Creating the Perfect Japanese Garden
Visit an imaginative, extensive interpretation of a Japanese tea garden, spread down a hillside in his ranch house-dominated neighborhood, near Pittsburgh, Pa.
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By Kim Crow
Astonishing. In a word, that sums up Rob Joswiak's garden.
Joswiak, grand prize winner in the nonprofessional category of the Great Gardens competition, stunned the judges with his imaginative, extensive interpretation of a Japanese tea garden, spread down a hillside in his ranch house-dominated neighborhood, near Pittsburgh, Pa.
It all started with a book on Japanese gardens that his wife of 46 years, Mary, bought him.
"Mare's always bringing home something for me to read," says Rob, 69. " 'Course, she's always bringing something home. She really likes to spend the money, that one!"
"When I want to get him interested in something, I buy him a book," agrees Mary. "And I thought he'd go crazy over this."
Crazy is putting it lightly. In 1995, Joswiak suffered a heart attack and had an emergency quadruple bypass, forcing him to retire from his job as a carpenter. His doctor suggested he take up a hobby, something relaxing, perhaps gardening?
One doubts the doctor realized what he was about to unleash. Armed with a rapidly expanding collection of Japanese garden books, he went to work.
"I went from idea to idea," he says. "I wanted everything I saw in those books."
His front yard was transformed into a Japanese-inspired panorama complete with a wooden bridge, a prayer house and a small goldfish pond. Choice, hard-to-grow Japanese maples dominate the scene.
A wooden path leads visitors around the house through a shady glen filled with purple and green Japanese painted ferns, arborvitae and laceleaf Japanese maples. Squares of slick marble embedded in pea gravel lead to the first of Joswiak's red Shinto gates, with the words "Rocks and Sand" painstakingly painted by Joswiak in Japanese overhead.
Small terraced beds surround a tidy vegetable path, bordered on one end by a large chicken coop. Here a bright red-and-black Chinese pheasant struts about, lording it over a harem of mousy brown lady pheasants. He doesn't have a name.
"We just call him trouble," says Joswiak. "He gets out a lot."
But it's from the deck that sits across from the veggie patch and overlooks the rest of his property, that is where the astonishment begins.
On a steep, shaded hillside down, which his six children used to sled in winter, Joswiak has created terraces and paths, waterfalls and ponds, dry creek beds and moss beds, all steeped in Japanese mythology and lore.
"This garden has been kind of a secret," says Mary Joswiak. "But now everyone is going to know."
Timbered stairs lead down to steeply terraced ground, all of which Joswiak dug by hand. Pea gravel was carried in by the bucketful, rocks lugged in one by one, larger boulders rolled down the neighbors' hill and inched, day by day, into place by Joswiak with a pair of steel tongs.
A hemlock-lined flagstone path stair-steps down the hill, neatly bisecting the garden. Wander down the hill a bit to the right and a waterfall gathers into a water lily pond at your feet. Beyond the pool is a small structure, one that Joswiak likens to a waiting room, a feature often found in Japanese gardens.
"This is where guests wait and refresh themselves before entering the teahouse," he says. "You kind of have to use your imagination."
His teahouse sits farther along one of those winding paths, constructed around a tree that Joswiak didn't want to cut down. It took two weeks of digging in the tree-root-clogged ground before he could get the terrace in for the teahouse.
The teahouse is remarkable. An "ori," a cooking space, sits in one corner, and the spacious room is filled with Asian artifacts picked up at flea markets and yard sales.
A bamboo fence surrounds the whole — wait! That's not bamboo! Joswiak has cleverly used varying widths of PVC pipes, hand-painted beigey-yellow to mimic the real thing, faux-tied with jute in the corners.
"Bamboo doesn't last very long; it rots out," Joswiak says.
Joswiak recycled a dead pine tree, cutting its trunk into steps for another path along the bottom of the garden. Here, in the shade of a tall chestnut tree, he's starting to establish a moss garden.
A "turtle bed" sits nearby, flat rocks outlining a turtle body, head and legs, filled in with green plants such as hosta and ferns. "It's supposed to bring good luck," says Joswiak. "I haven't had any really bad luck, so I guess it's working."
A dry rock bed signifies rushing water down another slope, and a Zen garden, made up of gravel and carefully placed rocks, sits under a dawn redwood. As in most Japanese-style gardens, everything is immaculate. Joswiak spend hours every week picking up stray leaves and debris from his graveled paths and beds.
"It's his love. He's just so happy when he's down here," says Mary, who loves to be out and about, while Joswiak prefers the solitude of his garden.
Remarkably, there are few flowering plants here. It's one of the most beautiful gardens you'll see without a single flower in bloom. Clematis does clamber up the Shinto gate at the top of a hill, and a wisteria is trained into a standard nearby. Some of Mary's beloved day lilies and irises have won a sunny spot above the waterfall, but Joswiak works mostly with conifers and small trees.
He added a faux bamboo railing to his terraced steps earlier this summer, but for now is content with the daily maintenance demands of his garden.
"If I ever hit the Lotto, I'd have the biggest Japanese garden you'd ever see," he says. "But until then, this one will do just fine."
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