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