Finding the Ki to Your Own Garden
Heavenly Falls at Portland Japanese Garden. Creative Commons photo by Evan Parker is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Meaning more or less “true essence,” ki is a Japanese concept that will help you work with the landscape, not against it.
There are four essential ingredients of a Japanese garden: water, rocks, plants, and decorations. Odd numbers, asymmetry, and crisp, geometric lines juxtaposed with soft edges are important components. There are lanterns and bridges, always in harmony with their surroundings. There are the mosses, artfully carved pines, and maples; paths—the more precarious the better—invite a careful, contemplative pace that becomes a meditation.
When selecting plants, opt for a variety of shapes, textures, and sizes, like a structural fatsia with weeping cherry and fountain grass. Try to group foundation plantings like columnar trees and evergreen shrubs in odd numbers for good luck. Asymmetry can be easily accomplished with the artful placement of containers; try to group them at angles to one another rather than in tight rows.
Soothing sounds are just as important as the plants and rocks when it comes to creating the experience of nature in a Japanese garden. Grasses and bamboo rustle in the wind to provide a pleasant soundscape, and furin (wind chimes) are hung in the summer to help create a cooling effect to the listener with their gentle tinkling. A water feature such as a wabi basin or ceramic urn outfitted with a fountain pump provides the refreshing sound of bubbling water, helpful for drowning out city noise.
No water? No problem. There’s no more unthirsty garden than a traditional karesan-sui (dry garden), which utilizes rocks and raked gravel to visually mimic the ripple of water. Stone can be cut and polished to resemble the mirror-gleam of a still pond. To convey a sense of flow, shingle flat river rocks or smooth, rounded pavers like fish scales for wending walkways and paths.
Think about capturing the view beyond the garden, too—this is called shakkei, or “borrowed scenery.” Prune selectively to take advantage of a backdrop featuring your neighbor’s beautiful camellias, for example, or to welcome the view of a nearby park to your visual landscape.
Best Bonsai Shops
With such a rich Japanese-American heritage in our region, it’s no wonder the West has some of the best bonsai shops in the country. Here are our favorite shops, classes, and eye-candy Instagram accounts.
Bonsai Mirai, in St. Helens, Oregon, is so much more than a bonsai nursery: They offer live online how-to classes, garden tours, and exquisite ceramics and tools for sale. Listen to their Asymmetry Podcast, watch their YouTube videos, and take a gander at their jaw-dropping avant garde bonsai on their Instagram account @bonsaimirai.
Bonsai Jidai is a bonsai school in Chino, California, whose founder David Nguy specializes in molding local flora; he’s known by the Golden State Bonsai Federation as “Mr. California Juniper” for his expertise with California junipers (Juniperus californica).
Bonsai Northwest in Tukwila, Washington, has been around for more than 30 years, and is one of the largest in America. While you’re in the Seattle area, stop by the Pacific Bonsai Museum for inspiration–it’s just a little further down I-5.
Bonsai Vision in Las Vegas doesn’t sell trees from its website, but it’s worth a stop for traditional handmade bonsai pots, tools, and soil dressings, such as gravel.
Soh-Ju-En in Vallejo, California, specializes in Satsuki azalea bonsai (priced upwards of $2,600!), which bloom in May-June. They also carry white pines, moss, and soils.
This story originally appeared in our summer 2020 Outdoor Living issue.
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