The tao of the soil

Asian gardens offer solace and simplicity
Photo by Lisa Huges
The Japanese Garden at Sonnenberg Gardens in Canandaigua is a classic example of Asian-style landscaping.

You couldn’t say that the countries of Asia are very similar, climatewise, to upstate New York—or to one another, for that matter. However, they aren’t as different from each other as, say, ours is from Alaska’s, or China’s from Hawaii’s. There is proof in the scientific names of many popular local plants that have made the transoceanic crossing: Astilbe chinensis, Styrax japonicus, Pinus koraiensis.

There is further proof in the popularity of Asian gardens in our region, popularity that, according to Al Pfieffer, owner of Oriental Garden Supply in Pittsford, is largely the handiwork of two men. The late Charles Oesterly—known to many as Maha Atma Singh—and Bill Hart both engendered a passion for the style that only is beginning to wane since their respective deaths in 2009 and 2010. Their influence helped bring to power the Rochester chapter of the American Conifer Society and turn mild-mannered Rochester into a hotbed of interest that is uncommon in the Northeast, with Boston and New Jersey being two other notable locations.

Pfieffer tells me that Asian gardens are far more common in the laid-back Pacific Northwest, but what makes a garden Asian?

“The appearance of simplicity,” he replies. This apparently does not apply to plant forms; Pfieffer’s nursery is full of the impossibly complicated, trained, and contorted trees and shrubs that serious collectors crave.

The clients of Ock Hee Hale, a Korean garden designer in Bloomfield, want serenity and tranquility. “When you are very busy and disturbed you have a craving for a spot to help you calm your mind: a corner, a room, an outdoor room,” she says. 

“Asian gardens—Chinese, Korean, Japanese [are] very different. But the unifying themes are tranquility and quietness. I design English gardens, too—very romantic! I love that! But it touches a different part of our heart.”

A water lily at the Japanese Garden of Canandaigua's Sonnenberg Gardens


In their appearance of simplicity, Asian-style gardens are often perceived as low maintenance, but Hale argues they are quite the opposite. “The pruning, weeding … can be very high-maintenance. That’s actually the concept.”

“If gardens and gardening are meant to be meditative, are most people therefore do-it-yourselfers in that department?” I ask.

“For economic reasons,” says Hale, “they tend to [their gardens] themselves, but then they grow to enjoy it and ultimately take pride. People who are middle class don’t have large gardens at all, but those that need to hire gardeners. Pruning is a very serious job. They always consult with a pruner.”

In Greater Rochester, there is one name synonymous with the word “pruner”: Dennis Burns, whose business is known simply as “Serenity.” Eager for some words of wisdom the first time we spoke, I ask him, “What do you think about when you’re pruning?”

“Generally,” he says, “I try not to think.”

After a pause to let that sink in, Burns continues: “Having done garden pruning for twenty-five years, it’s almost second nature. The main thing is to reveal the character of the plant … and each plant is an individual. Its character is revealed over time. It’s not like bonsai, using artificial means to manipulate branches. Garden pruning is less of that and more directing the plant’s growth.” 

This look can only happen over time, and shaping has to start when the plant is young. “You can’t create the look in a mature tree. You have to buy that from Al [Pfieffer],” he says.

Burns’s interest is specifically in Japanese gardens, and he categorizes them into two types. There are scroll type gardens, those you sit and appreciate; and then there are stroll type gardens, those you move through.

One scroll garden is called Kare-san-sui, otherwise known as “without water” or “Zen,” which features rocks and raked sand: the simulation of water. Another is tsubo, a courtyard or jewel box garden: tiny, precious, and completely contained.

Stroll gardens include the hill-and-pond style, which involve winding paths and hidden views, and the tea garden, generally more woodsy—but with a tea house, of which there is an excellent example at Sonnenberg Gardens in Canandaigua. The Japanese Garden at Sonnenberg is maintained by staff, but once a year members of the Conifer Society volunteer for the important work of pruning the trees. 


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