Japanese Lessons

A Mililani homeowner followed the sage advice of a gardening master to create a timeless landscape.

Article by David K. Choo, Photos by Scott T. Kubo
Featured Landscaper: Crane & Sekimizu Corp.

Issue Date:  November 2006


Fifteen years ago, Kimo Carvalho was installing an irrigation system in his front yard when he noticed a Japanese rock garden taking shape down the street. Carvalho, who had recently moved into the brand-new development in Mililani, was trying to design a Japanese garden himself. He could use some expert advice. More important, he could use some really big rocks.

Zen and the Art of Low Maintenance Gardening: A rustic tsukubai (Japanese water basin) is a quiet and understated focal point of this Mililani landscape. Populated by hardy, slow-growing plants, the garden requires only occasional pruning.

Several houses down, a professional landscaper and his crew, with the help of a truck with a boom crane, were lifting and placing enormous rocks onto a bare front yard. Carvalho visited the job site and offered to buy any leftover rocks. Later that afternoon, the landscaper, Kiyoharu Sekimizu, arrived with his crew and his truck and started to place huge, heavy boulders into Carvalho’s yard.

Sekimizu was meticulous about the exact placement of every rock—only a specifically shaped and sized stone could go in a certain place, and it had to be facing in the right direction. There had to be a mother rock, a father rock, rocks that symbolized children and even ones that represented grandchildren. At the time, Carvalho and his wife didn’t have any children, let alone grandchildren.

“Setting the stones is the most important step in creating a Japanese garden,” says Sekimizu, who studied the art for 12 years in his native Japan before moving to Hawaii more than 30 years ago. “We make a family outside, and they reach out, and they bring happiness and life into the home.”

After placing the rocks, Sekimizu suggested a list of plants and instructed Carvalho where he should install them. In addition, the landscaper told the homeowner where the garden’s pathway should be placed and what shape it should have. He also told Carvalho that only odd-numbered items could be placed in the garden (threes, fives, sevens and nines, all of which invite good luck and good fortune) and that, besides green, the garden should have only three colors: purple, pink and white. Any more color would be distracting.

Edward Scissorhands Lives Here: Behind every successful Japanese landscape is a skilled and patient gardener, who is one with his pruning shears.

Carvalho got to work. He dug and planted, watered and pruned and, two years later, his garden bloomed. Altogether, the Mililani garden only has seven different varieties of plants, such as mondo grass, kokutan, eugenia and azaleas. Shortly after the garden was completed, the Carvalhos had two children and their free time became a rare commodity. However, more than a decade later, their landscape is full, mature and well manicured, although Carvalho says that he doesn’t pay much attention to it.

“It’s really easy maintenance as far as I’m concerned,” says Carvalho. “I only prune the plants every couple of months, and I use an electric trimmer, so it doesn’t take very long at all.”

Sekimizu knows Japanese gardens. Over a 32-year career, his company has installed more than 1,800 landscapes throughout Hawaii and across the nation. Mililani is home to more than 150 Sekimizu-designed gardens. There are four on Carvalho’s street alone.

According to Sekimizu, it can take as many as 10 years for a traditional Japanese garden to mature. So the continued popularity of spare but meticulously pruned Japanese gardens seems a little incongruous in today’s rush-rush, need-it-by-yesterday world. However, properly planned, Japanese gardens do have great appeal for busy, working people. For one thing, the landscapes, usually populated by slow-growing plants, require little care. In addition, the landscapes usually don’t require a lot of water either, since much of the garden area may be devoted to rock or gravel. Moreover, Japanese landscapes, which traditionally occupy very small spaces, may be especially suited for Hawaii’s sometimes cozy home lots.

Solid as a Rock: The foundation of every Japanese garden is a collection of large stones of various shapes. Even though mondo grass and an azalea plant surround it, this moss-covered rock is still distinctive.

However, before homeowners start digging up their front yards and placing little families of rocks, they should be aware of some of the challenges of installing a Japanese garden. First and most important are the rocks. They must be large, larger than what looks appropriate at first. To find such rocks on the island is difficult, transporting them is even trickier.

“You need big rocks to do a proper Japanese garden,” says Richard Long, of Reliable Landscaping & Sprinklers. “When you put them in your yard, they’ll look too big, but you have to remember that they’ll be covered up by mondo grass, or they may have a tree growing next to them, so they can’t be overwhelmed.”

Long says that if homeowners are lucky enough to locate rocks big enough, their next challenge will be trying to transport them. It’s usually a job left to professionals who have access to a large crane. But if homeowners are able to get the rocks into their yards and place them correctly, their next challenge is to pick the correct types and sizes of plant material.

“With Japanese gardening, scale is very important,” says Kevin J. Mulkern, a licensed landscape contractor. “A lot of times you’re trying to recreate little miniature scenes of mountain ranges or river beds, so you always have to keep things in proportion. If you plant an ironwood tree nearby, you’ll have to keep on top of it, or years later you might end up with an enormous tree dominating your landscape.”

Of course, as with every landscape, homeowners should choose their plants wisely. Mililani’s wet mornings and cool evenings are especially hospitable to Japanese gardens. But hot, dry conditions in Kahala, Kaimuki and Ewa Beach will require gardeners to alter their plant list. For instance, azaleas, a staple in Japanese gardens, don’t thrive in sunny, arid conditions. In addition, the garden itself might be a heat generator.

Soft Rock: A kokutan plant, with its small leaves and seasonal flowers, softens the surrounding rocks.

“If you live in a hot, dry area of the island, the last thing that you would want to come home to is a hot and dry landscape,” says Terri Lee, of Landscapes by Tropical Images. “You’d be surprised how much lush landscapes cool down your house. It’s noticeable. The simplicity and clean look of a Japanese landscape is very aesthetically pleasing. But sometimes they just look so hot.”

Japanese gardening also requires a greater commitment on the homeowner’s part to keep things looking good year after year. According to Steve Dewald, of Steve’s Gardening Service, anyone can mow a lawn or whack some weeds, but it takes a little talent and dedication to manicure a tree into shape year after year.

“Japanese gardens are all about the pruning. If that’s not something that you enjoy doing from time to time, then you should think of another style of garden,” says Dewald. “It’s not a lot of work per se. It’s all about being consistent and having a true interest in gardening. You also have to be patient.”

However, despite all the caveats and challenges, people continue to want Japanese gardens gracing their yards. Maybe it’s because they are timeless. Maybe it’s because they offer a sense of permanence. Maybe it’s because they are so darn beautiful.

“In Japanese gardens you’re using very hardy ornamentals. Things that are sturdy and generally low maintenance,” says Gary Shinn, of Hokuahi Lawns, who often creates Asian-themed gardens with a tropical touch. “But being Hawaii, we’ll slip in some plants, which will give it a tropical touch, things such as a plumeria tree or a strawberry guava tree. I might even have gingers or heliconia in another area of the garden, things you would never see in a traditional Japanese garden. I think many Island gardens have Japanese influences, sometimes they are integrated intentionally, sometimes they aren’t.”


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