Japanese garden: peace and perseverance

  • Article by: CONNIE NELSON , Home
  • Updated: March 27, 2009 - 10:09 AM
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"It's my favorite spot in the world," Billie Logan says of the Japanese garden she and her husband, Jerre, began in 1965.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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Mendota Heights was a small town when Billie and Jerre Logan bought a hilltop lot, and, to the surprise of their lone neighbor, built a contemporary house and an unconventional garden -- a Japanese garden.

"I'm sure he thought we were crazy," said Billie.

The neighbor probably never had seen a Japanese garden. But then, neither had the Logans. In 1965, there weren't any in the Twin Cities to see. Still, the Logans were taken with the natural, serene Asian aesthetic. And they knew what they wanted in a garden: "calmness, peacefulness and quiet."

Notching in a waterfall

Using books and their back yard to guide them, they started with a rock waterfall, which workers notched into the natural slope of the yard. They designed the waterfall to empty into a circular cement pond (the rubber pond liners used today weren't available then). Then, they began building the bones of the garden -- arranging large, sculptural stones, planting trees and shrubs and hunting for bamboo to build authentic fencing.

While their garden was still taking place, they made their first -- and only -- trip to Japan, where they immersed themselves in the traditional gardens of Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Nikko. That visit changed the garden, and the gardeners.

"We began to think more like Japanese gardeners," said Billie. "We thought about texture and contrast, using miniatures, trying to create surprises."

The garden is a study in surprises. It contains no riot of color, no showy flowers. Instead, the green-on-green garden is awash in calm contrasts. Though a stand of Japanese irises lines the dry streambed and some modest wildflowers bloom in the spring (trillium, bloodroot, lilies of the valley and jack-in-the-pulpit), the real "flowers" of this garden are the trees and shrubs -- Japanese yews, amur maples, mugo pines, split-leaf sumacs -- that Billie has expertly pruned.

The trees snake along the ground, forming low, rounded mounds or rising on naked trunks to open in an umbrella-like canopy of leaves. Elongated branches of shrubs reach out over the waterfall, curve dramatically or trail along a fence top.

Lessons from a master

Billie was lucky to have a chance to learn the centuries-old art of pruning and training trees from a master of the craft, Masami Matsuda, who began designing Como Park's Ordway Memorial Japanese Garden in the mid-1970s.

"I learned from him. I took some classes wherever I could and then it was just pure guts," she said. "It's like painting a picture. It's about form and shape and structure."

In addition to the traditionally shaped trees, the garden includes many essential features of a Japanese garden -- curving paths that add a sense of mystery, even a teahouse, which Jerre designed.

More important, the garden became what they had always wanted it to be. "My husband said it was like closing the door on the outside world," Billie said.

The peaceful garden, however, brought Billie anything but peace after Jerre died suddenly in 1983. She couldn't keep up with pruning and fertilizing. The intensive spring and fall clean-ups were overwhelming. And, worse, the garden served only to remind her of her loss.

"In every corner of the garden, there was something that we did," she said.

Despite her grief, Logan struggled to keep the garden going.

"For about seven years, I was just treading water," she said. "Finally, it became mine instead of ours and I began to enjoy it again."

Contrast, texture and abstraction are part of a traditional Japanese garden. So is change. Change is represented in the plants, which are selected because they change with the seasons, and in water, which is constantly in motion. Change is present in Logan's garden, too.

Today, Mendota Heights is a suburb, not a small town. Logan's house is surrounded by other houses. And a Japanese garden is not the rarity it once was. Logan, 77, continues to tend her Japanese garden with the help of a steadfast friend, Edward Nedelcoff. They've introduced some changes to make caring for the garden a little easier. They've let some of the streams turn to dry beds. They've replaced some of the high-maintenance rock with lower-maintenance wood-chip mulch. But the garden still has the power it once had -- the power of peace.

"It can be a burden at times," Logan said. "But anything that's worthwhile can be a burden. It's very much a part of me now. It's my favorite spot in the world."

-- Connie Nelson is at cnelson@startribune.com.

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