Tamamono: The Serenity of Foreground Shrubs

Groupings of of tamamono throughout the garden (Photo by Aurora Santiago)

Groupings of of tamamono throughout the garden (Photo by Aurora Santiago)

By Corinne Kennedy

In Japanese-style gardens, foreground shrubs are often pruned into the semi-spherical shape known as tamamono (also written tama-mono).  Evergreen Azaleas (Rhododendron species and hybrids), especially the late-blooming Satsuki types, are the plants most commonly used.  However, any small-leaved evergreen shrub with a compact, mounded habit is appropriate. 

Tamamono of Rhododendron "Dawn" (Photo by Aleks Monk)

Tamamono of Rhododendron "Dawn" (Photo by Aleks Monk)

The desired form is a portion of a sphere, not the ball-like shape used in Western-style topiary.  It should be at least twice as wide as tall, with the widest part touching the ground.  Shrubs pruned in this fashion look seated in the earth, as if they were deeply buried stones.  This basic shape adds a dimension, present throughout the year, that contrasts with the horizontality of the ground plane and the verticality of upright-growing trees and shrubs.  Its repetition brings mass and stability to the garden, and plays an important role in establishing the characteristic simplicity and tranquility of Japanese gardens.

Photo by Aurora Santiago

Photo by Aurora Santiago

The overall shape of the tamamono shrub is more important than its individual qualities.  The plant that’s chosen must take well to pruning – usually shearing, known as karikomi.1   This creates a dense form with a clear outline.  Alternatively, gardeners sometimes use pruners to shape the plant one cut at a time.  This will prolong the life and health of the plant, and result in a somewhat looser and more “natural” appearance, but the process is more time-consuming than simple shearing.

It’s important to maintain a tamamono plant at a size that relates to the human body – keeping its height somewhere between mid-calf and waist.  It’s hard to create the correct shape when a plant is kept very short, but a foreground plant shouldn’t be so tall that it’s no longer in proportion to the other plants in the garden.

Satsuki azaleas are especially appropriate because they have a compact shape, beautiful flowers, attractive foliage, and respond well to shearing.  They do well in the Pacific Northwest, but aren’t cold-hardy enough for some parts of the U.S.

Other suitable evergreen shrubs lack the beautiful flowers of azaleas.  Japanese Holly (Ilex crenata) has a stiffer branching habit than azaleas, but shearing results in the desired tight form.  There are over 100 cultivars, including the compact dwarf, I. crenata ‘Helleri.’.  Korean Boxwood (Buxus microphylla var. koreana) is another small-leaved broadleaf evergreen that can be maintained in the tamamono shape.  Like Japanese holly, it’s adaptable to different light conditions & soil types.

Two conifers also work well.  Unlike most conifers, Japanese yew (Taxus cuspidata) responds well to shearing.  Dwarf mugo pine (Pinus mugo and slower-growing cultivars) has a low, mounded shape, which can be accentuated using pruners, rather than shears.  The tamamono form that results will be a little looser and less formal than when broadleaf evergreens are used.

Tamamono shrubs should be separate from each other, but if they start to grow together, it may be possible to create a sheared wavelike form known as o-karikomi.2These “waves” are simply long lines of connected tamamono shrubs.  If possible, the shrubs should be positioned in a zig-zag pattern, rather than in a straight line.  Straight lines are considered appropriate for human-made objects such as fences and walls, but not for the placement of plants.  O-karikomi waves, on the other hand, should seem “natural.”  Moreover, each “wave” should consist of a single kind of plant.  Parallel waves are sometimes used, evoking waves breaking on a shore, or a series of hills or mountain ranges.

The Seattle Japanese Garden has many azaleas and other evergreen shrubs pruned into the tamamono form, but most do not blend into o-karikomi waves.  The best example of the latter is the planting of ‘Arnoldiana’ azaleas on top of the long wall at the north end of the garden.  The wall is linear, so the “wave” of azaleas, uncharacteristically, forms a straight line above it.

Our gardeners devote many hours to pruning evergreen shrubs into the tamamono form – creating and maintaining the simple shapes that contribute so much to the harmony and tranquility of our garden.


1 See Senior Gardener Peter Putnicki’s article (June 2016):  Karikomi, The Art of Shearing Back.

2 Sukiya Living Magazine (The Journal of Japanese Gardening) has many useful articles on tamamono and o-karikomi forms and pruning techniques.  It’s available for in-library use at the Elisabeth C. Miller Library in Seattle (http://depts.washington.edu/hortlib/index.shtm).

Corinne Kennedy is a Garden Guide, frequent contributor to the Seattle Japanese Garden blog, and retired garden designer.