ON THE COVER North Coast Journal banner

A garden reborn


Light, color & texture | November Garden Checklist

[photo of work crew in garden] David Smith's landscape crew at work.

WEARY OF THE LEAKY 30-FOOT-LONG STREAM and pond, central to her Japanese-style garden, Eureka resident Delores Vellutini decided to have it, along with the rest of the garden, renovated.

"It had been leaking since the garden was first put in. I dealt with it a long time. Finally I was tired of putting up with it, and I thought the garden itself needed some work," she said. So she hired local landscaper David Smith, who specializes in Japanese-style landscaping, to redo the garden that was installed professionally 12 years ago. The 29-year-old Smith recently gained national attention when one of his renovation projects, his mother's garden in Portland, Ore., was featured on the cover and in a full-color spread in the summer 1999 Better Homes and Gardens magazine, "Garden, Deck and Landscape."

He began the Eureka renovation with the philosophy that less is better in Japanese-style landscaping.

"It was originally intended to be that way (a Japanese-style garden), but there were some plants on the marginal side of being Japanese agapanthus, day liles. Those we kicked out," Smith said.

[Better Homes magazine] Better Homes & Gardens: Garden, Deck & Landscape magazine

"We actually simplified the garden because it was kind of busy. We took out a lot of plants except the ones we liked," he added.

Renovating Vellutini's 45-by-50-foot garden was a task of blood, sweat and dirt. Smith and his crew of three had to hand-dig all plants that were no longer wanted because there was no room to operate heavy equipment like backhoes and bobcats. They scraped off the moss ground cover and set it aside to reuse later. With six-foot-long bars they pried boulders weighing hundreds of pounds and rolled them about for repositioning. Using yards of cement and hundreds of hand-chosen, smooth river stones, they rebuilt the 30-foot stream that bisects the garden diagonally from north to south down a gentle slope. Not only did the original stream leak, it was also made of sharp jagged rocks mined from a local quarry. Using the old stream bed as the footing, Smith constructed the new stream on top, this time using smooth-edged stones you find in a natural stream.

Pleased with her new water feature, Vellutini said, "The water, the way it was before, really fell rather harshly over the fall. The rocks were very jagged. David's idea was to use rounded rocks like in a river bed. And now what has happened is that because of the way he's placed the rocks, instead of the sound being abrupt and harsh, the sound is now soothing.

[photo of crew at work] David Smith's landscape crew reposition boulders in the stream
that bisects the Garden.

"You feel as if you are out in the wilderness by a stream. It sounds incredible and, you know, he has a couple of loose rocks and you can adjust very slightly and change the tone of the water as it comes down," she said.

In addition to the stream bed, garden architecture also figures prominently. A 6-by-12-foot glass-enclosed tea house faces south overlooking the garden. It is a place where one is meant to be quiet and serene, not boisterous, said Smith. A 4-foot-tall granite Japanese lantern imported from Kyoto is also an integral part of the garden.

"The lantern guides you along the path to the tea house," explained Smith. In fact, meandering paths, not straight and narrow ones, are a vital part of a Japanese-style garden. "Part of what you want to have is not knowing what is around the corner, so the path leads you along so you see the lantern and then that will lead you to the pond which will lead you to the bridge," Smith explained.

The garden features a crushed granite path that wanders to the stream and a stone path that exits the gardens so that one does not have to retrace steps when entering or leaving the garden, another characteristic of Japanese landscaping. Adjacent to a swimming pool area, the garden is enclosed on three sides by an 8-foot-tall redwood fence. Boulders are strategically placed in moss-carpeted soil.

In many Japanese-style gardens an arching bridge often spans the pond or stream. Actually, according to Smith, this is a Chinese garden feature. However, the workers had to lay a thick, rough hewn plank of redwood across part of the stream in order to transport materials to the garden. "She (Vellutini) loved the look of a simple rough plank of redwood, and that really is Japanese. Very simple and usable, not necessarily to be completely looked at, but to be used. So the board is very utilitarian," Smith said.

[photo of Smith repairing tree] Smith repairs a damaged tree trunk.

