Illustration by Bob Scott
With Maymont kicking off a yearlong celebration of its Japanese Garden's 100th anniversary, Eastern gardening styles warrant a second look.
Japanese horticulture is based on a nearly polar opposite tradition from Western gardening. Western traditions embrace the imperfection of nature and tend to focus on masses of flowers and bright color. Japanese gardening, on the other hand, is really "about creating that perfect space. To take nature, which is imperfect, and make it perfect," Peggy Singlemann, Maymont's horticulture director, says. To that end, Japanese gardens tend toward simplicity; the idea is to create a contemplative, serene space.
For Richmond gardeners, there is some good news, though. Many of your favorite plantings — azaleas, rhododendrons, forsythiaand others — are actually Japanese in origin and fit well into an Eastern theme.
1. Symbolism reigns supreme. Japanese gardening is as much about what a plant represents as it is about the plant itself. For example, cherry trees are "very important in a Japanese garden. They represent the passage of time from one season to another. In particular, they're symbolic of welcoming spring," Singlemann says.
2. Simplicity is crucial. In a Japanese garden, fewer plantings — carefully tended — make a garden that is striking in its own way. In Western gardening, riotous blooms and extravagant growth are hallmarks.
3. Control. Small evergreens and carefully clipped plants are the central focus of a Japanese garden. Shrubs, in particular, are favorites and are often planted tightly together and pruned aggressively into shapes to echo a rolling river, for instance. The initial planting of a Japanese garden is easily achievable for even a novice gardener, she says, but the long-term management can require some dedication. Rather than the once- or twice-a-season pruning cycle we're used to in Richmond, pruning and clipping are a year-round activity in a Japanese garden.
4. Choose plants that don't challenge your management skills. Because the growing season in Virginia can often last up to nine months, you'll be best served with dwarf, miniature or slow-growing plants or varieties that don't require much trimming to take a pleasing shape. For example, the Japanese Black Pine ( Pinus thunbergiana ) grows into unexpected, unique forms without much pruning at all. Singlemann also recommends the Bordeaux Yaupon Holly ( Ilex vomitoria ‘Bordeaux') , rhododendrons, Hinoki False Cypress ( Chamaecyparis obtusa ), Japanese Iris ( Iris ensata ) and Japanese maples of all sorts.
Note: Go easy with lanterns. Stone and metal lanterns may seem like an easy way to invoke the Japanese aesthetic, but they're often overdone by Western gardeners. The trick is to place a few modest lanterns near other features. For example, a Japanese maple set as a focal point, can benefit from a small lantern nearby as an accent.
For an inside look at the Asian influence on the decorative arts, don't miss an in-depth tour of the Maymont Mansion, "The Art & Influence of Japan," at Maymont on Friday, June 1 at noon. Call 804-358-7166, ext. 329 for more details or visit maymont.org .