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California native plants shine in local Japanese-style gardens

Courtesy of Tanya Kucak
Masses of blue ceanothus flowers denote springtime in California. Though planting a variety of ceanothus cultivars can extend the bloom time, the peak bloom time will still be spring. The seasonality of these shrubs makes them special.

When you envision an authentic Japanese landscape design, do you think of (a) moss, bamboo and Japanese maples, or (b) local California native plants? If the garden is located in California, the correct answer can be (b).

“In Japanese gardens, 98 to 100 percent of the plants are native,” said Leslie Buck, an aesthetic pruner who wrote about her mid-career gardening apprenticeship in Japan in the book “Cutting Back” (Timber Press, 2017). Japanese gardeners, who are “masters of native landscaping,” she said, advise: “Don’t copy our nature; use your own.”

Buck’s pruning practice involves designing gardens over time by controlling the relative shape and size of trees and shrubs. At a recent talk sponsored by the California Native Plant Society, she admitted that she “loves California native plants more than any others.”

Her presentation focused on key features of Japanese garden design.

“Use plants from your local area for inspiration,” she said, adding that Japanese gardens give a “feeling of nature” rather than trying to copy nature.

For instance, many slender tree trunks lining the entrance to a tea garden can evoke the essence of a forest without feeling crowded or dark. Because most gardens in Japan are small, trees are kept no taller than 15-20 feet and are meticulously thinned, down to the number of needles on a pine branch.

Buck advised creating garden spaces that remind you of places in nature where you feel relaxed. It could be a forest, a meadow or a beach. She designed her own backyard to evoke the essence of a campground.

Consider the different viewpoints from which you experience your garden. A garden you see primarily through a big window can make the room seem larger, and you can appreciate its changes throughout the year, no matter the weather or time of day. Over a decade, Buck has pruned a redwood for a client to make the view from a doorway feel like a redwood forest, yet the rest of the yard is sunny.

In Japanese gardens, flowers are used only if they evoke seasonality, such as azaleas in the spring. By contrast, many American gardens strive for a lot of color year-round. To bring a Japanese aesthetic to your garden, Buck said, think about “what you look for and love about each season.” She suggested that in a California garden, bright greens of new growth signal winter, clouds of blue ceanothus herald spring and lush blooms of sticky monkeyflower mark summer.

To add the “depth and poetic beauty of age” to your garden, Buck recommended highlighting the twisting trunk of an ancient tree, a rotting tree stump with a plant in it or an old object that brings back memories of the people who have used it.

Finally, another way to emphasize the informal, natural character of a garden is to add a few contrasting formal elements. This is why every Japanese garden includes a few sheared shrubs – no more than 10-20 percent of the plants – or sharp architectural lines. The feeling of wild nature is enhanced by this juxtaposition.

Tanya Kucak gardens organically. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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