The following post was written by Drew Hanson, one of the tea instructors at Shofuso.
In tea (as in life in general) revelations can occur when they’re least expected. Walking down to the tea house yesterday—a walk I’ve taken hundreds of times—I was suddenly struck by the almost uncanny visual ‘depth of field’ I was looking into after making the last turn on the path leading from the middle garden to the lower garden. Finally, after almost 11 years, the mature landscape made sense.
Oh, from the beginning, we were very careful in our selection of plant materials and their placement in this part of the garden, which in a more classical Japanese setting would be called the roji. Our tea house, Boukakuan, sits in a very dark corner of the property, shaded by massive, almost 300-year old sycamore trees.
Because of a series of turns, the path to the tea house seems longer than it really is. But it’s what one sees after making that last turning that justifies the agony of choosing plants and shrubs and the seemingly endless wait for them to mature. We wanted to create the illusion of distance and to ‘manufacture’ light at the same time. Making the first happen was easy. The second was more of a challenge.
But we met it. We decided to harness the power of ‘reflective’ light both to illuminate and give depth to the garden. Plants with leaf variegation: green and white, green and cream, green and yellow; all have found their way into the landscape design, offsetting and enriching the solid greens and blue greens of already existing plantings. Choosing them, however, was the hard part. We live in agricultural zone 6A/B and have to contend with cold (but not frigid) winter temperatures and hot, humid and often (in the last few years anyway) dry summer conditions.
Ultimately we selected variegated broad leaf evergreens like Acuba japonica and Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki,’ mixed in a variegated cedar and several grasses like Miscanthus sinensis ‘Zebrinus’ as well as deciduous woody shrubs displaying unusual variegation, a non-invasive Japanese Fleeceflower and Boehmeria nipononvea ‘Kogane Mushi,’ for example. But all our specimens were babies, none more than a foot tall. How was it all going to look? Would we get the effects we were hoping for?
In landscaping, a rule of thumb is: visualize the garden as it will look in five years, position the plant materials accordingly, put them in the ground and wait. We did. What we also did well in advance of setting out the plants was to consider the sun’s movement, its relative position in the sky in both summer and winter. Remember: we wanted to bring as much reflected light into the garden as possible.
Faith got us through the first five years. The babies grew, but our goal wasn’t going to be reached for another few years. And yesterday I got it! I really got it! Rounding that last turn, I saw the tea house in the ‘distance,’ nestled in its dark corner, illuminated by the reflected light of the plants surrounding it and looking for all the world as if it had been there for as long as our house has been on the property, and that’s 233 years.