Category Archives: Japanese Gardens

A Hardy Little Orchid

orchidA number of years ago I was asked to re-design a very large semi-shaded patio area. The house was huge and the patio ran the entire length. The client specifically asked for unusual perennials to interest her garden club friends. Because of the close-up viewing from the patio, used primarily for entertaining, I decided that each clump of perennials needed to be a small intimate cluster, not a large mass as we used in the background. And, based upon previous experience with this client I knew that whatever we put in needed to be easy to care for and just about fool proof.

I ran out of plant ideas before I filled the entirety of this huge space. At that time I was barely familiar with the perennial Chinese terrestrial orchid (Bletilla striata); but from everything I had read, it seemed like a good choice. Hardy Chinese Ground Orchid was reported to be very easy to grow, shade tolerant and appeared to be handsome even when out of bloom. And, having a perennial with blooms that looked like true miniature orchids certainly would get the attention of the garden clubbers. The light sweet fragrance was an added bonus. I decided to try a small grouping.

I happened to go back to this garden in late spring about three years after we installed the plants. In three years, the seven hardy orchids had expanded to a solid yard-wide clump with over a hundred flower stalks – truly a spectacular sight.

Since then I have had several more successes with hardy orchids (and no failures). I particularly like the white variety – the form we are featuring today. Hardy Orchids add a touch of class to the woodland garden or any partially shady nook. I have no idea why they are not better known.

Bletillas are the easiest of all orchids to grow. Bletilla striata Alba features sprays of about a dozen lightly fragrant, pure white flowers that appear for about 6 weeks in late spring. The blossoms resemble miniature cattleyas, but with unusual pleated tongues. Its ribbed, palm-like arching leaves flutter in the slightest breeze and make an excellent backdrop for the white blooms. Bletillas are superb, unconventional additions to the garden. They reach a height of approximately 18 inches, and they have a preference for partial shade in compost-enhanced, well-drained soil that doesn’t dry out in summer. They can be grown in containers and also as indoor houseplants in a sunny window. As such, they bloom in February.

Cultural Instructions

Hardy in Zones 5 (with protection) – 9.

Place the tuberous roots just below the soil surface.

Choose a semi-shaded location.

Plant in compost-enriched, well-drained soil.

Water regularly in dry periods until established. To ensure good bud-set, pay particular attention to summer watering.

Fertilize in early spring and late fall with Cotton Seed Meal and Kelp Meal. (Holly-tone can be substituted for Cotton Seed Meal after the first year.)

Cut foliage back to the ground in late fall or very early spring.

Mulch well for winter in Zone 5.

Growing Orchids

orchidIf you are a serious orchid grower, you know too well that eventually your plants will take over your house, so building a greenhouse for orchids is a great idea. If you are a beginner grower and are seriously thinking of giving your plants a permanent home, you probably have a lot of questions – will controlling the environment as well as the climate benefit your orchids? Is it easy to use a greenhouse? The answer is yes.

Today, there are lots of folks out there using greenhouses and are quite successful at it. Your orchids will definitely thrive, and may even bloom more frequently for you!

Here are some great tips for those who want to build a greenhouse for orchids:

1. The ideal greenhouse runs from west to east to take advantage of available light. If you are building a greenhouse specifically for your orchids, you don’t need the glass to extend right down to the ground. The orchids will be grown on staging so light from below is not necessary.

2. A brick base will keep the greenhouse warmer. If you choose to put up a greenhouse with situ and glass slides, you can close it with a polystyrene panels or similar materials to aid insulation. An earthen floor is better than a cemented one, it will be easier to keep wet and provides a better atmosphere for the orchids. Low light, ground hugging plants including ferns and brightly colored impatiens can be panted in this floor area. It looks attractive and helps maintain humidity.

3. An open slated staging is ideal for the orchids and tiered if the area permits. This allows for free air movement. You can also choose to put up a sheet staging with gravel which is kept wet. Greenhouses come with sufficient ventilation in the roof, and for orchids, it’s beneficial to have bottom vents as well. Used together they give a good flow of cooling air in the summer. On hot days the door can be left open to prevent overheating.

Before you buy a greenhouse for orchids you have to understand that it’s essential to control both light and temperature. I’ll give you more useful tips on greenhouses on my next article.


Origami, a meditative art

origami-flowerOrigami come from the root ori, meaning folding and kami, meaning paper. It is a 1700 Japanese folk art of folding a traditional square piece of origami paper into an intricate sculpture. The most popular and well-known form is the crane. Customarily the paper cannot be cut or glued for it to be considered true origami.

