October 26, 2008

Training Pine Trees -The Japanese Art of Niwaki

Last spring I bought the this wonderful book by Jake Hobson called Niwaki - Pruning, Training and Shaping Trees the Japanese Way published by Timber Press. I was hoping that it might show who to prune my Pinus species and cultivars into the shapes one sees everywhere in Japan. The book delivers much more, and not only is an informative and well designed book with lots of color photos and idea, it also covers more than just pines, with chapters on deciduous shrubs and trees, azaleas and more. If you have never heard of the art of Niwaki, the book is very informative and it explains the entire technique, history and artcraft of this amazing cultural art.
Some fan photos of the art of Niwaki from the Amazon page for the book where readers can post their own photos. After reading the book, I was so inspired to try some large-tree training myself. On my first trip to Japan, I took dozens of photos of the plant life, not even realizing that the mounded shrubs, azaleas, and large, horizontal sweeps of branches on the pine with their flat, upward facing needles were not unique species of some Japanese forms, but actually trained specimens, shaped over years to look like mature trees or rocks, or other natural shapes like clouds. The Japanese are so connected to nature and they appreciate this connection in a way no other culture can come close to, that the effect one experiences in the best Japanese garden, often fools even the experienced mind. After reviewing much of my photos now, I realized that most of what impressed me in the tiny alley gardens and the sweeping vistas in the public parks of Tokyo and Kyoto, were actually carefully trained forms, where everything was consdiered and evaluated - each needle was either trimmed or trained, every bud addressed and either removed or allowed to grow, and each branch carefully trained with bamboo poles and rope to achieve a perfect form. Someone once told me "oh, those Japanese are so into control with everything!" but I see this as the opposite, the Japanese look at this craft as more of an art, not unlike Bonsai, the goal here is to shape a tree to look like a either an old one, or a specific shape.

The author explains this art in a very clever way:

Get a sheet of paper, pick up a pencil, and draw a tree. That is a niwaki. It's not living, of course, it's not a real tree. Instead, it is your interpretation - however hastily drawn, however unplanned". Now take is further still, and actually grow a tree. Here you run into trouble; the tree appears to have a mind of its own. it does not look at anything like the sketch you drew, or the model you built. Oh well, it's a living and breating tree. This is where gardeners in the west stop. "It's a tree; let it get on with it".
Left to grow on its own, it may be as long as a century to look as magnificent as one of the noble, ancient spruces do high in the mountains, or a gnarled, twisting pine on a cliff in Oregon.For the Japanese, the process of growing a garden tree is not wholly unlike sketching or building one. Observations, memories, emotions, and thousands of years of cultural and practical tradition inform Japanese gardeners and nursery workers as they coax out those features believed to signify a particular essence. Sounds like art to me.

Some of my tied pine branches in June. I don't have the patience or skill but this still worked.

This all reminds me Japan since anyone who visits, will notice gardeners. Men dressed in blue jump suits, with pruning sheers, hand clippers, tiny brooms, clipping and snipping and carefully and thoughtfully addressing what appears to be each blade of grass and they tidy around the public gardens or hotels. They are everywhere. A westerner can't help but notice that they all look like they love their job, as if they are professors or Doctors, they are need, tidy, professional, polite. A far cry from the American definition of a landscaper - generally a pick-up driving, lawn mowing, Abercrombied teen. In Japan, gardeners are professionals, they are trained, focused, informed and they must be experts in their craft. I have to add, that much of Japana is like this, so part of this may be cultural, for even the young woman in the 7/11 near my hotel was polite, cheerful and attentive as she took my 25 yen for a pack of gum, or the taxi drivers who where white cotton gloves, and have impeccably clean cars that are obsessively tidy with starched white lace seat covers, and spotlessly sparkling windows. Being proub of whatever one does at any tast, must be veyr Japanese.

But back to training my pines!

Pinus Bungeana - Lace Bark Pine before final fall trimming or Momiage.

