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Time seems to fly by. With 2003 just around the corner, major housework operations are in order to enter the year with everything sparkling. Garden companies, too, will be busy cleaning up gardens. Pruning pine trees and cutting hedges, known as hagari (lit. “leaf-cutting”) is an important part of the outside work. However, although Japanese gardeners are masters of detail, no matter how beautifully they tend to the trees and plants, if the garden is not perfectly clean when they leave then all their work is as nought! In this regard, though modern blowers are very useful, hand tools such as te-boki (bamboo brushes) are invaluable for applying the final touches.

I first learned the art of Japanese gardening working for Katayama Zoen, a company in Ikeda, Osaka. There, the chief master gardener is Satoro Katayama. Every year, from early December he starts making sho-chiku-bai (lit. “pine, bamboo and plum”), which are miniature Japanese landscapes created on blue-edged, oval earthenware trays.

For these, the pine tree most commonly used is the dwarf goyo-matsu (five-needle pine; Pinus parviflora), which is also known as hime-matsu and marume-goyo, or in English, Japanese white pine. This species of pine grows in mountainous areas from the Tohoku region westward through Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu, reaching up to 35 meters in its natural habitat.

Japanese gardeners have cultivated this pine for centuries, and dwarf cultivars are often seen as bonsai. The trees Katayama uses are grown from seed by a local nurseryman, and take six years to reach 30 cm in height. By then, the trunks are stout and slightly twisted, giving the impression of old gnarled specimens.

Two-stage cultivation

Another species frequently used to make bonsai is the ume (Japanese apricot; Prunus mume), a deciduous flowering tree of Chinese origin that is widely cultivated for its fruits, umeboshi, that are highly nutritious and are commonly pickled.

Like the pines used for sho-chiku-bai, the ume are also cultivated to have short, fat trunks. To achieve this is a two-stage process. To begin with, the trees are grown in the normal way, but are kept cut to around 30 cm in height. Next, they are put into pots and thin ume branches from another tree are grafted onto the older trunk. The small trees then produce pretty white to pink flowers on bare green branches between February and March.

Three types of bamboo are frequently used in tray landscapes. One, which has green-and-white striped leaves, is known as shimadake or chigo-zasa (Phyllostachys nigra forma. shimadake). This is between 15 to 50 cm in height, with very thin stems and narrow leaves that grow to 10 to 15 cm but are kept small by annual pruning. Another commonly used dwarf bamboo is the green-leafed ko-kumazasa (Sasaella kogasensis var. gracillima), which grows 20-40 cm and is often planted as ground cover. Meanwhile, dwarf nanten (sacred bamboo; Nandinia domestica) is also used as an accent plant because of its small leaves, which are yellow or red in color.

Meanwhile, instead of pine or plum trees for the tray landscapes, manryo (coral berry; Ardisia crenata) are also often used. These attractive, evergreen sub-shrubs grow to about 30 cm and are frequently planted in Japanese gardens, where they flourish in semi-shade. Their fruits are attractive, shiny-red berries, though in some cultivars they are whiteish-cream.

In creating tray landscapes, small rocks are placed next to the trees, which are planted on small mounds of soil that represent hills. The “valley” between these two trees features a dry waterfall made from bamboo cane. Tiny woodland fukujyuso (Adonis ramosa) are planted on islands in the tray gardens. The flowers of these native Japanese perennials are yellow and 3 to 4 cm wide with 10-20 petals. Their fernlike leaves emerge after the flowers have fallen.

Finally, for the tray landscape, the base of the trees is covered with moss, and white gravel is arranged around the edge of the tray to signify a river.

Interestingly, the earthenware trays used for sho-chiku-bai are sized in shaku, according to the old Japanese system in which one shaku is 30.3 cm.

Beside tray landscapes, at the year’s end a shimenawa (sacred rope) with dangling white paper strips (shide) is often hung over the entrance to a home or building to indicate that indoors is the temporary preserve of toshigami (traditional new-year food) and to keep out evil spirits.

God’s resting place

In addition, kadomatsu (lit. entrance pine) are also common traditional New Year decorations. These are ornamental arrangements of bamboo and pine branches placed at the entrance of homes and shops, and they are especially popular in Tokyo. Kadomatsu are said to be a temporary resting place for the god who brings good fortune.

Stout bamboo canes are normally used to make kadomatsu, with their tops cut at a sharp angle to expose the pale white interior of the bamboo. Either moso dake (Phyllostachys edulis) or madake (P. bambusoides) can be used for kadomatsu, while the pine branches placed around them are normally from kuromatsu (Japanese black pine; Pinus thunbergii). Finally, at the base of the kadomatsu, the bamboo and pine branches are wrapped round and bound together with wara (straw).

Lacking in arcane provenance, but now no less popular at this time of year, are ha-botan (decorative kale, aka decorative cabbage; Brassica oleracea var. acephala). Dutch traders are credited with introducing the flowering cabbage to Japan during the later years of the Edo Period (1603-1867), and nowadays numerous cultivars are grown. Among these, the Tokyo round-leaf form has rosettes of purple or white leaves in the center; the leaves of the Nagoya crinkled form are curled; the shirokujaju has deeply dissected leaves and a white rosette; and the benikujaku, whose leaves are also deeply dissected, has a reddish-purple rosette.

As well as often figuring in decorative kadomatsu, ha-botan are now often planted in public parks. However, they are easy to grow in pots — the only requirement being to place them in full sun.

Well-made kadomatsu and sho-chiku-bai are very beautiful, and this year if you take a closer look at those in your area, you’re sure to find some that are minor works of art. My personal favorites are the simple and elegant kadomatsu with pine wrapped in straw then finally tied with kuronawa (black twine).

Whatever your taste, though, be sure to enjoy the holiday and have a very Happy New Year!

After seven years, “Gardens for All” comes to an end with this column. I hope it has been as much a pleasure to readers as it has been to research and write.

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