There is not much evidence to trace origami back to early China, Germany or Spain because paper decomposes quickly but it is speculated that origami may have begun as early in those countries as it did in Japan. There is evidence that origami may have started in Europe as early as 1440 with small pieces here and there. By the 1600’s origami was being used in Shinto weddings and as a gift exchange between Samurai warriors. Origami has become a more widely spread and popular form of art now and has gained popularity in the recent 1900’s.

There are many different types of origami practices now. Action, Modular, Wet-folding, Pureland and Origami Tessellations. Action origami is origami that moves when it is completed. This is allowed to be the result of inflation, kinetic energy, or perhaps a limp that moves when another part is pressed upon. Modular is a result of putting many identical pieces together to create an ending shape of some sort. Wet-folding is used when making curves rather than sharp folds and angles. Pureland has restrictions such as only one fold at a time and no complex folds are allowed. This helps with inexperienced folders. Last is Origami Tessellations. Tessellations can be made from anything that holds a crease including fabric such as silk.

Meditation is a vital part of many cultures now and origami has made it’s way into the meditative practices. It’s common-knowledge that effective meditation is good for blood pressure, longevity and depression. It can restore energy and ability to cope with everyday difficulties and stresses. Self-awareness can help a person become more at peace as well as offering an escape to the stresses of life. Origami is a way to express yourself in becoming one with the hills and valleys that are created when making folds. It takes focus on the folds rather than on outside stress. It is a very methodical art and requires great precision as fold after fold is made to become something else. Practice will allow your muscles to move without conscious thought as the quiet and the peace seep in. The end product is a beautiful sculpted masterpiece that may very well symbolize yourself when completed.

Origami Bonsai.

Origami Bonsai, is a book created by the Origami artist, Benjamin John Coleman. It is a selection of projects to enable people with the skills to create little wonders of art.

Shisendo, The Poetic Vision of Ichikawa Jozan

Above all else, Ichikawa Jozan was a poet. Perhaps it was his ability to manipulate words into phrases of great meaning that made his creation of Shisendo Temple and Garden in Tokyo possible. The very skills needed to coax words into their necessary order are similar to those used by a gardener when training a branch or a vine to grow a certain way. Both skill sets require a vision of the finished product before they are even begun.

Ichikawa Jozan (1583-1672) first became a samurai and after retirement in 1615 he turned his attention to the arts. He was a devotee of the Chinese classics and after half a lifetime of studying and creating poetry and artwork, in 1641, at the age of 59 Jozan created Shisendo. The gardens sit in what is now northeast Kyoto and are tended by a Zen Buddhist sect, the Sotos.

Shisendo, like its creator, is a blend of poetry and artistic vision. Almost like Jozan guided the eyes of readers down a page of his poetry, he guides visitors to his garden with delectable phrases that hint at what is coming next. One can enter the “Grotto of Small Possessions” and then follow a pathway that leads to the “Ancient Plum Barrier.” The humour is evident in such labels as the “Wasp’s Waist” describing a series of steps that leads to the “Hall of the Poetry Immortals.”

Another clever turn of phrase is the “Pursuit of Art Nest” name given to a tiny room that offers a panoramic view of the garden. Jozan’s humour surfaces again at his naming of a deer-chaser “Archbishop.” A deer-chaser is a piece of bamboo that fills with water and then tips making a clicking noise, which scares grazing deer. In Japanese it is known as a “shikaol.”

Jozan shows his romantic side in the garden as well. His affection and respect for the moon are reflected in garden areas named “Pavilion of the Lingering Moon” and the “Tower of Intoning Poetry at the Moon.” And of course there are the azaleas, pink and white and a complement to the white sand of the upper garden, kept perfectly groomed to resemble a sheet of white paper, ready for the poet and his pen.

Japanese Garden, a short history

Though there is evidence that early Japanese Gardens were created long before the reign of Empress Suiko, circa 592 AD, she is most often credited for popularizing these idyllic retreats. These early gardens already had incorporated the ornamental ponds and the gently rolling landscapes that are still very much a part of modern day garden design.

During the Nara period (646 to 794) trade between China and Japan increased. The Chinese influence began to show up in the gardens of Japan’s elite citizens. The trend was to design gardens that were more suited for parties and social gatherings, rather than quiet places to wander. Some of the Nara period gardens added animals, fish and birds to augment the elaborately arranged flowers, trees and water features.