I have this Pinus bungeana growing near the greenhouse, which I planted just after building the greenhouse as a seedling. Now, ten years later, it is growing larger. I thought I might try training it a bit, so that it would remain open and look more aged, while at the same time, not shade too much of the greenhouse. Not a true niwaki, since it has a single trunk which is to thick now for me to train or push to an angle, I am still going to train it to have the horizontal sweeping branches, and a flatter top crown. THe process of shaping a pine is achieve with specific tasks throughout the year. They are all fun, and actually realaxing, at least for me.

After a November Momiage ( removal of past years needles). Now the tree is starting to look older, with more wood being exposed. I have to admit that even with this fast five month training session, this pine is starting to look amazing.

You must get this book to understand the steps,. but briefly, one must tie and train in the spring, remove the first flush of spring growth -the candles, which snap off easily, in aprocess known as Midoritsumi ( literally 'green picking'), and then the second flush of candles which come in July, are smaller - these are snipped in half. Then, in November, the past years needles are pulled off in a process known as Momiage, or fall thinning. The Japanese have names for many things we never think of, even the sticky pine resin is called Matsuyani, and yes, this is a very sticky hobby.

The Japanese native woodland bamboo, which is hardy in New England, the species Sasa Vietchii, is starting to get it's trademark white leaf edges which starts to appear after the first hard frost. This bamboo does creep, although I would not personally call it invasive since it is rather contrallable., I choose to live with it because it is one of the few plants that looks good year round, It's evergreen foliage looks best in winter, and weeds cannot grow through its dense mat in summer. It is not impossibe to keep it somewhat within a certain space, and if you are a lazy gardener like me, it is perfect.

The First Narcissus of Fall means...I'm bored?

Narcissus serotinus

I get bored easily.

This is not a very practical trait, but then again, no one will ever label me a one who is practical.

When I become bored, it's also not due to depression or of a lack of having anything to do, I simple grow less interested, and start looking for new stimuli. And so it is with my plants. The best way for me to fight my over-curious mind, is to continually introduce new stimuli, be it another genus to explore and collect, or the addition of a rare species of Narcissus, such as this new bulb of a early autumn blooming species from the area around the Mediterranean mainly Corsica, Crete, Cyprus, the East Aegean Islands, France, Greece, and Italy where this tiny Narcissus grows wild ( it's indeed surprisingly tiny - no larger than a dime). This bulb cannot freeze, so I keep it in my fall blooming Narcissus collection, which inhabits about 25 square feet of bench space in my glasshouse.

These 25 square feet dedicated to a collection is about normal for me, who has another 25 feet dedicated to the small South African bulb genus Romulea, and another 25 square feet ( or maybe it's more like 50 Square feet) dedicated to Lachenalia, another for fall and winter growing Cyclamen species, another for Nerine, another for Oxalis ...well, you get the picture.

The problem is this...I work all week.
I commute home late, and in the winter it is dark.
In the morning it is also dark when I leave.
The greenhouse is relatively automatic, with vents, and watering can often wait until the weekend.
I have had the greenhouse for 8 years now, that means * autumns of Narcissus that bloom in the autumn, 8 winters of the same pots of Lachenalia, the same species blooming every year, sometimes better than others, which is a little interesting, but now many are starting to feel more like a burdon, well, more like a dependent than anything else. And the heating costs don't help much either.

What I am saying is that any new species is welcome, as this tiny Narcissus is. No matter what, there are always surprises, this little baby took two years to bloom, I even forgot I had it ( after ordering it one fall from Paul Christian in the UK. This was the year that I was either going to decide not to heat the greenhouse, and perhaps start all over again with new collections, or....I was going to edit through each collection. Niether happened, and here I am watering and fertilizing every collection as they become larger, more of a burdon perhaps, since I insist that each have the perfect handmade clay pots, or the perfect black label, Maybe I just need to make more money and hire a gardener or better yet, a plant conservator - and treat my collections more like a scientific collection, rather than a hobby. I could be the curator, and my gardeners could maintain the collections. Of course, I would need more greenhouses, another glass alpine house or two. I think this is why I respect Martha Stewart so much - I 'get' her. When others say she is simple all about being perfect, or bossy, I always conencted with her as simple another obsessively curious human, who luckily now has the means to maintain her collections, her passions. Rare horse breeds, unusual miniature farm animals, heirloom vegetables, it's all about excellence and authenticity. Maybe I'm not so crazy after all. A little obsessed, but not crazy.

