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I AM INCREASINGLY FOND of Japanese gardens, and quite unreasonably proud (as if I had something to do with it), of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden‘s Japanese garden, constructed 100 years ago and opened to the public in June 1915. It’s a masterpiece of Japanese garden design — the premier work of its creator, Takeo Shiota (1881-1943), who came to the U.S. in 1907.
The garden is a combination of two Japanese garden traditions: hill-and-pond style (self-explanatory), and the ‘stroll’ garden, in which different vistas are gradually revealed as you meander along winding paths.
Japanese gardens are floriferous when cherry trees, azaleas and irises are in springtime bloom. These photos were taken in high summer, when I found the garden green and shapely, its evergreen structure at the fore, conveying the intended sense of permanence.
Compare the century-old historical photos, above, with the much greater lushness of the present day. Seventy years after its creator’s death, the garden’s beauty and integrity remain. It’s nothing short of a national treasure, IMO, and I feel fortunate to live nearby, where I can pop over on a weekday morning and have it practically to myself.
THOUGH PHYSICAL GARDENING HAS BARELY BEGUN on the Long Island half-acre I bought last March, I’m incubating ideas. At one point, I fixated on the idea of a Japanese garden, but I’ve loosened up. It could be limiting: what if I want to plant lavender and white birch trees? Still, I’ll keep the Japanese plant palette top of mind, since it seems to lend itself well to a low modern home and wooded lot like mine — and I love irises and conifers and Japanese maples.
I also love the varieties of path material in Japanese gardens. It was the paths that struck me most about the John P. Humes Japanese Garden in Jay Gatsby territory on Long Island’s North Shore when I visited a few weeks back. The gravel, mulch and stepping stones, in various combinations, with log risers for steps, are totally in line with my thinking (they’re also some of the cheapest path materials available, and the easiest to lay).
Created in the 1960s by John P. Humes, U.S. Ambassador to Austria, and his wife Jean, restored and expanded in the 1980s, and now under the auspices of the Garden Conservancy, the four serene and shady acres are an “American adaptation of a Japanese stroll garden, reflecting a natural approach to garden design by responding directly to existing topography and vegetation.” All well and good. As is the idea of laying out paths and plantings to hide more than they reveal as one walks through the garden, imparting a sense of mystery and encouraging exploration.
Where Japanese gardens lose me is with their heavy symbolism: stones representing heaven and earth, the re-creation of a faraway landscape in miniature, and so on. I’m not going to make a study of the Edo period (1603-1867), and though I love the Humes garden’s tea house, top, and may borrow ideas from it to make my boxy shed more graceful, I won’t be conducting tea ceremonies there any time soon.
I am looking forward to planting my first Japanese maple, though.
WITH DAFFODIL FOLIAGE PUSHING UP in the front yards of brownstone Brooklyn, the winter of my content is coming to an end. I’ve enjoyed this uninterrupted two-month spell of life in my ever-amazing home borough, where you see things like the movie shoot, above, on Prospect Park West, when you go out for your Sunday morning walk.
We’ve had our bit of snow (that’s the cherry orchard at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, with the Brooklyn Museum in the distance, above, as it looked a week ago Friday, and the view from my front window, below). I’ve caught up with old friends and gobbled down some culture (the Matisse show at the Met, the Museum of Arts and Design, French lessons on Saturday afternoons, even an afternoon at the ballet), though not enough of either.
And at long last, I’m in sight of a closing date on the property I’m buying in East Hampton. On Friday, the house passed its inspection for an updated Certificate of Occupancy, meaning, the Town deems it safe to live in (and that the backfilling of a derelict swimming pool, which I oversaw last month, was done to their satisfaction). And this afternoon I got an email from the seller telling me he is “putting together a crew” to move his two boats and the accumulated furnishings and stuff of 30 years out… this week.
Ye gads. It’s really happening! This means that after weeks of lying on the sofa, leafing languidly through books on Japanese landscaping and ripping pages out of decorating magazines, I’ll soon be putting in actual hard labor. All too soon, perhaps. Am I ready to plunge full-tilt into cleaning, painting, gardening, renovation? It makes me want to settle back on the couch with “The Art of the Japanese Garden” and a cup of tea. I’m already reflecting nostalgically on this temporary period of being a one-home person. I haven’t missed the Long Island Expressway one bit.
Soon enough, I’ll be in the woods, at the beach, breathing country air and enjoying country silence. Meanwhile, I’m appreciating the beauties at hand, like the freestanding mansions of Victorian Flatbush, above and below, where I went earlier this week for the annual ritual meeting with my accountant.
Mostly, though, what I appreciate is my Prospect Heights pied-a-terre, below, where I’ve been cozily cocooned. Its cheery yellow walls never fail to boost my spirits, and its two south-facing windows have served my houseplant collection well.
As the days lengthen, then, onward to what’s next.