A 1.5 hour-long guided tour of the Osmosis Kyoto-style Meditation garden will be conducted by Osmosis founder Michael Stusser and tree pruning expert Michael Alliger. This garden makes extensive use of stone, water and deer resistant plants to express the tranquil feeling of a Japanese style design.
Visitors will be treated to an in-depth look at the underlying Zen themes built into the rock arrangements and pond layout, as well as information about the planting themes and plant materials. The garden has been built over a period of many years and was designed by the preeminent landscape designer, Robert Ketchell, of Britain.
Tour followed by Cedar Enzyme Footbaths, tea and snacks.
Admission: $25. Book a service for that day and get $20 off any service. Space is limited to 14, make your reservations in advance.
Here in west Sonoma County, California, 5 miles from the Pacific Ocean, March is the turning point of the seasons. In the Osmosis garden, winter work is nearly finished with the anticipation of spring’s soft explosion at hand. Though the weather varies, the seasons are consistent. Winter is marked by the loss of leaves on deciduous trees indicating the relative inactivity or dormancy of all plant material. Among the first signs of spring are the flowers of plum, which precede leaf growth.
Window of Opportunity
The window of opportunity for winter pruning is in this dormant period indicated by bare branches. Insect activity is also reduced at this time, lessening the chance for infestation. Winter work falls into two categories: Structural Reduction & Correction and Refinement of the winter silhouette (look).We learn from Japanese gardens that within the garden walls trees are kept at human scale, not towering above, as is their wont. Therefore, a consistent effort to contain trees and shrubs throughout the year is ramped up in winter as dormancy allows for more aggressive pruning.
One such situation in the Osmosis garden is the presence of a planted Monterey Cypress. Left on its own it would dominate and outgrow the limited space it is afforded. Yet for nearly 20 years we have managed to keep it at approximately 15’ with a fairly natural appearance. Normally this tree would not be a good candidate for a garden but, it was a gift and we have taken it on as an experiment to see what might be the possibilities and limitations of this native plant.
We have a large Mayten tree (broadleaf evergreen) anchoring one corner of our tea garden.This fast-growing tree is necessarily reduced and thinned each winter. We also have two Douglas Firs (another native) which are maintained in our bath garden as large shrubs (!) at about 8’.
Osmosis has a limited number of Japanese Maples with each being planted at a primary location (path or pond) in the garden. Ranging in size from diminutive (18” x 36”) to person-sized (6’ x 5’) these trees must look excellent all through the year. This means winter pruning is required not only to set up a beautiful spring/summer look but also to treat the eye in winter to the intricate delicacy of bare branches.
Along with the evergreens previously mentioned Osmosis has a number of Pines that get close attention.We have three Red Pines and three Black Pines.Two of the red pines are structurally pruned in winter to maintain proper scale.All the pines are groomed of excessive needles both as a matter of appearance and to help limit spring growth by reducing photosynthesis.
Support plants such as Grasses and Tamamono (mound-shaped shrubs) are also seen to in winter.Grasses are cut to the ground in anticipation of spring’s regeneration while the sheared shrubs may get a thorough opening up with hand pruners to allow light and air to reach inner branches that back budding may occur. Back budding is the breaking out of new leaves on bare wood. The vitality of inner wood helps ensure fullness at the time of spring shearing.
Thinning of Bamboo is begun in fall and may continue into winter.Third-year culms (canes) will be dying back and are thus removed along with weak or excessively crowding culms.
Transplanting is also scheduled for winter again because of dormancy. This year we flip-flopped Hellebores with Red Buckwheat plants that found themselves in each other’s microclimates.We also removed a large and languishing Rosemary from our entryway and replace it with a grouping of three small Hinoki trees and an array of Manzanitas.
Advent of Spring
With the advent of spring, the gardener sharpens tools, restocks sunscreen and cinches up her belt in preparation for the marathon to come.The surge of the plant world is both inspiring and
daunting.With so much growth at once, the garden pruner must establish priorities.Decisions are based upon the degree of unruliness and visual prominence.
Though Japanese Maples are amongst the most meaningful plants in the Osmosis garden their gently soft spring growth is so welcome and complacent that pruning may be set aside for more pressing matters.
When the time comes, Maples are both thinned and reduced for proper scale and a natural look.The one caveat is that when maples are in full sun or receive a lot of afternoon sun care should be taken to not open large holes in the canopy as inner leaves and bark can burn if suddenly exposed to strong heat/light.
Importance of Hedges and Shrubs
One of the possibly more pressing matters mentioned above is the 30’ Green Dragon Hedge separating the meditation garden from its entry gate.The importance of this hedge cannot be overstated as it provides the hide-and-reveal effect so integral to Japanese gardens allowing for a gradual revelation as guests follow the path.Once grown out wild, this element becomes more of a distraction than subtle influence so it’s imperative to keep it in bounds.
