Japanese Tea Garden San Francisco
What come to mind when you think of a Japanese garden? clipped shrubbery, twisted trees, raked gravel, stone latterns, koi ponds, bamboo forests, red pagodas, Japanese iris?

June 3rd, 2009
Spirit of a Japanese Garden

During my visit to San Francisco, I returned to the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park.

Gardeners visit gardens not just to ooh and aah but to find inspiration and maybe learn a few useful tricks that we can apply in our own gardens. Most of us, I think, attribute a sense of calm to Japanese design. I turn to my own garden to ground and soothe me. So it’s natural to wonder what makes a Japanese garden serene.

Having lived in Japan, I’m always curious about Japanese gardens (especially in Western countries) although I have no desire to replicate a Japanese garden in my central Texas back yard. I’m not looking to bring “a touch of Japan” into my garden in a decorative or superficial (I mean surface, here, not frivolous) way. However, I think the underlying principles of Japanese design can be applied without mimicry or parody. After all, the original Japanese gardens celebrate native plants and local materials. I think what particularly attracts me about Japanese design is how the essential nature of each element is revealed and revered.


Music has been defined as “the space between the notes”. Although I love the muss of English-style cottage garden during Austin’s cool springs, when the weather turns hot and humid, that style make me feel claustrophobic.

In Japanese gardens, foliage is often removed from plants both to reveal the beauty of the trunk but also to provide glimpses of what lies beyond. I love this peek-a-boo effect, a tension between mystery and revelation.

Japanese Garden Space

The resulting airiness provides a sense of relief during our muggy summers when I feel the need to let me and the plants have some room to breathe.

We avid collectors have the tendency to stuff plants in wherever they will fit. A Japanese garden demonstrates that negative space, empty spaces, are important to the overall design. This concept is harmony with the Texas landscape which is all about space. A single oak tree silhouetted against the horizon is emblematic of our oak savannah.


Japanese gardens can be viewing gardens, where the composition is framed though a window or arch, or strolling gardens. In a strolling garden the view shifts as you walk, emphasizing how gardens are constantly changing as we move through time and space.

The strolling garden is arranged so that you always wonder what’s around the next bend in the path.

Japanese Garden Strolling

Although Japanese and Italianate gardens both emphasize well-clipped shrubbery instead of flowers, they organize the plants in almost antithetical styles. Italianate gardens favor straight lines, geometric layouts, and repetition. To me, the plants line up like soldiers on parade. Japanese gardens prefer sinuous lines, naturalistic layouts, and focus on a specimen plants. The plants are distinct individuals but they are organized so that they flow into each other, echoing shapes and weaving patterns, harmonizing like dancers.

Layered Views

As a child I was fascinated with dioramas and how you could use glimpses through layers of interest to create different views as you changed perspective.

Japanese Garden Layered Views

No matter where you look the plants form a pleasing composition but they are also arranged in a way that makes you want to crane your neck and see what’s behind them.


Coming from a brown, drought-stricken land, I am happy to drink in all this green. Most people when they start out to garden envision flowers or veggies. To create a garden that focuses on neither sounds a bit boring, doesn’t it? Why not just leave the lawn? But like fellow Texan Allen Lacy, I often dream of a lying In a Green Shade

Japanese Garden Texture
I’m never going to find these saturated greens in Austin, but I can work harder to emphasize the shape and texture of our native plants. Central Texas gardeners certainly have a lot of choices when it comes to texture and great architectual shapes. At the Springs Preserve in Las Vegas, they arrange golden barrel cacti as if they were clipped box shrubs.


I know lawns are out but I love this one. Perhaps it isn’t actually a lawn since you can’t walk on it. It’s just grass used as a ground cover.

Japanese Garden Ornament

What really draws me to this spot is the way the stones are arranged around the water feature as if they just came to be there. This space is highly structured but it also feels natural. There’s a rhythm in the way that the little island of stones around the water feature echoes the shape of the island in the white gravel sea. There is something intimate and secret about this place. I feel like I’ve stumbled into a fairy circle.


Japanese Garden Reflection

I have one water feature in my garden but it just sits alone and disconnected. I’m going to have to think about how to use its reflective surface to emphasize something beautiful growing over it. The ideal would be a Japanese maple but I’d prefer a Texas native, something that would evoke a rare Texas oasis.


