October 6th was a perfect fall day in Freestone. Thirty people gathered in our meditation garden to honor Steve Stucky, a remarkable landscape artist and Zen priest who helped develop the natural beauty of Osmosis. Steve served as abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center where he promoted gratitude in daily life. He passed in 2013, yet his legacy is alive as our gardens mature.
Steve understood that Osmosis would become a meditative environment where guests would feel the benefits of silent contemplation. He spoke clearly at our garden dedication ceremony in 2003,
Norman Fischer, Wendy Johnson and Michael Stusser at Steve Stücky Altar Dedication
“Very few people in our nation’s healing professions understand the importance of place and of the natural world in healing. The primary reason our work here is so meaningful…is the fact that this garden is a place of healing the body, soothing and calming the mind, and spiritual nourishment—a truly sacred space that recognizes the whole person and may serve many people over many years. I believe that we Americans, in our busy acquisitiveness, need to drink deeply from resources within the natural world to develop an indigenous culture of wisdom.”
Steve Stücky Laying Out the Osmosis Meditation Garden, 2001
I feel certain no one on the planet was better qualified and more able to translate the vision for the Osmosis gardens into reality. Steve wanted to create special environments that would evoke the calming healing quality of our True Nature. It was deeply moving and satisfying to have a companion on the journey that understood these intentions and was able to help actualize them. No words can begin to express my gratitude to Steve.
New Altar at Osmosis
As our celebrated meditation garden was being built, Steve suggested that we incorporate an altar to a allow guests to offer incense. An offering of incense is considered a simple act of generosity within the Zen tradition. Unlit incense represents the potential for enlightenment. Once lit, its ephemeral smoke mirrors the transitory nature of life. Incense purifies the atmosphere and may inspire us to develop a pure mind. Its fragrance spreads far and wide, just as a good deed benefits many.
Our October 6th ceremony included many of Steve’s lifelong friends and fellow practitioners who unveiled an altar dedicated to him.It is inscribed with his favorite Zen saying,
Steve Stücky with Osmosis Gardeners Michael Alliger and Louis Fameli, 2009
Astrologers say that August is the gateway to autumn and here in Sonoma County that seems to be so true as we see the light become more golden, trees turning color and we sense the occasional cool lilt to a breeze. Changing seasons always brings pause to the garden and the gardener. Autumn is especially a time for reflection; spiritually, soulfully, and in the garden.Looking back we may ask: what have we accomplished?Which of our plans have reached fruition? Which are still developing?And our reflection may lead us forward.What will we be focusing on this winter, time of dormancy, by way of preparation for spring?
Yet autumnal weather also offers us some opportunities for pruning and general garden care.Here in Northern California while the season becomes milder we know that there is a likely possibility for high temperatures still to come.This is an excellent time to replenish garden mulch with a nutrient rich compost or humus-y blend.This will help retain precious moisture as we enter the driest period of the year. Here at Osmosis we prefer composted material rather than mere bark for mulching because plants get the added benefit of natural fertilizing as the winter rains leach nutrients into the soil. Along similar lines it’s important that drip irrigation remain functional and on even as expectations of rain increase.
Hinoki Tree – Unpruned and Pruned
It may go without saying that the falling autumn leaves demand regular raking and sweeping.Not only the paths and beds are swept, but the plants themselves which collect fallen leaves must be groomed daily.The large bay trees along Salmon Creek bordering our garden seem to be among the first to drop, though being evergreen their color show is limited to a cinnamon brown.It is interesting to note that nearby redwood trees are also losing leaves at this time.Even evergreen trees lose leaves in autumn; though with conifers and other evergreens it is subtler than with deciduous trees and may even bring alarm at first sight.At Osmosis we have a number of hinoki trees (a species of Chamaecyparis) whose inner leaves turn brown though they tend to persist until brushed off, another seasonal chore.
