Recommended Reading: “Niwaki: Pruning, Training and Shaping Trees the Japanese Way” by Jake Hobson

Cover of "Niwaki" by Jake HobsonMost of the books you will find on Japanese gardens are full of lovely pictures, but will not tell you much about practical techniques and how to apply them in your own garden. This is one of the few books I will recommend for those who want to bring a Japanese influence to the design and care of their garden.

Niwaki literally means “garden tree” in Japanese (as opposed to bonsai, which means “potted tree”), although both are pruned into a proper shape. The essential idea with either niwaki or bonsai is that young or middle aged trees are pruned to resemble ancient ones. Niwaki thereby contribute to the overall garden design, which generally resembles a wilderness landscape in miniature.

Author Jake Hobson, a British fine arts student, was originally uninterested in gardening or horticulture. While teaching English in Japan he became fascinated by the historical and private gardens he saw, and the sculptural qualities of the trees in particular. He left his teaching job for an apprenticeship in a nursery, where he spent several years learning techniques for planting, pruning, training, and also digging up trees (“rootballing”) for transplantation. All are described in detail in this wonderful book, in Hobson’s clear and highly readable prose.

For the casual reader who simply wants to learn more about Japanese gardens, there are several chapters that describe the climactic, religious, and other influences on garden design in Japan. Basic design principles and their origins are covered at a high level. The text is leavened with vignettes in which Hobson surprises some unsuspecting monk or gardener, and ends up getting an instructional gem or photograph of a particularly beautiful tree in a private back yard.

Tree types, and the specific approaches used with them, are explained in different chapters on coniferous and deciduous trees, with some species, like pines and azaleas, warranting their own chapter. Specific techniques like momiage (the removal by hand of all of a pine’s needles older than 1 year) and the pruning of azaleas into karikomi (shrubs pruned into small rounded blobs) provide inspiration to the gardener who plans to try these approaches.

The chapter on pruning is especially helpful. Hobson explains how to start with a young seedling, or to work with an existing older tree over four or five years, to acquire the essential shape. The dramatic first step in working with an older tree is called fukinaoshi, which is an extreme pruning down to only a few branches and leaves. This becomes the basic design for the tree: all other growth will be kept to the essential branches, with the possible exception of the top of the tree. This simulates the more open look of a very old tree that has been around long enough to lose limbs. Several techniques for splinting branches into their new positions are also covered. Working with new trees can provide other options, like planting the seedling in the ground at an angle, to start training it into a pleasingly bendy shape.

A wide variety of gardening tools are shown in “Niwaki”, including many that won’t be familiar to the Western gardener. Waramaki are frameworks of straw skirts with pointed hats that are used to protect tender trees during winter. Bamboo and rope umbrellas called yukitsuri fulfill a similar function. The interesting thing about these methods is that care is taken to ensure that there is aesthetic appeal, unlike with Western protective winter coverings. Other tools like hessian bark wrappings and kyatsu, (tripod ladders) are illustrated.

In any gardening book, half the fun is in the beautiful pictures, and “Niwaki” does not disappoint. From awe-inspiring photos of historical public gardens, to high-quality snapshots of privately owned gardens, to Hobson’s hand-drawn process illustrations, there is no shortage of visual material. The images are well situated in the book to illustrate the points he is making in the text (there’s no flipping around to different pages or sections to find the right image, as there is with some books).

I highly recommend “Nikwaki” for your collection of gardening books. Reading it has helped me to see my garden plants as living sculptures that I can shape over time. Hobson has given me the courage to get out there and start trying some of the techniques for myself.

by Jennifer Priest

Copyright © 2015 by Jennifer Priest. I write my own stuff, so you should too!