Creating a sustainable Japanese garden

A Japanese red maple, a common Japanese green maple, and a mixture of shrubs and ornamental grasses can be found in this San Marino, Calif. home garden designed by Takeo Uesugi & Associates, Inc. photo courtesy of Takeo Uesugi & Associates, Inc.

A Japanese red maple, a common Japanese green maple, and a mixture of shrubs and ornamental grasses can be found in this San Marino, Calif. home garden designed by Takeo Uesugi & Associates, Inc. photo courtesy of Takeo Uesugi & Associates, Inc.

Interested in installing a Japanese garden, and don’t know the first thing to do? Or perhaps you appreciate Japanese aesthetics, but want to make a more eco-conscious decision to conserve water by installing a dry Japanese garden with low-water plants?

The Nichi Bei Weekly asked internationally recognized landscape architect Dr. Takeo Uesugi and his son, Keiji Uesugi, a senior associate at Takeo Uesugi Associates, Inc., about the fundamental principles of Japanese garden design.

Nichi Bei Weekly: What do you consider the fundamental principles of Japanese garden design?
Dr. Takeo and Keiji Uesugi: The nature-based design concepts of Japanese gardens developed and evolved under the influences of indigenous religions and philosophies found throughout East Asia, which is comprised of China, Korea and Japan. The monsoon climate and the spectacular geographic characteristics of the East Asian region were essential in shaping Japanese art and garden tradition.

Concepts explaining nature and its processes are fundamental in Japanese gardens, which were highly influenced by feng-shui (fu-sui), ying-yang (in-yo), wabi and sabi, and yugen (sublime aesthetics found in noh drama). Arts such as poetry and tea ceremony were all influential in forming Japanese garden traditions most notably the dry landscape garden called karesansui and the tea garden, chaniwa.

The Japanese garden is to be constructed with the proper combination of rocks, trees and flowers. The garden cannot achieve its full beauty without the harmony of these three elements. Furthermore, the significance of planting design within Japanese gardens is to understand the differences between trees and flowers. Trees are used primarily for making spaces and flowers are for articulating contrast and continuity. For example in Japan, pine, bamboo and ume plum trees commonly play the main roles within the “garden drama,” while lily, lotus, and peony give the sense of relief and change. Subsequently, they require different maintenance techniques. In Southern California, since our climate is much different than the temperate climate of Japan, a plant palette that reflects regional conditions but maintains the spirit of Japanese garden principles to work in accordance with nature is encouraged.

NBW: In putting together a Japanese garden at one’s home, what are some guidelines to consider in the type of plants that are used?
KU: Ultimately, plants that work well together and create a sense of harmony and balance within the garden are essential. Japanese gardens are not overtly bright with multiple flower colors. Instead, varying shades of green foliage and texture create subtle variety and interest. Trees with interesting color should be used sparingly as accents to define key spaces and views.

NBW: Are there different types of foliage that do well in specific climates? Does the climate have any affect on what will or will not flourish?
KU: Climate has a significant affect on what will or will not grow in specific regions. The temperate climatic conditions of Japan that cause heavy rains, high humidity during the summer, and cold winters are reasons why deciduous plants such as the Japanese maple and cherry (blossom) tree do well there. Without the combination of moisture in the air, warm temperature, and shade, the moss found in gardens throughout Japan would not flourish.

In the arid conditions of most areas of California, it is important to evaluate not only the macro-climate but also the micro-climate of your property. For instance, is your home on the south-facing side of a hill where you get direct sunlight throughout the day or do you get constant shade from a house, other structure, or existing trees?

NBW: Can you tell us a little about the trend of using sustainable design principles in urban landscapes?
KU: Sustainable landscape design strategies are becoming an important part of urban landscapes as rising costs of food, increasing health risks, global climate change, and diminishing resources all contribute to some of the key urban issues we face today. The goal of sustainable design in urban landscapes is two-fold: to reduce waste and unnecessary consumption so that we preserve valuable resources; and to make our landscapes productive in ways that it contributes to our urban ecosystem rather than taking away from it.