Hinoki Tree – Unpruned & Pruned
With regards to pruning this is an excellent time to attend to some of the projects that the busy spring and summer postpone.Many of our conifers (junipers, spruce, cedar) are tended to now.In the event of a spike in heat they are generally tough enough to bear it without signs of stress while their slow-growing nature allows them to be pruned just once a year.We also find time to address some of the background material: a large domed English laurel,California myrtle hedges,and sheared yews, for example.
“At Osmosis we employ the Japanese garden approach to these shrubs wherein we value the older wood for its character and clear some of the young upstart shoots. “
A number of other semi-focal or auxiliary plants receive attention now.Nandinas may be thinned and shaped.The European or western approach might be to cut away the old growth in an effort to “renovate” the plant.A beautiful and delicate plant is the Pieris japonica which is actually related to manzanita and rhododendron.Like it’s two relatives pieris sets its spring flowers in summer/fall.
Conflicting with these developing flowers are last springs spent flower parts and this is a perfect opportunity to clean these off though it takes a careful eye to distinguish the two at first. Late summer/fall is an excellent time for cutback, thinning and styling of magnolia trees.Magnolias represent another instance of a plant setting flower buds in fall for spring show.Magnolias are amongst the first of the spring blooms and here in Northern California they’ll actually be opening in January and February.This limits the notion of winter pruning since we try to interfere with flowering as little as possible while making the tree’s overall appearance exemplary.Pruning in late summer allows enough time for the tree to establish flower buds to replace any lost through shaping.
Fall is the recommended time for thinning bamboo.Thinning bamboo is important because it allows the coming spring’s energy to go into making sturdier more demonstrative culms (shoots). Thinning also reduces the plant’s urge to spread as it has more internal space with less crowding.Fall is also a good time to apply slow release organic fertilizer to bamboo thus encouraging the best new growth in spring.
While there are specific tasks for fall the brief pause can be welcomed with an out-breath of gratitude for all that has gone before and the deep rest that garden life will receive duringthe coming winter.
The summer solstice finds us focusing on California native plants used here in the Osmosis gardens. The theme of our garden design is California Asian, that is to say, a garden structured and pruned in the Asian way yet representative of our place here on this continent through the employment of some native plant material in addition to plants from Asia.
The development of Asian gardens has been in play for literally a thousand years.The pruning techniques, plant and stone choices, and spatial relationships have been refined through trial and error as well as bursts of creative genius.The appropriate plant material has been culled from the native landscape again through trial and error.Appropriateness refers largely to prunability: can a plant be maintained at the human scale required by the garden plan while still evoking the essence of the natural surroundings.This process of local plant selection, while age-old in Japan, is in its infancy here in California. It is the goal of the Osmosis garden not only to create a sense of place (home) by using native plants but also to further the cultivation of them.Our garden is somewhat of a proving ground in that regard; experimenting with the possibilities and limitations of the plants surrounding us.
The plant choices we have made vary in their adaptability from co-operative to questionable to doubtful.Among those most easily facilitated are the vine maple, ceanothus, two forms of ribes (currant) and manzanita.The vine maple is pruned as any Japanese maple with reduction for scale and thinning for appearance.Ceanothus gets cutback as the new growth extends after flowering.This plant is best kept full and usually either grouped or with accompanying plants beneath as they tend to defoliate below.Our pink flowering currant represents one of spring’s first blooms while also providing a screen along a path.Most pruning here is done in winter to contain the plant from its inherent wildness keeping it the right height and thickness and out of the path.We have found that by shearing the sprawling ribes viburnifolium we can create a form resembling the Japanese tamamono or horizontal oval.Manzanita has been used in several ways from shearing into O-karikomi style (contoured drift) to general screen to focal point at front entry sign.Each of these is pruned in late spring-summer as new growth follows flowering. The shearing of Manzanita definitely falls into the category of experimentation but has shown to be effective for a minimum of 10 years.
