By Patricia Wilk
You’ll want to slow down. As you approach the cedar pillars that frame the broad entryway of Tom and Karen Parker’s house, the first thing you might notice is that the swirl of green out front is highly irregular. Each square yard is completely unlike the one on either side of it. A photographer, framing a shot through a lens, and cropping out what’s unnecessary, would be hard-pressed to make a choice. There are unique compositions from every angle, and the more you zoom in, the more rewarding it is. In fact, any given square foot is a thoughtfully composed miniature landscape. Nothing here is random.
Unlike the traditional foundation plantings around most houses——pointy evergreens and neat symmetrical bun-shaped shrubs—the Japanese garden reflects a completely different ethos. The goal is tranquility, simplicity, and harmony. It’s “a minimalist aesthetic where less is more,” Karen said, “and a garden that invites contemplation. It plays with scale, so that a large natural element is suggested in miniature with the plantings.” Large, irregular rocks can represent mountains. Moss creeping up from the base suggests a forest. A winding path of stones suggests a river which flows through the entire garden and ends in a sea of interesting pebbles. Another important element, Tom added, is asymmetry.
For the Parkers, who live on a sloping four-acre property off of Cold Spring Road in Williamstown, Japanese gardening is a shared passion. Four years ago, they bought four books about Japanese gardens and began planning. Karen constructed a sprawling tableau across the top of the dining room table, using clay, cardboard, and standing two-dimensional cutouts of plants. In 2013, they had the traditional shrubbery around the flat-roofed contemporary they’ve lived in for the past 25 years, ripped out, and started planting.
“Both of my grandmothers were avid gardeners,” said Karen. “I used to draw pictures of gardens when I was ten, sitting on the tile floor in my bedroom. I would draw big maps with gates and paths and tall plants.” Smiling, she added, “The actual gardening was harder than that.”
When she worked in college admissions for Williams College, Hampshire College, and MCLA, she sometimes travelled. She was smitten by the traditional gardens she saw in Kyoto, Japan. Later, she saw a botanical garden in St. Louis and was hooked.
“I grew up in Brooklyn, New York,” said Tom, who served as the Director of Admissions at Williams College, and was Dean of Admissions at Amherst, before retiring. “The Japanese garden in the Brooklyn Botanical gardens is one of the most famous in the country—and one of the best,” he said. He was intrigued by the design elements. “I certainly had the notion…that it was a very pure form, that it had been unchanged for centuries.” Fortunately, he said, that’s not quite true. Japanese gardens, like western gardens, have evolved over time.
Still, finding plants takes a lot of work. Although Japan has cold winters, sometimes the Parkers put in plants that don’t make it. They are always brainstorming, planning, and evaluating what’s in the ground. The question they ask is, “Does that plant earn its spot?” Karen said. “It’s composition over time,” she explained. “You have to think about it at every point in the growing season—and over a 15-year timespan.”
For local residents intrigued by the challenge of creating a complex living work of art, there are several places to begin. “There is a fabulous Japanese garden at Amherst College,” said Tom. “It’s well worth the trip. It’s called Uyushein.” The first Japanese graduate of an American college, he said, graduated from Amherst, and then returned to Japan and founded the first liberal arts college in that country. The Amherst garden was designed to commemorate the partnership between the two institutions.
The Parkers recommend three “fabulous” area nurseries: Windy Hill Farm in Great Barrington, Zema’s in Stephentown, NY, and the Hadley Garden Center in Hadley. “There’s usually somebody very knowledgeable at a good nursery,” Karen said. Internet research is essential. “We enjoy plant-hunting,” Tom said. “We’re not in a hurry. We can look for what we want and get ideas. It’s just fun.” Last spring Karen went to a pruning workshop in Schenectady.
“It takes a lot of time,” Tom said. “You can’t do this unless you love doing it—and we both do. If Karen is in the garden for three hours, I understand. I was up at 5:30 this morning to do some work out here.” “It’s like
anything else,” Karen said, “The rewards are proportionate to the amount of time you spend with it. Retirement makes all of the difference in the world.”
Just about every evening, the Parkers pour themselves a glass of wine before dinner, and tour the entire garden, brainstorming. Most people see the word “garden” as a noun. But for this couple, it’s primarily a verb. “We’re very fortunate to have this hobby in common,” said Tom.
Photos by Patricia Wilk