We had a hard freeze Thursday night, which killed the above ground parts of many tender tropicals such as Dahlias, Cannas and Alocasia. So I spent a good part of Sunday digging them all up and preparing them to be brought down to the cellar where they will spend the snowy winter just above freezing, in a bed of dry peat.

October 21, 2008

New York Botanical Garden - more autumnal inspiration

Here are a few more photos from our trip to the New York Botanical Garden. Above, the giant Queen Victoria waterlillys, with pads large enough to hold a small child. The cool, autumnal weather brings out intense color in many plants. Below, I share a few plants on my wish-list since like many of us - I too forget to order plants which look best in those last few weeks of the year. There are many plants rarely seen by gardeners because they simple look boring and dull in the spring, so garden centers and retail shops rarely carry them. Go now to you local plant store and see what you can find beyond the bushel-basket mums and pumpkins - think bigger! For your fall displays. Tricyrtus, Monkshood, Japanese maples, check these out...

I was very impressed with this shrub which at first I thought was an Wiegelia, but is actually an Abelia x grandiflora 'Kaleidoscope'. It's fall flowers along with old calyx's look like glossy white jasmine blossoms at first glance.

Callicarpa dichotoma 'Issai' a rarely seed hardy zone 5 shrub with amazing technocolor violet berries.

Lotus in the reflecting pool even show great color in the fall.

Japanese Toad Lily - Tricyrtus 'sinonome'
The Japanese Toad Lily looks like an orchid but is actually related to the Lily-of-the-valley. I am in love with them, and there are a few species that are truly spectacular. Mine have been in bloom since late August.

Another maple on my wish list - one of the bamboo-leaf Japanese maples, Acer palmatum 'Koto-no-ito'

Acer palmatum 'Sango-kaku' or momiji, the Coral Tower maple which is generally grown for it's coral stems in winter, shows it's other side- impressive autumn color. I ordered one yesterday!

Acer palmatum 'Sango Kaku', a unique must-have Japanese Maple that you won't find at your local home center. Try expanding your Japanese maple collection by ordering small ( or large) pots from sources such as FOREST FARM in North America. Every year, I buy about 5-8 new "tubes" of these expensive cultivars in small sizes, since I am 'rather young'. They arrive in a few weeks ( you can plant them in the fall, mine arrive in November), and by next summer most put on enough growth to be interesting, even at a young age. I started collecting Japanese Maples about ten years ago when I purchased my parents house, and now, those trees are nearly 9 feet tall and stunning. I have discoverd two valuable things here....first, one rarely cuts down a Japanese Maple, they just get better with age. (LIKE US...right?). And second, in our crazy financial market, they may be the best investment one can make - with trees selling for hundreds if not thousands of dollars, these trees become more valuable each year of your life. A mans wealth can be measured by how many Acer palmatum they own.

I suggest growing them in containers, on a terrace, deck, or near the front entrance as we do. Large, fiberglass frost/freeze-safe containers are now on sale everywhere ( like Target or you local high-end garden center). We always buy our large outdoor tubs in the fall saving often 60-80% off of the retail price. Japanese maples in containers are often the most commented on plants at our home, even in the winter they look impressive.

View of the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory is autumn at the New York Botanical Garden

White Chrysanthemums

October 19, 2008

KIKU - The Art of the Japanese Chrysanthemum at the New York Botanical Gardens

Chrysanthemums, trained to Ogiku style or  'single-stem' forms, are a traditional method of training certain chrysanthemums which require careful pinching, and disbudding throughout the growing season. This is exactly how they are displayed in Japanese exhibitions, in precise rows set under protective roofs.