Shore Pine at Osmosis
Among the plants still in the discovery stage or requiring fairly adept pruning would be the shore pine and Douglas fir (surprisingly!).Without too much difficulty the shore pine can be pruned in the style of Japanese black pine by a skilled technician. The Douglas fir lends itself to pruning quite readily as it exhibits the ability to freely break bud on bare wood, a characteristic rarely found in a conifer. This back budding allows for wholesale cutback and general pruning.The possibilities are seemingly limited only by the imagination and talent of the pruner.We have two that are documented to be over 50 years old and neither is over 7’ and both are full and lush shrub forms.
The tree with which we have had some success though cannot whole-heartedly recommend is the Monterey cypress. While this tree, known along the Pacific coast for it’s fabulous windswept shapes, can reach 40 to 60’ our specimen has remained at no more than 18’ with serious reductive pruning.The tree’s rapid growth and susceptibility to disease and infestation from hard pruning relegate it to doubtful in an ornamental garden.
We have barely touched the surface in our survey of native plants though some of the others tried include huckleberry, snowbell, and hazelnut.To find ourselves at the initiatory stage of this endless exploration gives a greater context to our deployment of Asian pruning and design techniques while lending a more familiar feel to exotic aesthetics.
Welcome to the spring edition of the Osmosis garden journal! As we know, calendar spring begins in March as does the emerging of new growth on plants. However, from a plant grooming standpoint we consider spring to be from approximately mid- April through mid-June here in Sonoma County, Northern California. During this period the tender new growth of plants begins to harden (toughen) up. It is at this point that we can plan our first prunings. Because everything’s happening at once, things can get rather rambunctious without a plan. At Osmosis, we map out a strategy of pruning priorities based on a number of factors. These are: plant role, plant requirements, future development, and degree to which new growth is contrary to garden’s design.
Regarding role, the key or focal trees are noted first while background plants are last to be addressed. There is middle category of auxiliary plantings (sheared shrubs, smaller accompaniment trees/shrubs) that are attended to on an as-needed basis.
With respect to timing, it is helpful to distinguish flower growth from foliar growth.Some plants like plum or camellia flower before shoot and leaf growth. As flowers are finishing, foliar growth begins. Therefore a plant like camellia, if properly tended to the year before, will need no pruning until new shoots have emerged and hardened up after flowering. Though grooming (deadheading, cleaning, insect inspection, etc.) may be ongoing, Rhododendrons, flowering slightly later than camellias, are pushed back on the pruning calendar a little further and for the same reason.
Some trees have special characteristics which must be respected. Japanese maples for example have very thin, delicate leaves as well as thin skin-like bark. Because of this tenderness, it’s important to prune Japanese maples before the onset of prolonged heat and drought, especially those exposed to afternoon sun. Vigorous males will sometimes push out a second flush of growth requiring pruning in summer, but beware.
With any pruning it is paramount to keep in mind the purpose of the pruning, usually two-fold: containment and aesthetics. Since scale (relative size) is so important to Japanese-style gardens the spring cutback is critical. For a natural look this reduction of height and width must be accompanied by thinning in order to achieve balance of the three dimensions including density.
In regards to containment, garden pines such as Japanese black and mugo are growing vigorously in spring. Their growth manifests as long tubular-like shoots known as candles. It is from these candles that needles emerge. They are also the mechanism by which pines accelerate their extension in space. A note on flowering: pines produce both cones often found on the candle tip and pollen sacs around the candle.At the right (or wrong) time these sacs can emit an almost suffocating amount of yellow pollen if brushed.Mugo pines that have achieved their appropriate design height should have all the candles cut back.This is known as candling.Some thinning may also be required to keep the plant from becoming too internally crowded. As far as black pines go there are scores of theories as to how best achieve containment and the desired styling.They all begin with the candles: whether or not to remove them; if so, when; and to what degree.At Osmosis we remove all except the smallest candles. This pruning neatens the tree, keeps it right-sized and leads to future development into the Japanese style. This style is achieved via the secondary growth that occurs over the summer following removal of candle. For maximum value of secondary growth it’s important that candling occur neither too early nor too late. The approximate time for candling is at the unfolding of the needles from the candle.
