What a week at Portland Japanese Garden!

In November, I had the unique opportunity to go to the Portland Japanese Garden for a week-long training session—and what a week it was!

I arrived in Portland in early November, having endured scarily bumpy plane rides and torrential rains. The next day the sun came out and I started my weeklong training at the Portland Japanese Garden. I spent the first day cleaning up needles and leaves from the beautiful moss that carpets the whole garden. I have difficulty growing it here in my moss garden, but in Portland, one gardener told me that moss will start to grow if you sit still for ten  minutes. The tools I used to rake and clean were very efficient, but at the same time gentle on the moss.

PHOTO: Bamboo rake, broom, and winnow.
Bamboo rake, broom, and winnow
PHOTO: Clearing leaf litter promotes moss growth.
Leaf litter should be removed on a regular basis for healthy moss growth.

The next few days were all about pine pruning. We began with a Japanese black pine (Pinus thunbergii), a native of the rocky, windswept coastlines of Japan. One of the two pines species most popular in a Japanese garden, the black pine is symbolic of the seashore and referred to as on-matsu (the male pine), because of masculine qualities perceived in the branching and needles. Although considered a tough species, this pine has soil nematode and fungal disease problems. It prefers free-draining, acidic soil and full sun to grow well. As these requirements imply, the black pine is not very suitable for our region.

PHOTO: Japanese black pine before pruning.
Japanese black pine before pruning
PHOTO: Japanese black pine after pruning.
Notice how its shape is restored and more light can reach the inside and lower branches of the tree after pruning.

In contrast to the Japanese black pine, the Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) favors our climate and is the tree most commonly planted at the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden. I had a chance to prune one of the few Scots pines at the Portland Japanese Garden, and noticed how the environmental conditions affect growth patterns and the shape of a tree.

PHOTO: Pine pad in need of thinning and shaping.
The pad needs thinning and shaping.
PHOTO: After pruning, the pine pad has more air circulation and light penetration.
After pruning, the same pad has more air circulation and light penetration.

On my fourth day, I had the opportunity to learn how to build a bamboo fence with one of the expert gardeners. Fences and screens in Japanese gardens are primarily used to manipulate or block views, to form a perimeter, to partition garden areas, or to indicate a shift in garden elements, and to divide a garden into smaller thematic sections. The fence styles are numerous and diverse, utilizing almost exclusively natural materials: cut bamboo, wooden boards, and stones. Bamboo is by far the most popular choice of material due to its plentiful supply, texture, tonal qualities, and flexibility.

PHOTO: Building yotsume-gaki (tea garden fence).
Building yotsume-gaki, a tea garden fence
PHOTO: Tying ibo-musubi knots on the tea garden fence.
Vertical supports in place, it’s time to tie ibo-musubi knots in the time-honored way.

On my last day in Portland, I visited Lan Su Chinese Garden. In contrast to a Japanese Garden where the sanctity of nature is the defining principle, here terraces, doorways, and pavilions take precedence and frame vistas, while stone courtyards mark transition points between the architectural environment and nature.

PHOTO: Enclosed space at Portland Japanese Garden.
This garden gives a wonderful sense of enclosed outdoor space.
PHOTO: Japanese architecture in harmony with nature.
This skillful architecture testifies to the presence of mankind in nature.

Working alongside and learning from accomplished gardeners, visiting local gardens and nurseries, and exploring the city made my week in Portland so memorable. I can’t wait to go back and experience the same gardens in a different season!

Learn more about Japanese garden care that you may see in our own Garden, such as candling (done in spring and early summer), and willow pruning (a late fall/winter project). 

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Candling in the Japanese Garden

Have you been to the Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden lately? If you have, you probably saw some of the garden staff perching in the branches of the niwaki. We’re not building nests or hiding out; we’re candling.

PHOTO: Niwaki near the Japanese Garden bridge.
In early spring, a niwaki near the bridge stands in need of candling.


Niwaki, literally translated, means “garden tree.” Some people think of niwaki as big bonsai, but that relationship isn’t exactly right. Bonsai translates to “tray (or pot) planting.” While we may think of niwaki as big bonsai, we should try to think of bonsai as niwaki in a pot. The purpose of the two arts are the same; they represent the essence of the tree.

If you consider how bonsai and niwaki are styled, they give the impression of age. The trees may be windswept or upright, often with gnarled bark and wide trunks. We achieve these effects by holding branches vertically with string tied to the ground, with fall pruning, and with candling in both spring and summer.

What’s candling?

In spring, we all know things start to grow again: seeds sprout, perennials push out growth from the roots, and trees break dormancy. In pine trees, these shoots of new growth are called “candles.” When we candle, we break off part of the new growth to stimulate growth from lower nodes. (In other plants, we often refer to this as “pinching.”)

