Zen and the art of garden maintenance

Japanese gardens are ideal for small spaces and the style is now easy to achieve, reports Anna Pavord
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Gardens made in the authentic Japanese style are rare in this country. Most of the gardens we think of as Japanese here are English gardens talking with a Japanese accent. The superficial accessories - the stone lantern, the bridge, the maple tree - are often taken to represent the real thing. You can't buy Zen off the shelf at the garden centre.

Japanese gardens are popular now because they fit well into small spaces. And they are perceived as being low-maintenance. That's not strictly true. A proper Japanese garden is rather demanding on its keeper. Leaves have to be swept up every day. Blades of grass must be picked out from the moss, and sand raked into cool rippling patterns of water breaking round rocks. Every tree must be clipped and pruned and tweaked to conform to a particular vision (think blasted heath and you'll be on the right lines). Nature may be the pattern, but control is the key element.

Our gardens are mostly attempts to escape from images of the blasted heath, the rocky promontory. We like flowers, colour, smells; constructs that have as little as possible to do with what is going on outside the garden boundaries. In the 18th century, though, I think garden makers would have been closer to understanding an authentic Japanese garden. That's not to say they would have found it any easier to grapple with the Zen underpinning, but someone like Capability Brown would have been in complete sympathy with the principle of tweaking nature. He borrowed distant landscapes in exactly the way that Japanese master gardeners did. They called it "shakkei". He called it a vista.

And garden owners in the 18th century were still tuned into the classical past. They could still imagine gods in stones, nymphs in streams. They understood, too, how gardens should reflect and enhance the spirit of a place. The Japanese call it feng-shui, and hire geomancers to advise on the best way to harness the energy of a particular site.

But the big vogue for making Japanese gardens in England arrived much later, at the beginning of this century. It was the tail end of the mania for all things Japanese that Gilbert and Sullivan pilloried in The Mikado. By then, though, it was a style thing rather than a philosophical thing, although several garden owners in search of authenticity, such as Louis Greville at Heale House in Wiltshire, imported Japanese gardeners as well as bridges, tea houses and stone lanterns. Japan in tea-garden mode appealed to British taste rather more than the austere, rock-and-sand landscapes of the purist Zen style.

Louis Greville had been second secretary at the British Embassy in Tokyo in the late 1880s and on his return to England in 1901 he laid out a Japanese garden on the banks of the river Avon that flows through the grounds of Heale House. A red lacquer bridge (a smaller version of the famous Nikko bridge in Japan) straddles the stream and an authentic Japanese tea house, with rice paper walls and grass tatami mats, was put up by Japanese carpenters. The screen walls slide open to reveal superb views up and down the river.

Greville's Japanese gardeners channelled the two streams here to make complex patterns of still and running water, with more bridges linking small islands in the streams. The planting was simpler then than it is now, though some of the original trees remain: maples, Japanese flowering cherries and a superb cercidiphyllum. It is my favourite Anglo-Japanese garden.

In Ireland between 1906 and 1910, Lord Wavertree was doing the same sort of thing on his estate at Tully, Co Kildare. He brought over a Japanese garden master called Tasa Eida and his son Meiroru, who, with an army of Irish labourers, laid out a garden symbolising man's journey through life. I'd like to have eavesdropped on the comments that came out of that clash of cultures.

The Japanese gardens laid out in Edwardian times were mostly incidental to much larger garden schemes. Now they are popular with owners of small gardens because, as the landscape architect Philip Cave points out, more than any other garden style, a Japanese garden makes a small space seem big.

Mr Cave, who has his own design practice in London, makes a speciality of Japanese garden design. He's done both private gardens (including roof gardens, which lend themselves well to the Japanese style) and public ones, such as the difficult site in front of the Yaohan Plaza on the Edgware road in north London.

In the mid-Seventies, after finishing his degree, Mr Cave went wandering for two years. He looked for enlightenment in the Islamic gardens of Iran and Pakistan. He meditated in the great Mogul gardens of India. In Japan, he finally found his metier and attached himself as apprentice to a master garden-maker, a Kyoto professor called Kinsaku Nakane.

He spoke no English and Mr Cave spoke no Japanese, but doing rather than talking is the essence of learning how to garden - in any garden style. Professor Nakane was starting work on a new garden in Kyoto. The most critical task, after the initial survey, was to choose the right rocks for the garden. Professor Nakane took his apprentice to rock nurseries the way we might visit plant centres to choose shrubs.

That's one of the difficulties of making a Japanese garden in this country. We don't have any equivalent to a rock nursery, one step on from a quarry, where rocks are displayed almost as art objects and chosen for particular purposes in the overall layout. As in flower arranging, odd numbers are preferred to even ones, and rocks are generally grouped in threes, fives or sevens.

Another difficult thing about making Japanese gardens here, says Mr Cave, is imagining all the plants grown to their proper proportions around the rocks. "In Japan," he explains, "the few key plants are generally brought in at vast expense as mature specimens, root pruned, branch pruned and already shaped in the form in which they will be kept until they die."

"What was the most difficult thing about his apprenticeship?" I asked, imagining some great metaphysical struggle as he jettisoned the mental baggage of the Western world. The answer was more prosaic. "Lifting rocks," he said. The rocks could be swung roughly into position with slings and cranes, but the finesse of the design depended on the exact alignment of one rock with the next. That could be done only by hand. Or rather, by shoulder.

Typical plants are ones we are familiar with in our own gardens, although we don't necessarily grow them in a Japanese way. Evergreen azaleas in a Japanese garden are usually clipped into rounded shapes to look like groups of boulders. Trained pines are essential, as are maples and moss. Garden centres in Japan, says Mr Cave, sell moss turves the way we buy grass. Moss isn't appreciated here the way it is there. Perhaps that could be a way of getting to the point of Japanese gardens. Zen through moss.

Philip Cave's book 'Creating Japanese Gardens' has just been published in paperback (Aurum Press, pounds 14.95). Enthusiasts can join the Japanese Garden Society, Groves Mill, Shakers Lane, Long Itchington, Warwickshire CV23 8QB (01926 632746). The garden at Heale House is open daily, 10am- 5pm. Admission pounds 2.50. Tully, Co Kildare, is now owned by the Irish National Stud and the Japanese gardens there are open daily (9.30-6) until 12 November. Admission pounds 5.