This glorious autumn weekend we had the luxury of attending the opening of Kiku -The Art of the Japanese Chrysanthemum held at the New York Botanical Gardens' Enid A Haupt Conservatory. As a solid Japanophile myself, having a local exhibition of such a collection is a rare and unique treat, since this is the second year that the NYBG has offered this exhibition. Most impressive is that this exhibit is the result of five years of a cultural exchange between the Shinjuku Gyoen in Tokyo, where for the past 100 years gardeners have perfected the art of growing and displaying exquisite chrysanthemums for the Emperor's garden. Under the training of Kiku master Yasuhira Iwashita, is is noted in the catalog of this years' exhibit that last year was the first time that the techniques and styles developed and displayed at the Shinjuku Gyoen were presented outside of Japan. This show runs from October 18 until November 16, 2008 at the New York Botanical Garden.

Exhibitions of this quality and authenticity are rare outside of Japan. If you are in the New York or ti-state area,  try not to miss this show -  a show which takes an enormous amount of time and talent over a 18 month period.

There are some very traditional patterns and forms which each takes years of apprenticeship to be able to achieve good results. The New York Botanical Garden display demonstrates most every method of training (perhaps without the human-doll forms), which makes this show very tradional from a Japanese perspective. It seems no detail has been overlooked.

There was a time when chrysanthemum displays were more common in North American, which reached an apex of popularity around 1900, but given that displays were often limited to the wealthy, those with private estates and teams of gardeners or to horticultural societies (often those, which financial support from said supporters who saw value in supporting such displays) today, outside of Asia, chrysanthemum displays are virtually non-existent (except perhaps those which feature crotons, plastic orange pumpkins and hay bales from Home Depot.

A formal conservatory chrysanthemum display itself may be a relic of the Victorian era, a traditional Kiku display featuring only the most traditional of Japanese forms, is something rarely seen anywhere at all outside of Japan. Thanks to the New York Botanical Gardens and it's dedication to horticultural talent and art, we al have been gifted this very generous treat - a portal to the Edo period, right here in the Bronx.

There are four Imperial styles of Kiku which are being displayed at the Enid Haupt Conservatory.  These include the Ozukuri ("thousand bloom") amazing domes and ovals of giant, incurves and recurve (or what we might call 'football mums' trained to a frame and all grown from a single cutting - a study in geometry which has to be seen, to be appreciated, or shall I say,"to be believed'; the ogiku ("single stem"), kengai ("cascade'), and new this year, shino-tsukuri ("driving rain"). These plants are all housed and displayed in decorative Japanese garden pavilions known as uwaya. These intricate structures protect and frame the beauty of the kiku displays: they are constructed from bamboo and cedar and then edged with ceremonial drapery.

Shin-tsukuri ("driving rain") style Chrysanthemums

Contemporary Japanese art from traditional materials adds to this years display. A magnificent outdoor installation of a  massive bamboo sculpture by artist Tetsunori Kawana, a master teacher of the Sogetsu School of Ikebana,the traditional Japanese art of flower arranging. Kawana is known worldwide for his innovative installations using freshly split bamboo.

The New York Botanical Gardens displays are attractive and immersive from every angle. I love the lanterns, music and the bonsai which all added to the effect.

The amazing ozukuri style of training Chrysanthemums - perhaps the most difficult, this "thousand bloom" form takes 11 months of training from cutting, to this,. Yes...this is all from a single plant, and if you kneel down, you can see the single 1/4 inch thick stem of the entire plant!

Cascade -trained chrysanthemums were most compelling and seemed like something that I could try at home. Finding books on the subject, however, has been difficult. But you know me! I will continue trying to find them before I give up!

The cascade style might be more popular to some people in the States, if you visit a fine botanic garden, but this form is still rather unusual, the plants are trained like waterfalls. This cascade style was the first fancy exhibition style that I tryed. Yes, you can try growing these amazing Japanese forms at home ( by ordering cuttings from Kings Mums for delivery in June).

If I cannot find a book to show me how to train these mums, these images on the didactic panels at the Kiku display, are quite helpful.

October 12, 2008

Nerine Timey

Nerine sarniensis as cut flowers indoors. (The mural in our kitchen was painted by my dad in 1948, it features all of my brothers and sisters, as well as neighbors and relatives in an old English setting. I wasn't born yet ...yeah... obviously an oops baby born 11 years after my sister, who is a baby in the mural; Still, rather weird, but attractive too with it's color palette and cracks, especially when lit well - a little Starbucksy.