At Osmosis, we use manual hedge shears rather than gas or electric powered.The cleaner, sharper result is well worth the extra time and effort in a garden where aesthetics encourage a peaceful meditative state.
Along these lines, the individual sheared shrubs(we use variously Berberis, Euonymus, SpiraeaandGermander) are sometimes overlooked in deference to the dramatic appearance of pines and maples yet their function in the garden is paramount as a grounding element and counterpoint to the focal trees.These smaller shrubs (Tamamono) must be tended with consistent care especially with spring’s first burst.
Perhaps flowering trees such as Camellias, Rhododendrons, Ribes and Magnolia present questions as to when to prune them.In all these cases, as with Plum, the flowers appear before the leaves.This means that a well-maintained plant won’t need pruning (except grooming and deadheading) until after the new vegetative (leafy) growth occurs and extends.Observation leads to pruning guidelines.
Lastly, in our discussion of spring pruning is the Japanese Black Pine.Whiles there are many approaches to pine pruning, here at Osmosis we
remove the candle growth in spring followed byselective thinning in fall and winter. Candle is the term for the initial spring shoot growing on pines. Candle growth generally signal the strength and will power of the tree as it tries to attain its genetic height (60’).This size being beyond “human scale” in the garden, forces us to meet the tree’s will with skill and an aesthetic will of our own. As they extend, candles initially look like tubes; when they stop extending needle open out from the tubes.It is at this time they are removed in favor of their replacements, which develop over the summer in greater numbers and lesser length.
We who garden are fortunate to be so attentive to the seasons as this draws us closer to the unseen world. Make sure you leave time to visit our gardens during your next visit to Osmosis. We also offer Horticultural Garden Tours throughout Spring and Summer for a more in depth look at the underlying Zen themes built into the rock arrangements and pond layout, as well as information about the planting themes and plant materials.
The garden in spring is a growing thing; never more apparent than following a rainy winter such as we’ve experienced here in West Sonoma County.
Pruning is the subject at hand. The question is often asked whether winter is the best season for pruning. It is one of them but a spring such as this should put paid to the question. From maples and pines to hedges and ground covers, the garden’s plants are burgeoning: encroaching on paths, nudging neighbors, blurring definitions, feeling themselves in such abundance that nature’s drive is palpable. It’s a celebration in the garden! An explosion of flowers and tender new foliage. Yet at the same time a garden without defined space soon reverts to the wildness of nature. So not only are we weeding at full tilt, but the ebullience of spring alerts us to the need for pruning.With its absence of leaves winter asks for pruning, but with its leafy eruption spring demands it.
One of the most interesting forms of new growth occurs on pine trees. The Japanese Black Pine, the rounded Mugo Pine and our native Shore Pine all have very prominent spring shoots standing straight up like fingers or “candles” as they are referred to by garden pruners.From the thousand-year old tradition of Japanese gardens to today scores of techniques have developed for embracing the pine tree’s growth habit in the interest of control and style.Control and style are the watchwords of Aesthetic Pruning.
Here at Osmosis, an Asian-inspired garden, our approach to these enthusiastic candles is to remove them entirely banking on their replacement shoots over the summer months for health and style.
Indeed, the single candle removed will be replaced by a multiplicity of shorter shoots more conducive to the size and shape of the garden’s requirements.
Maples are another genus of trees prominent in Asian gardens and we have several varieties here at Osmosis.Even with winter pruning these trees need a spring thinning.There are generally two flushes of growth: one in early spring (April-May) and another in late summer (July-August).Spring growth on maples is usually fine textured and thick while summer growth can be more coarse and rangy.
Two broad categories of maples are upright and mounding (umbrella-style).Upright maples are reduced and opened at the top to control size as well as let light and air into lower and inner branches.The middle of the tree is thinned to reveal graceful structure and to enhance the interplay of light and shadow.Lower branches are pruned for horizontal effect, creating layers or planes.Mounding maples are usually of the dissectum type with finely cut leaves.Their weeping habit allows for increase in size (especially height) much more gradually than upright trees.This makes control less important while thinning is emphasized to show structure.The beautifully arching branches can be obscured as they lay on top of each other sometimes creating a dense mound.Pruning is approached in two ways: the outer branches may be gently lifted and cut back to reveal those beneath while the inner branches are thinned (surprisingly enough!) by working beneath and inside the tree where possible.
The focus here has been on two focal point trees as they are, being the most noticeable, the first to be pruned.As the season progresses and time allows, the background and other supportingplants are groomed.So now, take heart, and answer the call of spring’s beckoning!
