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Artisan: The Secret Life of Rocks

Designing a Japanese garden is a kind of meditation.


Contemplation and reflection are essential to Liesfeld's methods, and it is important for her clients to understand that Japanese gardens are not to be rushed. Decisions evolve over time, weaving intuition with techniques that flow from centuries of tradition.

"In a Japanese garden," she explains, "you don't look for the result. It's the process that is important, like life. It's very different from an Italian or French garden that has a very pruned look and remains the same. In the Japanese garden, you see the difference over the years as the plants grow and spread. The garden grows and you grow, hopefully wisely."

Liesfeld's design firm, Zoen Garden Creation, is an enterprise shared with her daughter-in-law, Robin Liesfeld, who anticipates client questions about philosophy and style.

"The important thing to consider when designing and building a Japanese garden is to create a space of calm and serenity, and also of continuity. There is not a whole lot of color and that is intentional, because you want masses of green and a calm, peaceful place," Robin Liesfeld says. "Also, it's important to create spaces of intimacy — small, inviting walkways, places to sit and meditate or reflect on the day, or just to daydream."

When the Liesfelds begin a garden, they embark on a lengthy relationship with its owners, defining personalities and desires, and also explaining the fluidity of the planning process. "It is not something you can rush," Robin Liesfeld reminds them. "You have to lay things out in your head and do some drawings, not necessarily a plan as other landscape architects do, but we'll draw their house from all different angles and the garden around it, which helps them see what we're visualizing. It is a work in progress, like a puzzle you have to figure out."

In this city garden, they used an approach called The Borrowed Scene, echoing a background view of the James River by creating a watery tableau with similar curves in the foreground. "For me, it's majestic," Robin Liesfeld says. "Shallow ponds, blue herons flying, trees and rocks, the background is all part of the garden."

They chose boulders with their usual deliberate care and also selected plants that might look imperfect to other gardeners. If a rhododendron is leggy, or a holly leans to the side, it finds its way into a spot that accentuates its grace. Nandina plants are trimmed to show off their delicacy, then placed next to craggy rocks for contrast. And weeds, rather than being a source of irritation, are an opportunity.

"It is meditation to weed," Junko Liesfeld says. "When I weed, I'm not thinking anything. It's empty-headed. Once you think it is a chore, you cannot enjoy it." She smiles and pulls an offending sprout from the path before moving on.

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