Natural is a key word that can describe the essence of a Japanese garden. "A Japanese garden is mostly foliage and very simple and natural," explained Smith. Mugo pines, variegated pieris and assorted varieties of bamboo are included. The pond features Japanese water iris and umbrella plant, a native found on local streams. Not all plants are purely Japanese nor do they have to be, according to Smith. An espaliered camellia, typical of formal European gardens, dresses the redwood fence on the south side of the garden.

"It is okay to borrow from other styles," he said. "There are no hard fast rules. Why mess with what looks good?"

In explaining the essence of a Japanese-style garden, Smith said "Japanese is what looks natural and works. So if you see something in a book and you want that look really bad, it might not work for your garden, and then you end up forcing something that isn't Japanese."

Conspicuously absent from this Japanese-style garden is the Japanese maple. The one originally in the garden was pulled because it didn't fit. "We are not doing Japanese maple because there is enough (plant material) already. Japanese maple is kind of overused and it's got to stand out," Smith explained.

A major concern with the old garden was worn-out soil, nutrients depleted by large trees and laurels bordering part of the garden. So Smith added several yards of steer manure, redwood soil conditioner and peat moss. Fish emulsion is injected into the newly installed automatic irrigation system to nourish the plants regularly.

Contrary to landscape design academics, Smith does not use a mapped out garden plan when tackling a renovation. He feels his way through a project with intuition and an artistic eye. "I think the best yards come without a plan, because the plan commits you to things you don't know about originally. As we dig we find that the soil is different here, the roots are in the way here. As you work in the garden things become apparent that aren't when you just walk into the yard, take measurements and put it on paper," he said.

"My favorite style is making the garden look like we never were there," he said.

Smith's lack of formal plan and frequent consultations with Vellutini resulted in a Japanese-style garden that pleases the owner.

"I like the serenity. It's wonderful to sit in," Vellutini said. "Every evening before I go to bed I look out the window at it, and it's the first thing I look at in the morning. It's a wonderful thing. I love it."

Light, color and texture

"Light, color and texture, not bright flowery stuff, makes a Japanese garden," explains landscaper David Smith.
Here are a few choice plants he has included in the renovation of Vellutini's Japanese-style garden.

[photos of plants]

MUGO PINE Also called Swiss Mountain Pine, Pinus mugo is a dwarf conifer that grows into a round, shrubby form. It has a quiet, restrained appearance. Slow growing to 4 feet. Named cultivar worth noting include "Corley's Mat," which forms a mat of deep green leaves 12" -tall to 3'-wide. "Gnom" forms a compact little ball 2 1/2 -feet tall and about as wide.

MADAKE BAMBOO Pleioblastus simonii or Arundinaria simonii. A running bamboo that serves well as a screen or windbreak. This timber bamboo produces thick green canes and grows over 40 feet tall. Bright green canes can get up to 6 inches in diameter.

HEAVENLY BAMBOO Bamboo-like in branching and texture but more restrained in growth compared to running bamboos. Foliage is airy and delicate, turning purple, pink, bronze or red in winter as weather cools. Several cultivars available growing from 18 inches to 8 feet.

JAPANESE WATER IRIS Stiff sword-shaped leaves become topped with flat iris flower in hues of purple, blue or white. grows to to 3 feet tall and is mainly used in water features. Plant in full sun, part shade. Prefers damp, acid soil rich in organic matter.

UMBRELLA PLANT Peltiphyllum peltatum. Native to the cool streams and rivers in Humboldt County, this water-loving perennial is valued for its large, round jagged leaves attached to the ends of rough hairy stalks. Bold and opulent, it hugs river washed stones along stream banks and gives water features a lush tropical feel. Grows 2 to 6 feet tall.

VARIEGATED JAPANESE PIERIS Pieris japonica variegata. A broadleaf evegreen shrub slow-growing to 3 feet. Narrow delicate leaves edged in white are tinged pink in spring. The variegated foliage adds light and texture to shady areas.

SASASANGUA CAMELLIA Willowy, vine-like growth habit of this species of camellia makes it a fine specimen for espalier, bonsai or informal ground cover. Delicate flowers appear from fall to late winter. Many cultivars available.

November Garden Checklist

Comments? E-mail the Journal: ncjour@northcoast.com

North Coast Journal banner