March in the garden is the time to begin
the gardening year by walking systematically through
and taking note of what needs to be pruned and trained
for the year ahead.
During the last two weeks of March,
shrubs should probably be the first to receive
care and attention … with a pair of cleaned
and sharpened secateurs,
to remove all branches that are Dead, Diseased,
Damaged, and (what I call) Diagonal –
that is, growing inward towards the centre of the plant,
or at an undesirable angle.
With proper pruning, light and air
will now freely circulate throughout
the centre and interior of the plant.
When it is discovered that I make gardens
after the Japanese manner,
folk not infrequently seem compelled to ask
if I … “make Zen gardens”.
I had, initially, not the slightest idea –
and had to ask for an explanation
of the term.
The result of that query enlightened
both the inquirer and me:
the answer turned out to be .. “No”.
What was described to me seemed to be
Disneyland versions of what cinema-goers
think a Japanese Garden looks like.
Yes, most assuredly, each of these is integral
… But, No –
No stone Buddhas;
No Red, Arch-shaped Bridges;
No concrete stepping-stones with katakana characters;
No statues of Geiko Maidens carrying pitchers of water.
Such things would no more occur to me
than would putting plastic leprechauns,
gnomes, or fairies, in a garden in Ireland.
The garden, surely, is a place to relate
… to Nature …
to the plants and animals that reside within
the confines of the well-tended garden ?
Features added to the garden ( I had always
– apparently bizarrely – imagined) should always
be “in keeping” with the natural surrounding –
a dry stone wall;
a fallen tree used as the front of a raised garden bed;
or a stone positioned as a directional guidepost.
But there is indeed one man-made feature
– only one –
that I would like to share with you
since few seem aware of what precisely it is.
While the only statuesque features, for me,
are the trees within the garden,
there is one object that, for me,
is indispensible in any serene setting,
and that is
an Ishidourou – いしどうろう
… the stone lantern.
Although Ishidourou may be found
in a staggering array of sizes and shapes,
the yama dourou is one that is
composed of natural stones.
Before moving to North America,
I had always appreciated the gentle flicker of flame
from the ishidorou’s lantern,
when enjoying the serenity of a quite evening
in our country garden back home.
( Tragically – perhaps unsurprisingly,
there now exists the appalling practice
of outfitting modern stone lanterns
with electrical cords and light bulbs:
Such barbarous tastelessness
will never remotely approach
the gentility of a candle
placed within the lantern’s chamber! )
It truly is a wonderful and soothing experience
to sit and enjoy a gentle breeze in the garden,
by the flickering glow of the lantern.
In the rare chance that it might be of interest
to one or two folk,
a few photographs of our lantern
taken after being given bath with soap and hot water,
and left to dry before being placed outside.
a candle may be slid gently
into the rear of the Light Chamber …
The flame will then flicker
through the stone ‘grill’ in front.
There is absolutely nothing
that removes one from the crude vulgarity,
inherent noise, and self-venerating barbarism
of 21st century humanity
than the flame of an Ishidourou
sending its warm glow,
and casting gentle shadows,
in the darkened surround
of a garden in the evening.
If you have never considered
(or perhaps, even seen) an Ishidourou,
I hope that these few words
may pique your interest.