There are many other trees and shrubs at Osmosis, which are among those pruned as needed. They are tough enough to take harsher conditions and have few to no special requirements. These include among others juniper, nandina, oak, magnolia and dogwood.Many of these will be addressed in our summer edition.
Along with weeding the most important early spring task in the garden is the testing and preparation of the drip irrigation system. Each valve, line and emitter must be checked to be certain that water is being appropriately delivered to needy plants. In a garden (5 gardens, actually!) the size of Osmosis this annual refurbishing can be quite a project though we couldn’t get along without it. Along with clearing and checking the lines, the emitters and laser tubing are repositioned to compensate for the past year’s root growth.
Also at this time begins the monthly fertilizing of the Japanese bog iris and other water plants.
Rhododendrons often require additional acid fertilizer the regular application of which is begun as the flowers fade usually in middle May.
The very popular chamomile beds at Osmosis barely make it through the summer what with the nocturnal visits of raccoons and possums as well as the ever- disturbing tactics of gophers and moles. Consequently, these beds are re-done each spring at this time.Other shallow plantings such as woodland moss, elfin thyme and Irish moss are done now as well.
As rains diminish the containerized plantings which are not on irrigation must receive regular waterings and a schedule is set up for this.
Please enjoy this precious season as plant growth returns reminding us of our place as nature’s stewards.
Over 150 delegates from around the world gathered the National Japanese Garden Association Conference at the Morikami Gardens in West Palm Beach Florida March 7th and 8th. Leading experts from Japan and Europe along with US counterparts provided two days of inspiring content at the home of one of the most celebrated Japanese Gardens in the United States.
The conference theme was: Towards a Healthier World – Japanese Gardens As Places For Wellness and Transformation.The healing effects of this beloved landscape garden art form was presented from many perspectives ranging from public settings, studies of gardens built in the WWII Japanese internment camps, therapeutic settings and Zen Buddhist temples. In several fascinating presentations researchers presented their findings of scientific data on the effects of Japanese gardens on Alzheimer patients, hospice patience and community members with various handicaps. It was a profound confirmation of this fine tradition.
The Osmosis garden fit right into this program.
Meditation garden designer Robert Ketchell came from England to join Osmosis founder Michael Stusser and pruning expert Michael Alliger to present the story of the spa’s unique meditation garden, how it cultivates awareness, tells a story beyond words, and nurtures a mood of repose.
The 90-minute Osmosis session highlighted the founding intentions and collegial collaboration that seeded the success of the project. From the perspective of pruning it was shown how: anticipation and patience play out over time in ways that remind us of humility available to us in everyday life; the use of native plants reinforces a sense of place and human context in nature; the equanimity of empty space is shaped by pruning and design. The intimacy of detailed pruning techniques leads to a recognition of the unseen world of spirit.
The designer explained his use of narrative to engage garden viewers with his use of the Ox-herding parable from Zen as a way to guide on the journey to liberation. It was shown how spa programs use the garden for ritual; meditation, classes, and relaxation serve the deeper purpose of Osmosisto synergize the renaissance in the healing arts taking place in our culture along with the distinct healing properties that have been identified in horticultural therapy. These elements along with the quest for awakening seeded by the arrival of Buddhism in America reflected in the Zen parable make for a potent combination.
The Ox herding story is cast in stone in the landscape garden. This parable is both the physical and physic heart of Osmosis. We cannot avoid being reminded of it each time we visit the garden. Every day the alchemy of this ancient tale works its magic on the hearts and souls of guests and workers alike.
Osmosis presence at this prestigious international gathering allowed us to join into the growing association among builders and curators of Japanese gardens who are focused on the healing aspects of this treasured art form.
Left to right: Robert Ketchell, Michael Alliger, Michael Stusser and Martin Mosko