For instance, instead of throwing away a valuable resource like rainwater to storm drains, it can be stored in cisterns and then used for watering plants during the hot summer months. Instead of using plants that only provide ornamental value, edible plants such as fruit trees, herbs, and vegetable-producing plants can make your garden a food-producing landscape.

NBW: At a time when some form of drought has affected most of the country, in what ways can one create a garden with a Japanese aesthetic, while conserving water?
KU: One of the primary ways to achieve a Japanese garden aesthetic in our arid climate is to select plants that require moderate to low watering. Nurseries will indicate water requirement levels for all plants you are interested in using. It is important to note that plants with similar water needs should be grouped together in irrigation zones so that they can receive proper levels of watering.

In the historic Japanese garden book, “Sakuteiki,” it states: Think over the famous places of scenic beauty throughout the land, and by making it your own that which appeals to you most, design your garden with the mood of harmony, modeling after the general air of such places.

NBW: What are some Japanese or Asian plants that require less water?
TU and KU: Since Japan and East Asia are comprised of plants adapted for high levels rainwater, the more appropriate question for our arid climate is, “What low water-use plants may be compatible for Japanese gardens in arid California?” Here is a small list of plants that require low to medium watering:

Lagerstroemia indica (Crape Myrtle), Bambusa oldhamii (Timber Bamboo), Podocarpus macrophylla (can be medium water use), Pittosporum tobira (Mock Orange), Rhaphiolepis indica (Indian Hawthorn), Osmanthus fragrans (Sweet Olive- takes medium water use), Nandina domestica (Heavenly Bamboo).

NBW: What are some types of edible plants?
TU and KU: Pomegranate, persimmon (kaki), yuzu and other citrus trees, plum tree, apricot tree. For vegetables, anything is fine that is to one’s preference. Eggplant, tomatoes, string beans and zucchini are favorites to incorporate along a meandering path within the garden. Give space for these plants to grow, but it is not necessary to lay them out in rows.

NBW: What are some of the benefits in creating a dry landscape garden or “karesansui” — commonly referred to as a “Zen” garden?
KU: One multi-beneficial way of incorporating a “karesansui” feature within your garden is by creating dry stream comprised of large rocks, gravel, and plants reflective of a wet stream that can also function as a drainage swale in your garden. This creates a seasonal “stream” in your garden when it rains and filtrates the stormwater before it exits into a storm drain. For full sustainability, you can install an area drain at the end of the dry stream that drains the water into an underground water cistern that can be used for landscape purposes when water is needed.

NBW: What are some of the basic design principles in creating such a karesansui, and how difficult are they to maintain?
TU and KU: When creating a “karesansui,” you can imagine a stream you personally admire and use that vision to develop the character of the dry stream. Try to use rocks of varying sizes with interesting form and character but avoid using blasted rock as they tend to have unnaturally sharp edges. Mark the dry stream course in a serpentine way and place the large rocks first in an asymmetric pattern. Grouping rocks in odd numbers and triangulating their spatial relationship helps to create balance and dynamic tension in the landscape.

NBW: For those who are budget-conscious, can you estimate the costs of creating a dry Japanese garden?
KU: It is difficult to give an estimate because costs vary based on size, width, and length of the dry stream. Type of rock also affects cost, such as granite vs. moss rock, and the pebbles or gravel you use will vary in price as well. It is suggested that you work with a landscape contractor with some knowledge of rock arrangement to not only help you estimate cost, but to assist with placement of rocks that can easily way hundreds of pounds if not more! It is important to consider that the bottom third of a rock will be buried underground in order to create a sense of permanence and to prevent the rock from moving.

Dr. Takeo Uesugi received the National Landscape Award for his design of the James Irvine Garden in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo. In 2010, he was awarded the Order of the Sacred Treasure, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon from the government of Japan to honor his work fostering the development of Japanese gardens throughout the world. Uesugi is currently the president of his own landscape design firm in West Covina, Calif. and a professor emeritus in landscape architecture at Cal Poly Pomona’s College of Environmental Design. Keiji Uesugi is a senior associate at Takeo Uesugi & Associates, Inc., an instructor in the department of landscape architecture at Cal Poly Pomona, and also teaches an introductory landscape architecture course at Rio Hondo Community College in Whittier, Calif.

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