High Maintenance Gardening at the Adachi Museum Gardens

For us Austin gardeners worried about the effects of drought, heat, overuse and abuse on Zilker Botanical Garden, the gardens at Japan’s Adachi Museum of Art demonstrate what is possible under very different circumstances. Tuesday (6/20) Waturu Takeda and John Powell provided a window into another world of gardening to a room packed with eager gardeners at the Austin Area Garden Center .

Imagine a garden where a staff of gardeners works often 14 hours a day, every day of the year…a garden where vast beds and paths of gravel are swept every morning using a special technique, where the zoysia grass is clipped with small, electric hand shears, where brown leaves and clippings are brushed off the bushes and mosses, where hundreds of pine trees are pruned several times a year. And if there has been no rain by the end of the day, the entire garden is carefully drenched by hand with huge hoses.

In Austin, we argue about charging an admission to Zilker Botanical Garden to help protect it from boneheads who treat the garden like another playscape and thieves who walk off with the plants. In stark contrast, no visitor is allowed to walk through the gardens at the Adachi Museum of Art. Rather, the gardens are viewed from inside the museum, through windows designed to look like hanging scrolls. Each view of the gardens appears to be a living picture. All the intensive work of the gardeners is to ensure that the gardens remain picture perfect. The garden becomes part of the museum collection, complementing the seasonal changes of the artwork. The garden surrounds the museum, but the museum encapsulates the garden.

I’m curious whether other people at the presentation found inspiration in the beautiful film shown, “The Garden in Fours Season”. (I thought this mistitled as it showed the garden in spring, May, rainy season, summer, fall, winter, and early spring.) Is such perfection even desirable in a garden outside of the museum concept? Or did it feel sterile? too manicured? Each view of the garden is beautifully composed. But the real interest was noticing how the garden changed in time, through the seasons and through varying degrees of sunlight, rain, mist, and snow. The one view that I wanted to see that wasn’t in the film was the garden in moonlight.

Although John Powell hinted that concepts and techniques of Japanese gardening are transferable to the heart of Texas, the presentation did not touch much on that. Certainly there’s a big part of the summer in Austin where our gardens are best viewed from indoors. Aside from the concepts of borrowed views, strolling and viewing gardens, what can we learn from Japanese gardens?

I’m a hands-on person and a garden that is experienced primarily through sight ignores the textures, scents, and sounds that I think are vital to a garden. Zenko Adachi’s accomplishment in creating this magnificient garden must be admired. I’d love to visit it in person but it is not a garden I would want to replicate even on a small scale. Lacking the same resources of helping hands and water, my tiny Zanthan Gardens will remain mostly a garden of the imagination, hardly recognizable as a garden what with the laundry on the line, the sawhorses in the driveway, and hoses and tools lying about.

Trees vs Electric Consumers

This morning’s Austin-American Statesman incites us with the headline Can trees and power lines be saved?, goading Austinites into another lose-lose either/or debate. The article (which I won’t bother to link to since the Statesman’s site is readable “by registration only”) outlines the recommendation from a City Council task force sent to review Austin Energy’s tree-trimming policy after public outcry at the complete removal of some lovely old trees in Hyde Park and other older Austin neighborhoods. The task force says quite plainly, “We need both.” The solution to saving the power lines is not to get rid of the trees.

After about 52,000 utility customers lost power during last Thursday’s storm, Austin Utility cited that the number one cause of downed power lines was trees. Some people were out of power for four days because of the difficulty in moving all the trees of the power lines.

Austin Energy goes on to pat themselves on the back. “Only the utility’s ambitious $10 million-a-year tree-trimming policy saved the city far worse outages–to as many as 150,000 homes.” said their spokesman, Ed Clark.

The task force report does a good job at exploring all the costs involved in keeping and removing trees. The current tree-trimming program costs Austinites $10 million a year. But both the number of times power is lost and the duration of that loss has decreased since 2000.

However the report also recognizes that without trees, temperatures in the city would be about 6 degrees warmer. That translates into expenses for both the customer and the utility which would have to up their ability to provide more energy just to maintain current levels of comfort.

While I agree that tree-trimming is sometimes necessary, I don’t think the people hired by Austin Energy know what they’re doing…at least not the ones that butchered the troublesome pecan tree in my front yard. They sheared off one branch at the top that arched toward the lines. Not only did this leave the tree unbalanced and much more likely to be uprooted in high winds after heavy rains, but it created a worse problem. The limb below the lines, now exposed to full sun, sprouted scores of thin branches which have begun growing straight up through the lines. This weak new growth has created a far more dangerous and difficult to deal with situation than existed before Austin Energy arrived with chainsaws. I’m now faced with the possibility of removing this tree completely.

After our neighborhood lost many trees in a bad storm of September 1996, I noticed that subsequent storms brought more limbs down than normal. My arborist said that when established trees lose major limbs from trimming or storms, the nearby trees and limbs become more exposed. Trees limbs grow in tandem with each other, building a support structure. Even dead branches help buffer the wind and keep branches from whipping around.

