garden

    San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park is home to world class museums, a pair of Dutch style windmills, its own herd of bison and the oldest public Japanese garden in the United States.


    Originally built as part of the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition, the exhibit was transformed into an intricately designed garden by a Japanese immigrant, Makoto Hagiwara.  He imported native plants, including one thousand flowering cherry trees, birds and goldfish from his native Japan and personally oversaw the creation of this San Francisco treasure.

    Much of the original garden remains, including the intricately carved Hagiwara Gate which once framed the entrance to Makoto Hagiwara’s in park residence.  The house was demolished in 1942 and has been replaced with the Sunken Garden designed to create the illusion of a landscape as seen from far away.  A brilliant red Buddhist Pagoda sits where a Shinto Shrine was also dismantled that same year.

    The Tea House pavilion is also part of the 1894 original garden design.  It is said that Mr. Hagiwara is credited to have served the first fortune cookies in America at this tea garden sometime in the 1890s or early 1900s. The cookies were made by Benkyodo, a San Francisco bakery.

    The tea house is also the site of one of the garden’s oldest trees, a rare Japanese umbrella pine. A smaller version grows close to the great bronze Buddha (circa 1790) in the Circle Lawn.  Sharing space with the umbrella pine in the Circle Lawn is an ancient black pine.  The roughened bark, thick trunk and relatively low height is reminiscent of a roughly manicured bonsai, but this tree has been naturally shaped by time and the elements.

    The meandering pathways lead you past another tribute to Mr. Hagiwara, the landscaped Mt. Fuji hedge, dedicated in 1979.   Along side sits the elegantly trimmed Dragon Hedge, its curved back fronting a curtain of bamboo.  The Drum or Moon Bridge, another remnant of the original garden, is not only scenic, but rather a challenge to cross. Thin steps have been added to make the climb easier (think ladder) but though the view and the bragging rights are excellent, some folks do decide to go around.

    More than anything this is a garden of peace. There can be no greater symbol of this than the Lantern of Peace donated by the Japanese government in 1953.  Given as a gesture of reconciliation after the horrors of World War II, it is the ultimate olive branch extended by a people who value serenity above all else.