East Meets West
This frequent traveler transformed her yard into a serene Japanese garden
Two years ago Mary Witkus’s garden and mine were both on a tour of St. Paul gardens, even though hers is actually in Minneapolis, just over the Ford Bridge from St. Paul’s Highland Village and a few blocks from Minnehaha Falls.
For Minneapolis residents, crossing the bridge back home must have been a relief, especially if a stop at the Blodgett garden came just before Witkus’s. Yin and yang is an understatement. My house is a three-story pre-Victorian surrounded on all sides by a cottage garden governed by few if any design rules and chock full of flowering plants. It is at its peak of anarchy in late July, which is when the tour took place.
Witkus lives in a simple white, mid-century modern-inspired home whose first floor doubles as the basement and opens into an oasis of calm and coherence seldom seen this side of Kyoto.
The pleasure begins in the front, along the city sidewalk, where visitors are met by a series of linked berms that travel the full width of the narrow city lot. This formal and perfectly geometric feature announces at once that a thoughtful person lives here. The berms, designed to symbolize islands in a dry lake bed, are carpeted in an unblemished expanse of woolly thyme. How clever to grow this particular plant, a creeping gray and velvety ground cover, on raised beds to give it the perfect drainage it requires to look its best.
A walkway of slate steppers winds from the front to the back of the house through specimen trees and shrubs that Witkus chose with similar care. She was inspired by her extensive travels to the Far East to make a Japanese garden that would effortlessly withstand the harsh Minnesota climate. Winters and summers both challenge plants here in a way unthinkable in temperate Japan. She pushes the envelope, but her house and sheltered small lot seem to create a microclimate. Or maybe she simply coaxes the Japanese maples to survive a January cold snap by convincing them that this too shall pass. Perhaps it’s all a dream; they aren’t living in Minnesota at all.
Conifers are especially important in this garden. They are the reason that unlike many Japanese gardens, which tend to feature trees and shrubs that must be regularly pruned to look their best, this one is relatively low-maintenance. Witkus would rather enjoy the view of her garden through wall-to-wall windows than fuss with it in the hot summer sun. Unlike woody plants, conifers need little pruning to keep their intended shape. The ‘Cole’s Prostrate’ hemlock continues to weep without help from Witkus.
But it takes know-how to place a plant with a prostrate habit. Weeping plants can look forlorn and sickly in a garden full of otherwise perky plants. Witkus has created not only a cohesive design statement, but also a mood. Her garden is contemplative and stimulating at the same time. The white weeping spruce and the ‘Alban Prostrate’ pine are supposed to make you feel something, and they do.
On the other hand, with some plants, like the aforementioned woolly thyme, there’s strength in numbers. Brilliant lime-green Japanese hakone grass looks the way it’s supposed to, planted in large swaths, as does Gray Owl juniper, a conifer that can appear unkempt unless it’s given room to roam and make its ruggedly handsome statement, more like a row of craggy boulders than plants. Others on Witkus’s must-have list include ‘Blue Shag’ pine, ‘Acrocona’ spruce, and ‘King’s Gold’ chamaecyparis.
Naturally, she chose—and placed—the other elements of her garden just as carefully. The traditional Japanese Torii gate, which signifies the entrance from public to private space, is constructed of ipe, a durable Brazilian hardwood. The path of stone steppers, each placed slightly lower than the previous one to aid in drainage, meanders gracefully while adhering to the Japanese garden design principle of non-parallel lines. The stones are deliberately placed to slow down visitors and encourage them to sit in contemplation. A simple granite basin is surrounded by Mexican beach pebbles, smooth and rounded from the soothing flow of water. The five Japanese lanterns are strategically placed to provide light where necessary, says Witkus.
At night the back garden is lit so that it feels like an extension of the living room from inside the house, making this tiny house feel large and dramatic. In winter the effect is particularly lovely, as snow covers the weeping hemlock’s long drooping branches.
This gives Witkus just what she had in mind: A garden that calms her down even as it begs for attention—just not the pruning-weeding-watering kind of attention. With its underground irrigation system, its specimen conifers, and its paucity of flowers needing to be deadheaded, this breathtaking garden pretty much takes care of itself.
Bonnie Blodgett lives and gardens in St. Paul. She publishes “The Garden Newsletter” and authored Remembering Smell: A Memoir of Losing —and Discovering—the Primal Sense (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, June 2010).