The one aspect integral to the Japanese style that I’ll never master is neatness. Neatness is not my strength in any provence of my life. Well-defined paths, tidily mulched beds, trimmed bushes and trees result in a sense of control over the chaos of nature which I think is part of the human impulse. We seek to organize our environment and such organization brings a sense of calm. And when things are all hemmed in, there is a delightful moment when they spill over again. Flowers burst into bloom. Vines tumble over a fence. Leaves fall. The garden is still only in photographs.

Strybing Arboretum
The Oudtshoorn pincushion, Leucospermum erubescens, is just one many exotics from South Africa to be found at the Strybing Arboretum and Botanical Garden.

June 6th, 2008
Strybing Arboretum and Botanical Gardens

Three out of the four days I was in San Francisco last week I managed to visit the Strybing Arboretum in Golden Gate Park. The first day I got there about 3PM, after my visit to the Conservatory of Flowers and window-shopping in the Haight. I’ve visited the Strybing several times before and was tired out from walking around, so I went to rest in one of my favorite spots, the coastal redwood glen. I lay there for a very long time, looking up at the redwoods, the illusion of being deep in the wood disturbed only by traffic sounds (well, that and the fact that I was lying on a park bench).

Strybing Arboretum
Coastal redwoods at the Strybing Arboretum. Can you see my bench, almost in the middle and a little to the right?

Shortly after 5, I felt rested and ready to takes some photos. First I had to find the facilities. When I did, they were locked. I dashed to the other side of the gardens. Those were locked, too. Turns out that the Strybing closes at 4:30. If I left now to find a restroom, I wouldn’t be able to get back inside. I was disappointed but I had no choice.

I decided that I was going to feel cheated if I didn’t go back to take some photos. I’ve done my sight-seeing on previous trips and shopping does not entice me. So the next morning I got to the Strybing first thing after breakfast. It was a rare sunny morning. Morning is definitely the best time to visit (if it’s a sunny day) because the garden is better lit than even mid-afternoon when the tall trees put all the understory plants in shade.

The only problem is that the rainbirds are going. So you have to be careful to dodge them or risk getting drenched.

Strybing Arboretum
Dodging the rainbirds during morning watering.

Given how very dry the climate is, I was surprised that the Strybing used rainbirds instead of drip irrigation to water. San Francisco is a gardeners’ paradise. The temperatures are cool but there is plenty of sun. The only problem is water.

The Strybing is huge, 55 acres, and it seems larger because the beds are laid out in a very, naturalistic way with small paths that seem to wind every which way and lead you in circles. Even with a map in hand, I always get turned around. Collections are grouped by place of origin so that the climatic conditions can be mimicked. Rather than create geometric garden rooms, hills, berms, and trees isolate each area and obscure most views.

Strybing ArboretumLooking toward Friend Gate over Wildfowl pond.

There are only a couple of open places in the garden. On entering the Strying the first thing you see is the Great Meadow, which is just a lawn with a small fountain at the far end. This is the least interesting space to a gardener. It is the people place, where people to go and lie on the grass and read or watch their kids run free among but away from the valuable plants and trees. The paths lead you to the right, to the other open space of the Wildfowl pond.

Strybing ArboretumLooking toward the Zellerback Garden of Perennials.

Perversely (given the design of the garden) my favorite view is a long unbroken one looking either toward (or from) the Zellerback Garden of Perennials. I like to sit under the arbor (which was drenched with white wisteria, this trip) and write. When I consult the map, I discover that the entire garden is built on an axis that goes from the entry to the arbor in the Garden of Perennials. One would never guess that being in the garden.

As natural as it seems, the Strybing Arboretum (and the entire Golden Gate Park) is a made place, built on wind-swept sand dunes. The designer, John McLaren, spent 56 years acquiring plants from all over the world and arranging them in natural-looking landscapes. According to a sign in the park, “When he reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 in 1916, pressure from voters resulted in a city statute giving him life-tenure. He died on the job at the age of 96.”

The Strybing is a plant collector’s dream. Want to know what you might stumble across? The pdf listing the 7,000 species currently at the Strybing is 115 pages long! Here’s just a few that caught my eye.

Aeonium tabuliformeWhen I walked into the Strybing, the first thing I saw was this dinner plate aeonium and thought, my goodness, it’s like all the plants are on steroids. Related to sempervivum, the common name suggests that dinner plate aeonium just grows big. But I don’t know…all the plants I saw in San Francisco seemed huge.

