A TASTE OF ASIA
Contact Elisabeth Ginsburg
Lately I have noticed that the mail order garden supply catalogs are full of Asian-themed garden accessories such as pots, traditional bamboo fences
and stone lanterns. This seems to go along with the trend toward Asian-inspired minimalism in home
décor. In California and
the Pacific Northwest, traditional Asian and Asian-inspired gardens have been
popular for years. Can a national
vogue for Chinese and Japanese gardens be far behind?
Probably not, and that’s a good thing. At a time when the urge to indulge in
conspicuous consumption leads some people to jam suburban lots full of
waterfalls, follies, gazebos and monstrous outdoor cooking appliances, a little
minimalism can’t hurt. The traditions of Asian gardening, which are inextricably
linked to various religious, cultural and aesthetic philosophies, go back
thousands of years. Asia is also a
horticultural treasure trove.
Western plant hunters have been bringing back specimens from all over
the continent ever since Europeans first went East in search of the rare and
costly. The nineteenth century was a particularly fertile time for
these plant hunters, and they obtained many of the species that we take for
The Asian garden of today is more about philosophy and contemplation
than ostentation, but it wasn’t always that way. Conspicuous consumption is neither new
nor native to America. It was
already going strong during the reign of the Chinese Emperor Yangdi in the
7th century AD.
Yangdi’s garden, according to historical accounts, had trees that
were covered with silk flowers during the winter, mechanical figures that
sailed in boats along specially constructed canals, and a mix of real and
artificial lotus blossoms floating in the water.
Fortunately things have gotten simpler since then. When people think of Asian gardens,
they may envision a Chinese walled garden with its carefully edited collection
of specimen plants; or a Japanese karesansui or dry garden, made up of
carefully placed elements such as stone, sand and moss. Another type of Japanese garden
comprises a microcosm of natural features—hills, rivers, and
valleys—brought down to garden size.
Those who have been to Japanese-style gardens such as the one at
Sonnenberg Gardens in Canandaigua, New York, think of a restful green garden
with a tea house as a central feature.
This kind of landscape, which came about during the late 16th
century, incorporates stepping stones, mosses and ferns, stone basins and
lanterns to guide guests to the teahouse for the tea ceremony.
You can certainly incorporate Asian traditions in your home garden, even
if you don’t have the space to erect a teahouse, the energy to construct a
miniature landscape, or the time to rake sand in pleasing patterns. In the Chinese tradition, enclosure is
important. If you are choosing new
fencing, consider one made of bamboo.
With or without an enclosure, you can select a corner and plant Black
Pine (Pinus thunbergiana), or one of the many beautiful species of Japanese
maple (Acer palmatum), such as the coral bark maple (‘Sango Kaku’),
which also provides beauty in winter with its red branches. A weeping cherry
(Prunus serrulata) or a flowering plum tree (Prunus blireiana) would be an
equally good choice. Place a
simple stone or wooden bench in front of the tree, and position a large pot
filled with ferns or ornamental bamboo to one side. (Because of its invasive habits, bamboo
is usually more successful in home gardens when it is containerized.) If bamboo doesn’t sing to you,
fill the container with one of the Asian grasses, like Chinese Zebra Grass
(Miscanthus sinensis zebrinus), with its tall, distinctively marked blades that
whisper in the breeze. Encourage
moss to grow under your tree, by transplanting clumps from another mossy
Water features are in vogue now, and Asian gardens, like the Moon
Viewing Garden at the Strybing Arboretum in San Francisco, often have
reflecting pools. If you have a
backyard fishpond or pool, surround it with stone, ferns and Japanese
iris. Use rhododendrons and azaleas as a backdrop. On moonlit evenings study the
reflections on the water’s surface.
If the idea of an Asian garden intrigues you, try to see as many of them
as possible. The Chinese
Scholar’s Garden on Statan Island is an excellent place to start, but
there are many others all over the country. A recent book,
The Art of Japanese Gardens by Herb
Gustafson (Sterling 2000) can help you to choose the right elements for your
home landscape. If you favor
Chinese styles, try The Chinese
Garden by Joseph Cho Wang (Oxford, 1998).
The world gets smaller and busier every day. Relieve the stress and broaden your
cultural horizons by bringing a far off corner of it to your own backyard.