Aesthetic pruning is a living art form combining the skill of the pruner, the science of horticulture, and the essence of a tree. While the emphasis is on beauty, maintaining the vitality of the tree is just as important; aesthetic pruners make the right cuts for the right reasons. For Master Pruner Michael Alliger, this art is a balance between the present and the future.
In the 1980s, Alliger was eager for change from a career in retail; he felt an inner calling to work outside. “I thought you had to be a gardener to do that,” he explained, so he enrolled in a plant identification class at Merritt College in Oakland. “I found I had a facility for it. My passion just exploded! I had never been happier.”
He had grown up in the suburbs, surrounded by lawns. “I hated mowing the lawn, so it was such a surprise to me. I found a whole new world to walk into. Suddenly the streets of Oakland came alive as I got to know the plants—the world went from two dimensions to three dimensions, from black and white to color.”
In 1986, while studying horticulture at Merritt, Alliger met Dennis Makishima, a Japanese-American student from El Cerrito. Wanting to connect with his Japanese heritage, Makishima went to bonsai clubs to learn that art, and realized that he could take elements of bonsai and apply them to landscape pruning. One day, Alliger watched Makishima prune a Japanese maple. “I was transfixed. I knew that was what I wanted to do. It felt like home. I asked if I could follow him around and watch him work.” Their relationship evolved into a formal apprenticeship.
“Dennis is brilliant,” Alliger said. “He’s a visionary, a brilliant organizer and strategist and leader.” Makishima suggested to Merritt College that they offer classes in aesthetic pruning and asked Alliger if he would like to teach. “I taught an Introduction to Aesthetic Pruning for a half-day each month, and Dennis unfurled this whole series of classes.” The classes that Makishima organized and taught explored plant material, pruning for the focal point, pruning for the big picture, Japanese maples, pines and conifers, flowering trees, pruning as a career, and finding the essence of the tree. A year later, Makishima offered those classes to Alliger, who would teach most of them for the next 20 years.
The two men organized an informal pruning club that continues to this day at Merritt. “People could drop in or drop out any time. We would volunteer at schools, churches or parks. It was mutually beneficial. The students would get experience and the trees were cared for,” Alliger said.
Makishima also envisioned a professional organization for aesthetic pruning, similar to the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA); and he and Alliger were among the founders of the Aesthetic Pruners Association (APA), a non-profit that promotes the craft of aesthetic pruning and supports professional pruners in their work. This group sets the standards for aesthetic pruning.
Alliger explained the focus of the APA. “Our school of pruning is in the lineage of Japanese garden pruning, which is distinct from European pruning. Principles of the Japanese lineage are pruning to the human scale, size control and containment. The artistic model is based on nature as you see it, nature in essence. We seek both containment and natural expression. The overarching factor is garden design: to have the tree or shrub fit the garden design and still honor the natural form. Our approach works on fruit trees, too, but it’s different from pruning skyline trees, like redwoods and oaks.
“Unlike most animals, plants and trees have the ability to regenerate lost parts. Follow-up pruning requires consistency and has the potential to give the tree longer life. In order for pruning to be structurally sound, it needs to be continually applied—you can’t just do it once.” Some bonsai trees in Japan are 500 to 600 years old. Because these trees outlive human beings, their care has been handed down from generation to generation. For Alliger, “It’s all about love and all about care.
“While the school of thought comes from Japanese pruning, we are not pruning Japanese gardens—we are pruning California gardens, American gardens. But the principles are universally applied,” said Alliger, who is exploring working with native materials to find their potential. The idea of containment and structural pruning has not happened before with our native woody plants.
“I’m experimenting at home with buckeye—how old do they have to be before they flower? How small can they be and still flower? It’s so exciting to think about! The Japanese have been working with landscape plant material in their gardens for 1,100 years. Here, we’ve been doing it for only 75 years, and we’re in the baby stage of realizing the possibilities and finding out which ones are going to be functional in gardens from the point of view of beauty and containment. The more we use our own plant material, the more comfortable we feel. That sense of context is salubrious.”
A powerful part of Alliger’s exploration is in joining the stream of people who have been doing this work for centuries; now he is able to pass it forward. After moving to Sebastopol in 1992, he took on the aesthetic pruning of the Japanese-style gardens at Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary in Freestone. While he continues to maintain those trees, most of his work is done in private gardens around Sonoma County. Retiring from teaching at Merritt in 2011, he currently offers an annual one-day, hands-on class in Aesthetic Pruning for the Master Gardeners of Marin County. He also writes a garden blog for the Osmosis Newsletter which you can sign up for here.