Strybing Arboretum
The Australian bottlebrush is apparently well-adapted to San Francisco. I saw huge tree-sized specimens blooming everywhere, even some interesting weeping forms. However, I’m a little tired of red flowers in my own garden because I have so many of them and they all clash with each other. So imagine my delight when I saw this lemon bottlebrush, Callistemon pallidus. The pale yellow inflorescences seemed to glow in the twilight. Several cultivars have been introduced in Australia. One is called, appropriately, ‘Austraflora Candle Glow’. I hope they will become available in Texas soon.

Gingko biloba
I grow a gingko, too, but mine is only about six feet tall with a trunk so thin I can wrap my thumb and finger around it. I was astonished to see that someday it might become a very large tree.

Psoralea pinnate
The flowers of Psoralea pinnata, blue broom, had almost the same color and grape soda scent as Texas mountain laurel. But instead of dark round glossy leaves, it had soft, needle-like leaves (which is probably why one of its common names is Dally pine). A native in South Africa it has been introduced to Australia and New Zealand where it is considered an invasive weed.

I’m amazed that two plants on either side of the world, could have flowers so similiar in shape, color and scent, and yet completely different leaves. Don’t things like that just make you want to be a taxonomist, to study the similarities and difference among plants and figure out a way to classify and group them? When I visit a place like the Strybing, it kills any desire to grow only native plants. I want to embrace a world of plants. Life on earth is more fascinating than our wildest imaginings.
Strybing Arboretum

San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers
The Victorian Era Conservatory of Flowers is one of the jewels of Golden Gate Park.

June 1st, 2008
San Francisco: Conservatory of Flowers

During the four days I was in San Francisco, I read that the weather back home in Austin was like a hothouse. That analogy provided a chuckle as I sat in the Aquatic Plants wing of the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers and listened to visitor after visitor exclaim, “Oh! It’s hot in here!” Compared with the misty 55-degree weather in San Francisco, the room did feel a bit sultry. However, the Conservatory provides protection that my garden does not receive. Its panes of glass have been whitewashed to prevent the sun from searing the plants. No, Austin weather was not like a hothouse; it was like an oven.

The Conservatory of Flowers is one of those magnificent relics of the Victorian Age. Wandering throughout its rooms (each emulating a different climate), marveling at its architecture or reading its history, I find myself caught up in that thrilling age of discovery and collection. If, as some claim, science is just another religion, then the Conservatory of Flowers is certainly one of its cathedrals.

San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers
Plants from all over the world were collected, preserved, examined, and cataloged.

The wood and glass structure is the oldest public conservatory of its type in North America. It opened 1879 and survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. However, it almost didn’t make it to the 21st century. Funding for maintenance was a low priority during the Great Depression and the Conservatory was closed in 1933. In the decades that followed the Conservatory was reopened and underwent various renovations. Then major damage from a windstorm forced it to close in 1995 and it was listed as one of the 100 most endangered world monuments. Had it not been for the efforts of the National Trust’s Save America’s Treasures and then First Lady Hillary Clinton it might have been lost forever. The conservatory reopened in 2003 after a $25 million restoration effort.

San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers

During restoration the 100-year-old Philodendron speciosum could not be moved. It remained in the ground and a special structure was built around it to protect it. The 14.5 ton upper dome was lowered down on a crane over it. Special watering systems installed near the ceiling mist the tropical plants at regular intervals.

Even before I began pond gardening, the Aquatic Plants room was my favorite. (This is my third visit to the Conservatory of Flowers). This time I paid special attention to how plants were arranged in the ponds. Although some plants (like the white ginger or the elephant ears) are familiar, I wasn’t making a shopping list. I don’t really want a hothouse of my own.

The huge platters of Victoria amazonica can grow up to six feet across. Even if I could grow them, I can’t imagine them in my pond.

San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers

I am satisfied being astonished at the variety of plants that exist on our planet. Dr. Seuss couldn’t make this stuff up.

San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers

And, of course, it was fun to look at the various Nepenthes, those carnivorous pitcher plants that resort to eating insects because they grow in soil too poor to support them.

San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers

I easily spent the morning in the Conservatory. I could not begin to photograph or even mentally digest the over 1,750 species of plants on display. I also enjoyed just sitting and watching the various children on school trips troop by trying to find answers for their worksheet questions. Every once in awhile they would look up from their assignments and let their sense of wonder carry them away.