Can You Honor a Traditional Japanese Dry River Garden with Native Plants?
Drought-tolerant Santa Fe natives complete this masterpiece inspired by venerable Japanese designs.
Dear Avant Gardener, I am creating a Japanese-inspired meditative retreat in an untraditional landscape — the mountains of the Southwest (7,200 foot elevation). I have pushed around boulders to give a ravine on one side of my house some architecture while trying to preserve a natural look — first, creating rock steps from the house, and now delineating the river bed. It will eventually have a small stone footbridge. This former limestone quarry with Juniper, Pinyon, and invasive Russian olive trees, dry except during the summer monsoons, is a pathway for deer, bobcat, bear and other animals. What groundcovers and shrubs requiring little or no water would you suggest to complete the Japanese-inspired look? There are areas of full sun and shade. — Art Historian Outside in Santa Fe, NM
You have captured the spirit of Buddhist meditation gardens in your Southwestern arroyo! It thrills me to see traditional garden styles made relevant to new environments and exigencies. You can indeed complete this design with native plants that won’t require supplemental water after they’re established, despite Santa Fe’s arid climate — only 14 inches of precipitation per year vs. 59 inches in Kyoto, where the first gardens of this type were created in the mid 1300s.
I’m struck by how your garden challenge exposes the inadequacy of plant hardiness zones. Santa Fe and Bristol, Rhode Island, where I garden, are both in zone 6. But Santa Fe receives 14 inches of rain per year and Bristol receives 48 inches. The elevations and soil compositions are entirely different, too. Ecoregions and their native plant communities are a much better guide for “right plant, right place.”
More than just rocks
Japanese meditation gardens are often enclosed in walls or, like yours, evergreen trees. Also called dry landscape gardens or “karesansui,” their essence is the dry stream, revealed by the snow in your picture.
Karesansui (枯山水) is characterized by a minimalist approach in which nature is represented in abstract, using only the judicious placement of rock, sand or gravel, moss, and shrubbery. Designed to eradicate all superfluities and to force the mind to slow the processes of thought, it expresses the taste for austerity and simplicity. — Japanese Garden Reference Guide
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All that’s missing from your own karesansui, as you note, are shrubs and groundcovers. Classically, these would be evergreen, with moss or groundcovers suggesting land rising from the water and small, mounded shrubs suggesting … mountains?
Moss and evergreens often play a representative role, evoking the landscape rising out of the “seas” of sand. — Japanese Garden Reference Guide
You can achieve this effect with common juniper (Juniperus communis) and kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) for groundcovers and damianita (Chrysactinia mexicana) and turpentine bush (Ericameria laricifolia) for small, mounded shrubs. These are available locally at Plants of the Southwest.
Introducing color . . . or not
Unlike the evergreen shrubs in most karesansui, many Southwestern evergreens have striking flowers. Damianita and turpentine bush are each covered in yellow flowers for part of the year, as you can see below. I think this variation celebrates your location while still honoring the tradition. However, if you prefer not to have flowers, an alternative shrub is dwarf pinyon pine.
Some karesansui also include maples for their fall color and winter form, as at this Kyoto temple garden. Keeping with the yellow accent palette, desert olive (Forestiera pubescens) will fulfill this role admirably, again without supplemental watering. You’ll need to plant both male and female to see the delicate spring flowers, and expect to prune suckers to keep the tree-like single or multi-trunk form.
Finally, please consider removing the invasive Russian olive trees. (See how in “Resources” below.) According to the USDA,
As populations increase, Russian olive crowds out desirable native riparian trees such as cottonwood and willow, thereby reducing flora and fauna species diversity. . . . In the past, it was promoted by various agencies for conservation plantings in cropland environments. Some of these same agencies are now spending large sums of money to control it. — USDA
— The Avant Gardener
Why, How, Wow!
Why use natives to express an well-established, foreign design tradition? In addition to increasing the likelihood of “right plant, right place,” they support native insects. Insects are the foundation of our terrestrial ecosystem, much as plankton are the foundation of the ocean ecosystem. As Doug Tallamy told Well News with reference to the proposed native plant pilot for national land:
“Plants capture energy from the sun and turn it into food. . . . [However] 90 percent of insects that eat plants can develop and reproduce only on the plants with which they share an evolutionary history. . . . Non-native plants are very poor at passing on their energy.” — The Well News
To plant my recommendations below, start with bigger plants — contrary to my advice for less arid environments. Site them appropriately for the sun conditions indicated: full sun is more than six hours, part sun is two to six hours, and full shade is less than two hours of sun. And fill each hole with water twice before adding the plant. In addition, according to Madena Asbell, director of plant conservation at Mojave Desert Land Trust,
You must, must, must cage your plants, because if you don't something will come in the night and disappear your plant. . . . You'll need to leave it on for at least a year or two, until the plant puts on enough growth that something can nibble it and not kill the plant. — Los Angeles Times
As always, water deeply but infrequently. Asbell recommends about two gallons per plant per watering — and then keep an eye on the weather and water when it's dry. Your schedule will depend on rainfall and the time of year; just be sure when you water that it's enough to get down below the roots.
Here is Shōfuku-ji temple’s dry landscape, dating from 1843, designed to be viewed from the nearby hall. With the addition of evergreen shrubs, won’t my subscriber’s garden do credit to this tradition?!
Curious about your ecoregion? Use this ecoregion locator.
Want to create a Japanese garden or just visit one? Check out the North American Japanese Garden Association.
Trying to eradicate Russian olive trees? Try the “cut-stump with herbicide” method described in the USDA’s Field Guide for Managing Russian Olive in the Southwest. Or, if you have vast acreage, rent goats.
What a fun project! Show us some "after" pics when it's done.