When Adam Strehlow took on a new role as lead gardener of The Charlotte Partridge Ordway Japanese Garden two years ago, he was determined to learn Japanese to decipher the many foreign terms and concepts he was encountering in the garden every day. “But that lasted about two weeks,” Strehlow says with a laugh. “The language is very difficult, and I needed to focus my energy on the garden.”
Luckily, Strehlow has a personal tutor to help him translate the meaning and the essence of Japanese gardening—John Powell, an internationally-regarded Japanese garden expert based in Texas. Over the last three years, private contributions from Como Friends have made it possible to bring Powell to St. Paul several times a year to provide consultation on the garden’s ongoing restoration and hands-on training to horticultural staff.
“I can’t even describe the awe that people in the Japanese garden world have when I say I’m working with John Powell,” Strehlow says. “He’s the keynote speaker at every conference, with everyone calling for his attention, and I get to work with him one-on-one three or four times a year. You can’t get this quality of mentorship anywhere outside of Japan, and it’s really integral to the future of the garden.”
Trained as an arborist with a Masters in urban forestry, Strehlow was new to the aesthetic and cultural traditions of Japanese gardening when he began his mentorship with Powell. “One of the first things John told me was to forget everything you think you know about horticulture as it applies in this garden.”
Did You Know?
- The Ordway Gardens, the new showcase for Japanese horticulture at Como, was funded entirely by $2.5 million in private contributions to Como Friends.
- The Charlotte Partridge Ordway Japanese Garden was originally designed by Masami Matsuda, a ninth-generation landscape architect from St. Paul’s sister city of Nagasaki, Japan.
- Thanks to private support secured by Como Friends, the restoration underway in Como’s Japanese garden has attracted international notice from sansui garden enthusiasts.
It’s all in the details
One major difference in horticultural style immediately apparent to visitors is the shape and scale of the trees, which had become overgrown and out of balance in the decade before The Ordway Gardens wing was built. “In western horticulture, you’d rarely prune more than 25 percent of a tree’s branches, but Japanese gardening takes a really aggressive approach to pruning,” he says. “Every single winter we’re pruning those pine trees, taking away half if not more. But because of the TLC the plants are receiving, they end up responding really well.”
If you get down to ground level in the garden, you may notice another feature increasingly common in Japanese gardens and as well as Como’s exterior gardens—beneficial bugs that patrol the garden for pests. Last September, Bartlett’s Tree Service donated more than 10,000 Japanese lady beetles, green lacewings, mite predators and moth egg parasites for release in the garden, augmenting the naturally existing population of beneficial bugs that prey on aphids, weevils and other plant pests.
This integrated pest management approach cuts the need for pesticides, and helps encourage pollinators and other beneficial insects. A year after the insect release, this small army of volunteers is still at work, says Strehlow. “I’ve seen the Japanese lady beetles feeding on aphids this summer, so it’s been working really well,” he says. “It’s just one the many things that visitors don’t see, but that makes everything look as nice as it does at 10 a.m.”
“A Rising Star”
Over the last three seasons, the restoration of the Japanese Garden has helped to realign the sansui-style garden with the original vision of designer Masami Matsuda, a ninth generation Nagasaki landscape architect. “Reframing is a good way to describe what we’re doing. The whole point of this strolling garden is there’s never a point where you can see the whole picture at once—instead as you walk different images are framed and then disappear. As stewards of that framing we’re trying to draw your eye toward certain things.”
That thoughtful reframing has already earned the admiration of the the magazine journal Sukiya Living which recently recognized the Charlotte Partridge Ordway Japanese Garden as one of the “rising stars” of public gardens in North America. In August, Como played host to a regional conference of the North American Japanese Garden Association (NAJGA) whose members came to Como to study everything from the lay-out and installation of tobi-ishi (stepping stones) and nobedan (stone paving) to working with bamboo to create the basic nanako fence that keeps guests on the path, and the yotsume gaki fence used in tea ceremony gardens. “The bamboo fences may look very simple, but there are incredibly specific rules right down the centimeter for the height and spacing of the bamboo pieces, and even how how they’re tied together,” he says.
While having that knowledge base has elevated the Charlotte Partridge Ordway Garden’s ranking in the garden world to 12th out of 300 ranked Japanese garden in North America, Strehlow says it takes no prior study to enjoy an end-of-the-season walk in the garden. “You should clear your mind and go down there and experience the garden as it happens,” he says. “It’s such a personal experience that the best way to see it is just to let it unfold in front of you.”