Saturday, September 24, 2011

A Zen Garden In Davis

Written for the Davis Enterprise, August 25, 2011

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The first clue that this isn't a traditional California landscape is the branch of the Japanese maple peeking out behind the front gate. The drain channels filled with smooth pebbles and elegant "rain chains" are the next signs of some non-Western influences. Small plantings on the side as you walk around the house use gravel and interesting foliage plants.

Crilly Butler and his family live in a house on a quiet cul-de-sac in one of the newer subdivisions of east Davis. Crilly has visited Japan frequently and considers it his second home, and from the time they purchased the bare lot in 1996 they knew they wanted a zen garden. He invited me to view and photograph the garden this spring.

There are several styles of Japanese gardens. Karesansui is the waterless type, generally using limited amounts of plant material, moss (if possible), raked gravel to symbolize water, and groups of rock and stones. Lanterns and pavilions are often included in Japanese gardens of various types. Bamboo, both in plantings and used in construction material, is an important component. Among the many symbolic meanings for bamboo, I found humility, strength, readiness, resilience, simplicity, and more.

To the first-time visitor to a zen garden, it will seem bare. There are rarely flowering plants, and the seasonal changes are subtle. But the lack of abundance focuses the viewer's attention on those simple changes: the flush of new growth on the Japanese maples, the spectacular but fleeting bloom of the wisteria, the seasonal growth of moss on the boulders. In a more complex garden, these would be less individually notable.

From a design standpoint, I was curious how the garden would integrate in a California-style house (at least the exterior) and landscape, including some typical uses such as vegetables and roses. From a horticultural standpoint, my key question was: how did you confine the running bamboo?

Crilly answered my specific questions via email after my visit. As to my design question, it was clear that the zen garden is the strong visual element and that it was carefully designed to fill the key views from the house and patio. The roses and vegetable garden are in an appropriately sunny location off to the east side, just out of view from the house. The bamboo barrier is shown and described below. Note that it would be possible to use non-running bamboo varieties to avoid the confinement issue. Most clumpers, though, have very dense growth habit and might not provide the "see-through" effect that runners provide.

What was your motivation or inspiration for planting a zen garden?

I used to live in Japan, where I studied the martial art Aikido. I met and married my Japanese wife there 28 years ago. I've always loved my "second country", and deeply admire its aesthetic sense. We patterned our Zen garden after our favorite one, found at the famous Kyoto temple Ryoanji.

Did it replace an existing landscape?

We designed and built our Japanese/Western hybrid home on an empty lot, so we were able to plan our landscaping from scratch. Our Zen garden simply replaced barren ground. I think it's quite an improvement!

What year was the project begun, and when was it completed?

We began designing this garden in our minds as soon as we purchased our lot in 1996. After completing the Western rose and herb garden on the east side of our backyard, we started grading for the Zen garden in 2004, though we didn't actually began work on it until 2008. We finished building the border around it, and laying the gravel, in 2009.

Who helped with your design and installation?

My wife and I designed it ourselves, based, as I mentioned, on the garden at Ryoanji. You have to place the rocks just right, so they look as they should from every part of the yard, no matter what the angle. We used orange road construction cones to represent the three "islands", and over the course of 3-4 weeks, kept moving them around slightly until we were satisfied with their placement. My friend Steve Scott carried the large rocks into the yard in a sling attached to one of his small earth-movers, and helped us position them precisely. Other than that, my son Nicholas and I did all the work ourselves.

Tell us about selecting and installing the rocks.

We looked for just the right rocks for quite some time, but couldn't find any that looked like those at Ryoanji. Then we finally stumbled upon some petrified wood boulders at a quarry east of Sacramento. They were unexpectedly perfect!

Where did you buy your bamboo? Why did you select that species (Temple bamboo, Semiarundinaria fastuosa)?

Steve Scott, who's quite a bamboo aficionado, suggested the Temple Bamboo because of its very erect, tall and beautiful culms. We drove his truck to Bamboo Sourcery in Sebastopol, which is an amazing place. They had over three hundred varieties of bamboo there at the time. We planted them about two feet apart in an L-shape along most of our back fence, with the leg extending out about ten feet along the west side of our yard.

Because this species is quite a runner, I trenched around the planting area four feet deep and six inches wide, which I filled with rebar and concrete to keep the bamboo contained. There's nothing worse than seeing your bamboo growing up through the bottom of your neighbor's swimming pool, and I take being a good neighbor very seriously!

Just to verify: your barrier is a concrete trench 4 feet deep, six inches wide, with concrete rebar at 1 foot intervals. Watering is via drip soakers. How often do you run them? What other maintenance do you do?

I ran schedule 80 pvc underground to one end of the bamboo and installed a drip system using three separate soaker hoses winding through the base of the culms end-to-end. It runs for about 20 minutes three times per week in summer, and much less during the other three seasons.

Since bamboo takes in a lot of its moisture through its leaves, I also soak it down top to bottom with a hose periodically, especially when the humidity has been very low for a while. I fertilize every spring with a good lawn fertilizer mixed with FST, since the concrete probably raises the pH of the soil quite a bit. Every winter I thin out the older culms to make room for new growth. I leave the fallen leaves to decompose, rather than removing them, because of their high silica content, which growing bamboo loves.

Some further notes:

A very important part of this barrier system is the maintenance gap between the hedge and the fence. Rhizomes can grow right over a barrier and root, and can readily grow under a fence. Rhizome growth occurs mostly in the spring, so one seasonal walk (sidle, really) behind the hedge to check for escapees will be sufficient. Barriers can be made from very thick polypropylene (60 ml is best). This installation is much more attractive, in my opinion.

Although a zen garden can use considerably less water overall than a more traditional landscape, due simply to the large area without plants, those that are used tend to be high water users. Bamboo and Japanese maples look best if they are not drought stressed.

Japanese maples have some special preferences here. They prefer acid soil with abundant organic material, so turn in lots of planting compost and soil sulfur at the time of planting. While they can take morning sun, Japanese maples will burn in afternoon sun. Finally, true moss is seasonal in our dry, hot climate. Various ground covers can be used as substitutes.

Crilly Butler is a Senior Information Systems Analyst for the California Department of Fish and Game. He also owns the Davis-based Web development company, Develomation.

Steve Scott ( is a landscape contractor who specializes in moving large field-dug trees.