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Tammy Swift, Published August 29 2009

Expert visits Japanese garden in Fargo

Sadafumi Uchiyama didn’t talk much as he strolled Friday through the site of the Northern Botanic Garden Society’s future Japanese garden in north Fargo.

After all, the concept of a Japanese garden is too complex and multilayered to be summed up in a few sound bites.

But as the curator of Portland (Ore.) Japanese Garden walked through the

2-acre site northeast of Yunker Farm, his eyes drank in every detail.

He noted the shelter belt of established ash and boxelder guarding the east border. He took in the recently completed Japanese gate on the southeast corner of the property and the proposed spot for a large koi pond.

The Northern Plains Botanic Garden Society hopes to hire Uchiyama, one of America’s premier experts on Japanese garden design, as a consultant for its own Japanese garden project. Uchiyama is in Fargo through Sunday to examine the garden site, check out local materials and plants and talk to NDSU landscape architecture students.

The design expert is working off a conceptual sketch rendered last year by Seiko Goto, another Japanese garden authority. The proposed plan will include many features of the traditional Japanese garden, such as a teahouse, waterfall, bridges and native evergreens pruned and trained to resemble those found in Japanese environmental design.

Still, Uchiyama stresses that Japanese gardening is more than a collection of vaguely Japanese-looking structures and symbols; it’s also a complex system in which the placement of every tree and rock carries significance. This type of garden is meant to respect the native environment, induce a state of tranquility in those who visit it, and remind humans of our connection to the earth.

“We have to respect every single thing. There’s a respect and care to every single detail, from the plants and trees to the ground and the gates,” Uchiyama says.

The botanic society views the Japanese garden as the first part of a multimillion-dollar master plan that would cover

52 acres and include features such as a glass conservatory, amphitheater and arboretum. The project depends wholly on private funds.

The overall plan could take anywhere from 15 to 30 years to complete. But the group hopes to have a Japanese garden established in the next five to 10 years, says Dollie Becklund, the society’s president.

Even so, club members are well aware that a decade is just a nanosecond in the framework of Japanese gardening, where generations of experts can spend 100 years training a grove of trees to grow just so.

Marilyn West, a Northern Plains member who was instrumental in bringing Uchiyama to North Dakota, says it’s exciting to have someone of his stature working on the Fargo project. “He seemed very assuring to us right away,” West says. “There was an openness of communication, and I thought he had the ability to teach us.”

Uchiyama has trained to be a gardener since he was 10 years old, when he apprenticed under his grandfather in the

family-run garden on Japan’s southernmost Kyushu Island.

He attended graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. There, he experienced four distinct seasons and harsh winters for the first time, which helped prepare him for the Fargo project.

Uchiyama is excited by the prospect of designing for this region. Back home in Portland, he says, almost anything will grow – and that actually can muddle the planning process. “When your plant palette is limited, you have to work harder on the guts of the design,” he says. “You have to work and think hard, and that’s really sharpened my mind.”

Uchiyama says the Japanese sensibility can still be captured through locally hardy plants such as Scotch pine, irises and chrysanthemums.

But in the end, the success of a Japanese garden doesn’t hinge on the type of trees or flowers planted.

“I always believe if there are people like this, people who are really committed, things can happen,” says Uchiyama. “People are the most important component.”

How to help

If you’d like to contribute money to the Northern Botanic Garden Society, write to: PO Box 3031, Fargo, ND 58108, or e-mail npbgs@lycos.com.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525