Nature versus Nurture in the Japanese Garden: A Gardener's Perspective

The springtime Japanese Garden.
The springtime Japanese Garden.

Senior Gardener Pete Putnicki revives the popular "Gardener's Corner" with a reflection on the intentionality that makes Japanese gardens a particularly evocative space; one that reveals the narrative of nature, and who we are in relation to it.

Visitors to the garden often comment on the splendor and beauty of nature and the care and attention that is obviously lavished on the garden. What they are observing and being moved by is the careful, intentional integration of nature and nurture.

Nature is the inspiration and provides the material. The plants and stones, the water and even the wildlife are all naturally occurring elements, part of the nearly endless complexity of earth. The colors and shadows, changing season by season, day by day and even hour by hour are products of biology, geology, and the universal physics that govern life on this planet. Each tree, stone, shrub, clump of moss or flower could exist anywhere with reasonably similar climactic conditions; and many of our features are not unusual in and of themselves. Pines, maples and azaleas are ubiquitous in the maritime Northwest. What makes these elements so spectacular? The intentional arrangement and careful management of these varied elements is at the heart of gardening, and is especially represented in a Japanese Garden. Using the materials provided by nature, selected, manipulated and tended, we try to communicate a narrative, a story about nature, and our relationship with the natural world.

Many of the features in our Garden can be ‘read’ for context and content. The cherries, plum and crabapple trees in the meadow between the Azumaya and east shore, while providing a brief, bright and colorful floral display, also tell the story of an Orchard: a place of plenty, a simple rustic scene. Evoking feelings of hominess, comfort and even, possibly, a melancholy nostalgia. This representation of an orchard can remind us of other orchards, kitchen gardens, of hopes for the future and times and loved ones past. I encourage all our visitors to take some time with the Garden, letting your mind wander as associations and connections tie the various elements in the scene before you together into a richer, deeper and more personal narrative.

I look forward to spending years working in our Garden, learning the intracacies and exploring it’s mysteries. I am excited to highlight and showcase some of the features that make the Seattle Japanese Garden a globally unique place. I will continue, in the coming months, to share my experiences, observations and insights with you in upcoming Newsletter articles.

Peter Putnicki is the Senior Gardener at Seattle Japanese Garden.