PHOTO: Closeup of the tip of a pine branch, showing new growth.
A closeup of this Pinus sylvestris shows where the candle was broken last year and where you expect the new growth to emerge.

The result of breaking these candles is that the new growth spreads more horizontally than vertically, and the density of the pads increase, which makes them appear more lush and healthy over time. We never purposely take off an entire candle, because it removes the most actively growing point and takes longer to recover.

Why candle?

The pine shoots that emerge in spring are called candles for a reason: they tend to be very tall, skinny cylinders like taper or dinner candles. If we let this growth continue, the growth from one pad would grow into the next pad within a few short years. By the time this would happen, much, if not all the original pad would be woody, old, and almost impossible to repair. So in order to maintain the appearance of these trees, we need to candle every year. 

PHOTO: Uncandled new growth on the Japanese Garden pine trees.
If allowed to grow, these new shoots would quickly take over.

How long does it take?

There are 180 trees in the Malott Japanese Garden trained in this style. Each tree can take anywhere from eight hours to multiple days, depending on the size and on the person who is working on it. Most of the trees at the entrance to the garden will take eight hours for some of our speedier employees. Most days, during our regular hours, you can expect to see between two to five employees in the trees.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The Traveling Thatcher

The arbor house in the Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden was re-thatched recently by William Cahill, a professional thatcher, who gave us a short interview on the process, and how he learned to thatch.

A few things that thatcher William Cahill doesn’t tell you in this video:

  • He is one of only two thatchers in the entire United States.
  • He has his own forge and makes some of his own tools.
  • In the video, he wields a leggett and a Dutch mallet.
  • The water reed used for the roof is so sharp that it can cut your hand.
  • He has thatched with heather, bamboo, willow, water reed, and eucalyptus.
  • While Ireland and Japan are best known for thatched roofs, Africa thatches the most, with more than two million thatched structures.
  • His roofing résumé is fascinating: structures at Winterthur, Grey Gardens, and Lotusland; plus flower shops, sheep houses, potting sheds, museums, wigwams, churches, faerie houses, zoo pavilions…and William Butler Yeats’ home in Galway, Ireland. Check out Cahill’s amazing work at roofthatch.com.

We could listen to his beautiful Irish accent all day.

Video not working? Watch the video at http://youtu.be/gqyFXZJpdWI.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Willow Pruning in the Malott Japanese Garden

If you took advantage of the warm weather last Tuesday and decided to visit the Chicago Botanic Garden, you may have noticed something unusual, especially if you wandered over to the Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden.

The Zigzag Bridge was closed for public safety until we could finish pruning.

The sight of horticulturists walking on water was not a hallucination.
In spite of the 60-degree weather, the lake was still frozen and we took advantage of the situation to finish some winter pruning.

The arborists, equipped with the proper safety equipment, are busy pruning the small willow branches.

 Though this willow pruning appears very intense, even harsh, it provides airflow into the tree and gives young branches more room to grow. Some of the large, more upright branches are left to provide height. From an aesthetic point of view, this pruning gives the tree significantly more texture, creating clumps that flow into thin weeping branches. As willows can become quite large, pruning also prevents the tree from becoming disproportionately so.

Benjamin Carroll stands on the ice to prune and provide direction to the arborists.

For the past four years, Benjamin Carroll, the senior horticulturist who maintains the Japanese Garden, has been working with arborists from the area to shape up his trees to give them a more traditional appearance. This style first emerged in Japan.

Seba on the Kisokaido by Utagawa Hiroshige shows the style we are trying to emulate.

Before this style of pruning was implemented, the willows were pruned to appear mounded. For the first three years of this pruning style, many large branches were cut to drastically change the appearance of the trees. This past year we were able to focus on smaller branches.

A willow prior to pruning this year.
A willow looks different before it was pruned this year.

January is the best time for us to do this because the trees are dormant and the sheet of ice on the lake is fairly thick. Tree dormancy is very important when pruning because nutrient flow is minimal and the wounds made by winter pruning will heal quickly in the spring.

Cleanliness is very important to us, it looks good and reduces debris that could promote disease.
While the arborists cut branches with pole saws and chainsaws, I moved branches off the ice.

 The thickness of the ice is also helpful to us because it simplifies cleanup.

After the branches are moved to shore, they’re loaded onto a club car and taken to the mulch pile.

Cleanliness is very important to us because it not only keeps the Garden looking its best but it also reduces debris that could cause disease problems in the future.

Though we look fairly confident walking on the ice, it is important to remember that ice is always dangerous. We always have seasoned professionals and the proper safety equipment nearby.

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org