Garden Journal for Spring 2016

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by Michael Alliger
Master Pruner

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.

Grounds Care

DSC05403Along 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.

Osmosis represented at International Japanese Garden Conference

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by Michael Stusser

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.

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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 Osmosis  to 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.

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Left to right: Robert Ketchell, Michael Alliger, Michael Stusser and Martin Mosko

Garden Journal for February 2016

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by Michael Alliger
Master Pruner

Welcome to the Osmosis garden journal!  We in the garden will be writing monthly installments relating our horticultural endeavors.  Attention will be given to pruning; grounds maintenance, such as weeding, sweeping, raking, and insect control; planting and transplanting.


Also to be discussed will be design considerations including the specific roles of plants and their relationship to each other as well as to other elements like stone and water.  This may naturally lead us to touch upon the philosophical notions informing the design.

February stirs the gardener’s soul! For it is at once both winter and spring. The leaden winter shows signs of life; crocus and muscari peek out along with snowdrop and daphne! Last year’s garden becomes this year’s garden. We still have cool temperatures and short days. The wintry rains (thank you!) continue to wash clean the pines and other conifers allowing them to glisten amongst the bare branches of deciduous trees. Yet the new buds of pines emerge. Over next few months these buds will grow into the long shoots known as candles. For now we simply watch with anticipation of what’s to come.

Around mid-month flowering trees begin to bloom. Plums are first, usually around St. Valentine’s Day, marking the end of winter pruning for them though there’s still time for cherries and crabapples as well as fruiting trees like apple, pear and persimmon that don’t bloom until March.

We know, too, that roots begin to move in February indicating the cusp of transplanting season. Emerging roots will soon bridge the gap between dug-up rootball and freshly prepared soil. Moving plants too early can result in a dormant plant sitting in cold wet unwelcoming soil. Moving too late might mean missing an opportunity to maximize a plant’s accepting it’s new home.

Grounds Care

As mentioned in January weeds abound with rain and in the Osmosis garden as with other Asian-inspired gardens we have expanses of gravel as well as paths that must be kept pristine. For control of emerging weeds we use a propane-powered torch rather than sprays. Hand pulling is out of the question for this minutiae.

Raised beds are turned and refurbished with fresh soil amendment. Mulching begun last fall continues. At Osmosis most of our fertilizing is done by keeping a healthy vibrant soil rich with worms and insect life. For this we use mulch that is nutrient balanced and rich in humus. Some specialty fertilizing (e.g. bog iris)is done as needed. Cutback of background overgrowth (e.g. willows) is completed. Irrigation supplies are inventoried and replenished in anticipation of summer use.

Please do enjoy this exciting transitional time in the garden.