Gardening meets art in Japanese-style gardens |

Gardening meets art in Japanese-style gardens

Anna Naeser

This week I saw the exquisite Japanese-style garden on the grounds between the Music Tent and the Aspen Institute, all buffed and shined after days of work under the direction of the garden maker himself, David Slawson, who comes to check on it every other year. I have been watching the Sage Mountain Sky Garden with interest since it was first installed in, I believe, 1994, when I thought it was a modern minimalist garden using mainly locally native plants. I checked it out every time I attended a summer concert. This time I had come at the invitation of my friend and professional gardener Gayle Shugars, who is one of the gardeners helping with the upkeep of the garden, to see a video of another Japanese garden he has made and the principles behind it. Both gardens look elegant, restrained and formal, the very antithesis of my own garden.Control is the essence of Japanese-style gardens. Though they are carefully constructed to reflect the natural world, to recreate a natural scene in microcosm, there is absolutely nothing natural about them. Every tree, shrub and stone is carefully planned, selected and placed. I can’t imagine a more labor-intensive garden – the tranquility and peacefulness the visitor feels are achieved by continual exacting maintenance.Then again, a garden is by definition under the control of the gardener, which takes work. With ample water, a neglected garden quickly becomes a thicket; without water it turns into a weedy, dried-up place where only the toughest, most adapted plants survive. Whatever grows or does not grow when a garden is abandoned, it is a dislocated place during its transition, neither manmade nor wild. My own garden becomes unkempt if I am away for more than a few weeks during the growing season.Trees and shrubs in a Japanese garden are constantly pruned to preserve their formal structure. Evergreens are severely docked and candled i.e. the new growth called candles on the tips of branches is pinched or clipped off. In the Aspen garden, the leader (central upward-growing stem) on each blue spruce (Picea pungens) was cut off and the limbs thinned artistically. The ponderosa pines (Pinus ponderosa) are practically bonsai, and the potentilla are clipped so seamlessly, they look molded.I prune, too, but for practical reasons, because a branch has died or grown too low over a path, for instance, rather than to manipulate. My goal is to plant, prune, weed, rearrange, add or subtract so every tree, bush, grass, vine and flower comes into its own. I want to build my interpretation of the landscape around me with plants allowed to fulfill their genetic destiny and grow into their natural shape and size. Just because there is no plan of my garden drawn up doesn’t mean there isn’t one firmly fixed in my head.A Japanese-style garden shaped and sheared to within an inch of its life isn’t immune to the vagaries of the weather. The Sage Mountain Sky Garden suffered the driest spring on record in Aspen this year. Irrigation water didn’t even make it to the grounds until June. Groundcovers that normally grow a foot tall and pile up on themselves looked pathetic and scarcely grew. When the rains came, they recovered but are very short, close knit and hug the ground tightly The effect is truly like a thick emerald skin. Basalt is always drier than Aspen but in the dry spring following a colder than usual winter, the durable woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus) planted in my garden steps regrew so slowly that I almost gave up on it, and bloom was sparse, which kept the foliage velvety. I groom these steps as carefully as a Japanese moss garden, allowing no other plants to take root and picking off dead leaves and bits of debris. The Sage Mountain Sky Garden is a work of art, not the kind of art that shakes up one’s thinking, but the kind that wraps you in beauty, that holds you in rapt contemplation. It is the perfect place to meditate. It is a special place and calming but it does not have my heart.My heart lives in my own unruly garden. Beauty comes in many forms and serenity is achieved in many ways. Mine comes from working in my garden, from being immersed in it, from living in it and dreaming about it. The wildest garden can give its gardener peace.Anna is inspired by the Sage Mountain Sky Garden and hopes you will go see it for yourself. She’d love to hear from you at or

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Aspen and Snowmass Village make the Aspen Times’ work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.

For tax deductible donations, click here.

Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.

User Legend: iconModerator iconTrusted User