Each year, I hesitate with cutting the Nerine sarniensis since although they are the perfect sign of autumn, and so difficult to grow for most people, if not impossible to bloom, my Kismet of luck keeps me a little more protective with them. Besides, I usually cross them with each other, and don't want to lose out on any seed. This year, since I had an abundance of bloom, I decided to cut a few to take to work, decorate the kitchen and bring into my studio. Here in New England, it was a perfect fall weekend, and nothing says "fall' like pink and magenta, I always say!

In the autumn greenhouse, the stars are certianly the Nerine sarniesis - the Amaryllis' long lost cousin, rarely seen in America, and unusual even in it's more common habitat - the UK, where the call it the Guernsey Lily, based off of an old legend that a ship at sea dumped its cargo of Nerine in the 1800's off of the coast of Guernsey, where they bulbs that washed up on shore, naturalized. Native to South Africa......wait........? Has anyone ever wondered WHY a ship would be full of Nerine? Perhaps there is a greater mystery here.

Nerine sarniensis hybrids growing in the greenhouse. ( I know, the ugly old gas can is still in the picture).

October 7, 2008

Moving Plants into greenhouse

We spent last weekend moving plants and tubs of trees into the greenhouse, since I will be traveling next weekend.
Check out the size of our Gardenia....

The intoxicatingly fragrant spires of Hedichium 'Tai Monarch', growing in a large tub outside.

The scent of Hedychchium instantly brings me back to my college days in Hawaii, ( yes, I went to college in Hawaii), and during the autumn, Hedychium blooms under the high tension wires high up in the Tantalus mountains, the mountain range that runs through the center of Oahu. Tantalus drive was a favorite drive on full-moon lit evenings, taking our Fiat Spyder at silly speeds with the top down, hugging the hair-pin turns as most college kids would do. I remember the access road to this drive ran along the edge of Punahou HIgh School, where Barack Obama went to high school, I must have been in College when he was there. Anyway, I digress.... These ginger blossoms practically bring me to tears whenever I smell them. Not because they are so strong, but because their scent instantly transforms my memory.

Easy to grow, you can order them from Plant Delights Nursery in the spring and plant the 6 inch pot into the ground, or the largest tub you can afford, and stand back. In the autumn, we drag them back into the greenhouse, but one can just as easily cut them back before the last frost, and haul the tub into the cellar or unheated garage were they cannot freeze, and keep them until spring. Their foliage is tropical and Canna-like all summer, but the real treat comes in September with these cones of incredibly fragrant blossoms. I can't get enough!!!

Anemone japonica - a semi double form which arrived without a label. Still, quite beautuful for a species which does more than 'fill a gap' in the garden. IF you've never grown the late blooming Anemone's, I highly recommend them. Just buy as many as you can afford, for a stand of 15 plants is the best way to blow away your neighbors. A single plant is OK, but not as great at 5, not as awesome as 10, and 15 - 30? Sublime! Start some from seed this spring. They just get better each year.

Every year I say "OK, we are not going to drag the giant gardenia back into the greenhosue, right?" But then, when the frost nears......eventually most everything finds a place back in the greenhouse, and somehow, in a very Harry Potterian way, everything fits!

Some gingers, such as this unknown Hedychium species we recieved from Logee's Greenhouse never bloomed which means that it may have wanted to bloom later in our short growing season, but sadly, I voted to terminate it, in order to make more room for other new plants ( like my new collection of Hawarthias and Gasteria - which I have been fighting against collected for a couple of years now!). Now I need to go throw more pots for them, since Haworthia's MUST have dark brown high grog stoneware pots, and the only place I can get those if from my own kiln - so off to the wheel. More on that later.

Fergus, one of our Irish Terriers, relaxes most anywhere, as long as he isn' t too far from us. He was groomed later today, since we are going to NYC for a few days next week, and he and Margaret love to go and "do the city". I think it reminds them of their dog show days. SO if you are at the W on Lexington, look for them, ( they are rather well known there!).