Green Space: Beautiful minds

The Japanese don’t take things lightly. One only has to get behind the wheel of a Toyota, Honda or Nissan, or climb into the operator’s station on a Takeuchi, Komatsu or Kubota construction machine to appreciate this fact. Americans can and have learned a lot from this ancient Asian culture. The Kaizen “continual improvement” process, for example, which rose out of the ashes of World War II, is today a core manufacturing philosophy at Midwestern American icons like John Deere and Caterpillar. Given this culture of excellence, it’s no surprise to learn the Japanese devote comparable energy and devotion to the art of gardening.

On a flight home from the New England Grows show in Boston last week, I was reading “Eight Ways of Looking at a Garden” by Nicole Krause. The author and her husband wanted a Japanese-style garden in their backyard and decided to visit Tokyo, Kyoto and the surrounding Japanese countryside to research these exquisite retreats and ensure they did it right upon their return to the States.

The Japanese, Krause relates, elevated gardening to an art form over 1,000 years ago with the publication of the Sakuteiki, “a gardening treatise which outlined (gardening) principles and techniques still followed in Japan today.”

Many of the rules outlined in the Sakuteiki highlight the immense differences between Western and Japanese gardens. Krause notes, for example, that the treatise opens with the headline “How art of setting stones.” In comparison, she notes, a Western gardening essay might well open with “The art of laying lawns.”

What struck me most about Krause’s description of the Sakuteiki was the philosophy of gardens it outlines, advice any serious landscaper would do well to heed: A poorly arranged garden, the ancient author warns, invites disaster, while a properly balanced one can ward off evil. More importantly, the Sakuteiki stresses that a garden is a form of self expression and should reflect the owner’s taste and spirit. “The Japanese garden,” Krause explains, “is born of the meeting between the beauty of nature and those receptive to it; as the scholar Teiji Itoh writes, ‘A beautiful mind is essential to the creation of a beautiful garden.'”

An English translation of the Sakuteiki by Jiro Takei and Marc Peter Keane is available at

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