There was an interest in going back to the more traditional Japanese Garden style during the Heian period (794 to 1185) and a form of design known as Shinden became popular. The Chinese influence was still there, but subdued. Gardens during this period were elegantly laid out according popular myths and legends of the times. As an example, an ancient Chinese belief is that all things pure came from the east, while impurities left the land towards the west. Streams put in a garden during this period had to run east to west.

The Shinden style predominated with little change until the mid Kamakura period (1185 to 1392). At this time Buddhist priests started creating meditation gardens. These were less extravagant and usually favoured evergreens, water and stones, with little seasonal variation.

Gardens got even simpler during the Muromachi and Higashiyama periods (1392 to 1573). Gardens began to be designed using only stones to depict various objects in nature. These meditation gardens, known as Karesansui or dry gardens, can still be seen today either on their own or as part of a larger Japanese Garden display. The tea garden was also introduced during this period, which usually added landscaped pathways leading to a small house specifically designed for the formal tea ceremony.

During the Azuchi-Momoyama periods (1568 to 1600), the tea house and garden became more prominent and later, in the Edo period (1603 to 1867) the tea house was complemented by more elaborate stroll gardens that would offer different landscapes at every turn. Owning a Japanese Garden was still limited to the Royal family and high ranking court officials during this time period.

It was during the Meijii Period (1868 to 1912) and to a greater extent the Showa period (1926 to 1989) that the elegant stroll garden was adopted by the merchants and industrialists that had the means to create and maintain them. The combination of the stroll garden and the minimalist Zen meditative design became a garden art form created and enjoyed by all. This design trend has continued into today’s Heisei period.

Japanese Water Gardens and Light!

You can create remarkable effects for your Japanese water garden, stream, and waterfalls with lighting. You can make a fountain glimmer, illuminate the underwater world of your Japanese garden, highlight your waterfall, and even liven up your stream all with the addition of a few lights.

Pond lighting is a way to catch subtle attention and really emphasize the existing beauty of your Japanese water garden, it also provides additional depth to your night views.

There are several types of submerged lights on the market, each one creating its own special effect, depending on how you position it. Most submerged lights come with dark colored casings so that the lights disappear into the darkness of the Japanese water garden. They can be set either to illuminate an area or a feature underwater or to shine up out of the water to illuminate a design element outside of the pond. Use underwater lighting for drama but use them sparingly.

Waterfall lights can add a dynamic effect to waterfalls and spillways when placed beneath or behind them, it brings a new dimension to your Japanese garden after dark.

Fountain lights either in white or in color, give a fantasy effect to a spray. Some come equipped with transparent wheels of several colors. Some light sets feature transformers that include built in timers to allow you to set the time period during which the lights remain on. Others are equipped with light sensing cells so that the lights go on at dusk and off at dawn.

Lanterns are another form of accent lighting that seem to fit in every Japanese water garden. They stand alone and are either wired for electricity or candle powered.

Much favored in Japanese gardens are, snow lanterns, or yukimidoro, these have a wide roof that collects snow, which is then illuminated by the light chamber below. In warmer seasons, the illuminated lantern casts an interesting mix of light and shadows on the water’s surface.

Here are some tips for your pond lighting:

1. Pond lighting works best in clear ponds.

2. Never light up the entire pond if you have fish. Fish need dark places in which to hide and feel safe. They also need darkness to regulate their body cycles.

3. You should position the dome or spotlights where you can easily conceal their cables and connecting wires.

4. You can conceal exposed cable and cords with wood chips, plants or other design elements.

Pond lighting with tasteful garden accents, creates an unbelievable ambiance and a unforgettable experience for your guests at your next party.
Pond lighting is also the best and only way to fully utilize and appreciate your Japanese water garden during the night time hours.

The joy of having your Japanese garden, stream, waterfall, and fountains lit up well into the night will help turn an everyday spectacular, landscaping feature into a magical, mystical, after-dark wonderland.

Kaiyu-shiki, a place to be…

In the heart of London amidst the fast paced lifestyle that just goes with living in a major city, a haven of tranquillity sits on the roof of a house of healing. The Great Ormond Street Hospital in the Bloomsbury district of London offers patients and others who happen to discover this contemplation garden the opportunity to take a quiet break and relax. It is called the “Bridge Over Mountain Stream” garden.

Visitors do not enter the garden, but rather explore the dry landscaped Karesausui style garden from benches outside the area. The garden gives the impression of a stream flowing from the mountains down to a pool on a lower level. A path of stepping stones leads the eye back up to the mountain, with stone lanterns helping to guide the way

Another roof top Karesausui style Japanese garden was built in 2001 at the School of Oriental and African Studies. The Kanji character for forgiveness is carved into the garden’s granite water basin. The garden uses sandstone rectangles, free form pieces of green slate, silver gray granite chippings that are raked to represent water and slabs of basaltic rock representing a bridge over the water feature. Larvikite stones from Norway represent islands. This garden is located in Russell Square in London and is frequently used as a backdrop for receptions, small plays and for weddings.