Too many trees in Austin, especially cedar elms, are trimmed leaving long bare limbs with heavy growth just at the end of the branches. Imagine tying a rock to the end of a rope and swinging it around. It’s that kind of force that enables a strong wind to snap huge limbs off these trees.

We need to make sure that trees are trimmed effectively and not in a way that causes bigger problems down the road. And, yes, we need more trees in the city. Whether you think of it as your patriotic duty as a citizen to reduce the nation’s energy consumption, a necessary action as a consumer to reduce your own energy bills, or just as a plain dirt gardener who loves trees…we need to grow trees.

“A study of urban forests in Modesto, CA shows that for each $1 invested in urban forest management, $1.89 in benefits is returned to residents. City trees actually remove 154 tons of air pollutants, increase property values by over $1.5 million, and provide shade that saves over $1 million. This information convinced city officials to increase the tree budget and an electric utility company to invest $20,000 in developing the Modesto Tree Foundation.” — USDA Forest Service

Toilet Revenge

An Ohio family was denied a permit request to build a privacy fence around their backyard because one neighbor felt a fence didn’t fit in with the “open look and feel” of the neighborhood. So the family decided to add their own flavor to the neighborhood’s look and feel by decorating their yard with toilets filled with plastic flowers and toilet bowl brushes painted to resemble swathes of flowers.

Funny because in my South Austin neighborhood a yard full of decorated toilets would fit right in. In fact, I’m surprised no one’s done it yet. (Once this story gets out, I’m looking forward to some fine examples.) I do think the toilet idea is clever and hope the Ohio family wins their battle to build their fence, but…

Bouldin Creek
Hubcap and CD decorated privacy fence

My own neighborhood of small bungalows is also in a fight over look and feel. Our concerns are the opposite. We don’t want people to build soulless McMansions with huge garages dominating the streets.

So I find myself on the opposite side of the fence from the toilet yard people. Although, I think that in their case their permit should have been granted, I don’t believe that owning a piece of property gives you the right to disregard one’s neighbors. In our case, I don’t think out-of-state land speculators should be able to pave over my neighborhood and make a quick buck at the expense of the people who have lived here and made it a community. Rights must be balanced with civic responsiblity. I think a lot of problems would solve themselves if we thought in terms of stewardship rather than ownership.

Bouldin Creek
Our bungalows have character!

If I wanted to live in the soulless suburb I would have bought a house in Circle C where green lawns are mandated despite watering restrictions and clotheslines are forbidden.

Bouldin Creek
Giant fiberglass chicken. Some people keep real chickens, too. And the mayor pardoned our neighborhood goat so that he could be kept as a pet and rather than be deported as livestock.

New Paths in the Garden

Motivated by the nice weather that we get three weeks out of the year and inspired by my success with the bathroom project, I tackled another long unfinished project.

Years ago, we made two large planters in the front and I put in decomposed granite sand paths between them. But when the path reached the front entry, where there is a sharp drop, I didn’t know what to do and gave up. In the interim, I’ve made half-hearted attempts to move the uneven stones that made up the old path. St. Augustine grass overgrew its boundary covering the holes and creating the potential for a lawsuit by all of those people who can’t read the “No Trespassing No Soliciting” sign and insist on stuffing flyers into our front door jamb. The addition of a wooden sawhorse across the path did not discourage them. And so the situation remained.

A couple of Sundays ago, I cleared out the grass enough for AJM to see the stones. He moved them to the back yard. All of them. Yikes! Now the ball was back in my court. I began by cutting stakes and marking a path with twine. The project was really underway. Next I cut out roots and dug out stones and raked flat a good foundation for a path.

I checked Peter Jeswald’s How to Build Paths, Steps, and Footbridges out of the library and read for inspiration and instruction.

The next Sunday we went to Home Depot and bought metal edging for the paths. I also got some horticultural cloth. I had used some on the sand paths and discovered that it doesn’t do as much to keep the weeds down as I’d hoped (they sprout in the sand above the cloth), but it does keep the path medium separate from the clay beneath which prevents the paths from washing away.

photo: pile of stones
2006-04-09. Texas bluebonnets and cleome demonstrate that gravel is an excellent medium for sprouting seeds. However, they are very easy to pull.

On Thursday I ordered 3 tons of Fairland Pink gravel. Before Custom Stone Supply could deliver it, I had to cut back all the Turk’s cap lining the driveway and move the mailbox.

Ever since I’ve been carting one wheelbarrow load after another to fill the paths. We had a nice rain on Monday, and the paths did very well. They didn’t flood and they didn’t wash away. I’m almost done. I’ll update with photos eventually.

photo: gravel paths
2003-01-08. The front gravel paths. From the date, this must just be the granite sand.

Courtyard Garden

Today the high was 76F (24C). It is our last warm day before (as the weatherman put it, so it must be the official term) The Arctic Blast. He’s predicting 18F on Christmas morning. So I tried to get some last minute sweeping up of leaves before holiday visitors arrive. The leaves did fall only last week with the first norther, so it’s not as if I’ve been overly remiss.
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