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Asian Gardens: Beauty, peace fill landscapes of koi ponds and bamboo

Winding redwood plank walk cuts through a hedge of bamboo, in the Asian landscape at the home of Mabelle Selland in Fresno, California. (John Walker / Fresno Bee)
Winding redwood plank walk cuts through a hedge of bamboo, in the Asian landscape at the home of Mabelle Selland in Fresno, California. (John Walker / Fresno Bee)

Fifty years ago, Sylvia Owens bought a hand-carved stone lantern in Japan hoping one day to have an Asian-style garden.

Today, that lantern sits on a piece of flat granite in a small pond in Owens' backyard. The pond, with a two-tier waterfall, carp and water lilies, is the centerpiece of a Japanese garden designed in 1964 when Owens and her former husband, Ken, moved into the home. A bamboo garden, boxwood, azalea, iris, Japanese maple, giant Sequoia, sycamore, citrus, persimmon and black pine are part of the landscape; there also are 10 tons of rock from the Sierra foothills, including a pebbled beach at the pond's edge.

"I love to be out here. I love the smell of it -- the damp dirt reminds me of Japan," Owens says. She and Ken lived in Kamakura from 1957 to 1959 in a home with a Japanese garden; they also visited famous gardens. When they moved to Fresno in 1964, they hired a Japanese garden designer from Berkeley and the landscape took shape over the next three years. Owens enjoys sitting in the garden.

She also spends several hours each morning pulling weeds, pruning and doing other upkeep.

"That's my meditation, my exercise and my discipline," Owens says.

Grey Anderson, owner of Nee-Hai Bonsai in Fresno, says an Asian-style garden "should be supportive of the spirit.

"It should be someplace where you can feel a healing from within," he says, adding that they "help to nourish the psyche, and that's what makes them so special."

Some Central Valley residents are discovering the benefits of Asian-style gardens.

Kiki Oshiro-Avery and her husband, Robert Avery, started working on one in the front yard of their home about four years ago. It includes a Shinran Buddha statue, Japanese lanterns, redwood bridge, river rock, bamboo trellis, bamboo wind chime, Japanese maple, birch, Modesto ash, azalea, nandina, rosemary and morning glories.

There also is a "singing vase" buried in the ground to catch drops of water from a bamboo fountain, "making nice music," Oshiro-Avery says.

"I call the garden 'harmony' because it's really peaceful," she says.

The two travel to Japan most every year to visit Oshiro-Avery's relatives, and "when we return, we miss Japan so much we have created our own Japanese-type garden," she says.

Family also inspired Bill and Pati Fishback to design a Japanese tea garden in the back yard of their Atwater home. The garden is a tribute to Pati's Japanese mother, who died in 1997.

The focal point is a 7,000-gallon koi pond with a two-tier waterfall and center island. An a biofilter system recirculates the water. A bamboo bridge leads from a grassy viewing area to the center island, which has a pear tree, assorted plants, granite lantern, river rock and gravel. A hand-stitched, thatched-roof tiki hut imported from the Philippines sits at one end of the garden. A granite statue of a praying monk, a stone viewing bench, mondo grass, blood maple, African violets, water lilies and horsehair are other elements of the garden.

"It's very tranquil and serene," Bill Fishback says. "The only thing you hear is the running water from the waterfall. This is where we go to get away from all of our day-to-day stress. It's very therapeutic."

The Fishbacks started the garden in 2001 and have "added a little every year," Bill Fishback says.

Mabelle Selland's Asian-style garden was designed over 40 years, beginning in 1958. Her husband, Harold, who died in 2006, did everything by hand, including building a 10-by-10-foot redwood Japanese teahouse with traditional features such as a step to take off shoes, a walkway and a niche for treasured art and flower arrangements. The house looks onto the main garden, which includes cement statues of Kuan Yin (the Chinese goddess of mercy) and Kamakura Buddha. There also is a small koi pond with two-tier waterfall, rocks, Japanese lanterns, grasses, azaleas, black pines, birch and nandina.

"My husband learned about Japanese gardens over the years, and he'd add things in," Selland says. "It grew very slowly, but it's just a part of me now."

Design with meaning

Asian-style gardens evoke a sense of peace, harmony, tranquility and contemplation. They are carefully planned, asymmetrical, subtle and rich in symbolism and personal meaning.

To have professional landscapers turn a 6-to 8-foot square of bare dirt into an Asian garden with a few boulders, trees and shrubs as well as some gravel and a small lantern or water feature would cost between $3,000-$5,000, says Grey Anderson, owner of Nee-Hai Bonsai in Fresno; it would take about a day to complete.

Maintenance is relatively simple and consists of weeding, trimming and styling trees and shrubs up to four times a year and raking gravel about once a month. Anderson gives these suggestions for planning an Asian-style garden:

Green foliage, not bold flower colors.

Use rocks to represent ancient time or the family. For smooth, granite boulders, plant foliage such as pittosporum, cypress and cedar.

For coarse, craggy rocks use such vegetation as juniper, Japanese black pine and mondo grass.

Use raked gravel for paths and seating areas as a symbol for water and the movement of currents. For sunny gardens stay away from white gravel, because it reflects too much light.

Use carved stone lanterns as reminders to follow your inner light or inner path. These often are placed along paths or used as focal points.

Create water features as focal points to create a feeling of solitude. Ponds, fountains and stone basins with a bamboo water-delivery system are good choices.

Use stone, wooden or bamboo bridges to symbolize leaving one world and entering another.

Include empty spaces. A garden should have "elements that excite the eye and then an area near or leading away that is rather empty and where the eye can go and rest rather than busy here, busy there," Anderson says.