Leave it to the Irish to combine their love of horses with their appreciation of lovely gardens. At the Irish National Stud in Tully, County Kildare, a Japanese Garden created between 1906 and 1910 now has the distinction of being the finest in all of Europe.

Designed by the father and son team of Eida and Minoru, the gardens represent the “Life of Man” from birth to death and the possibilities that life offers along that journey. This is a kaiyu-shiki, or strolling garden. Pathways lead over a curved, bright red Japanese bridge, naturally formed stepping stones, and past stone lanterns and quiet ponds filled with water lilies. An authentic Japanese tea house is on site. In one quiet nook a waterfall cascades over small steps of stones, half hidden amongst branches of evergreens and bright reddish-purple sprays of colour from Japanese Maples.

Another unexpected find is on the Powerscourt Estate in Enniskerry, County Wicklow. In 1908 a Japanese garden was added, sitting just south of the Triton pond of the original estate gardens. Laid out on what was once bog land, this garden features pathways past a pagoda, stone lanterns and over several bridges as it winds back and forth over a babbling brook. The garden is laid out in two circles, the inner one asks that we reflect upon our inner selves and the outer one encourages discovery of the world we live in. The gardens feature Japanese Maples, Chinese Fortune Palms and azaleas.

Sculpting a Japanese Garden

There is something extraordinary about Japanese gardening, in part because of the tranquil and healing environment that it provides.   It’s a place for deep thought, a peace offering in its own respect.  Experience in gardening of a different culture will bring your creativity to another level.  It must be understood from the beginning that growing a Japanese garden takes patience.  It is planted with a good deal of space between each dweller, allowing the foliage to make individual statements.

Choose a location and size for your Japanese garden, any dimension can be beautiful.   An out-of-the- way place would be ideal, but at the same time you don’t want it hidden.  It’s gratifying to admire a garden from afar.  This type of agriculture is indeed an artistic notion, visualize your desired objective.  Texture brings a natural quality to the garden.  Small sculpted hills and low-lying areas will be home to your special vegetation, interesting boulders offer a hint of the East.  One gift of Japanese gardening is that it is meant to be simple.

The focal point of a Japanese garden is prevalently a flowing water display.  It isn’t crucial, but water certainly is a good start to pleasant auras.  This doesn’t mean you have to dig a huge pond, or go in debt with an extravagant fountain.  There are affordable small scale displays available to fit most budgets.  However, the source should be a rather quiet exhibition or it will defeat the purpose.  The water feature can be surrounded by sand and river pebbles to create an island effect.  A Japanese garden must have a continuous vision, not a sectioned appearance.

Bamboo and exotic honeysuckles play a major role in the gardens of Japan, but are highly invasive and nixed in many parts of the world.  A border of ornamental grasses will deliver the same effect and won’t take over your garden.  Everything that is planted must be kept manicured to maintain the petite Japanese characteristic.  To utilize the art of bonsai, plant the flora in shallow trays or pots before lowering them into the ground.

Choose a couple of trees, bushes, grasses, and groundcovers that add interest because of their different heights.  Below are some varieties that capture the orient and thrive under specific growing conditions.  These are hardy plants that can withstand the bonsai tactics used in your Japanese Garden.

Planting Zones   5 – 6 – 7

Japanese Sweet Flag
Northern Light Grass
Trompenburg Japanese Maple
Mt. Fuji Japanese Iris
White Delight Carpet Phlox
Onyx Odyssey Double Hellebores
Japanese Painted Ghost Fern

Planting Zone 8

Japanese Sweet Flag
Northern Lights Grass
Tromenburg Japanese Maple
Japanese Holly Fern
Shogun Japanese Iris
Geranium Expresso

Planting Zones   9 — 10

Japanese Sweet Flag
Pink Pampas Grass
Dwarf Escarpment Cherry
Watsonia Snow Bell
Japanese Holly Fern
Silvery Sun proof Variegated Liriope
Apricot Princess Rose

These are just a few suggestions, the possibilities are abundant.  Tea plants, ficus, water lilies, moss, and dahlia are a few more prospects.  A bench and an attractive statue may help your project look complete.  Japanese gardening is a way of expressing yourself, please enjoy your journey.