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GARDENING : A GARDEN PHILOSOPHY BUILT ON ROCKS, RECLAIMED WATER.

Byline: Joshua Siskin

Nothing is as it seems. Rocks are just as inspiring as green hillsides. Pure white birds are nourished by fish that live in reclaimed water. The hidden and muted landscape, rather than the spectacular and loud, is the one that will stop you in your tracks, then beckon you to discover more of it.

These are some of the lessons to be learned from the Japanese Garden in Woodley Park, just north of Burbank Boulevard in the Sepulveda Basin.

A garden does not need plants to be a garden. In a Japanese dry garden, gravel symbolizes water, whether a running stream or an ocean. In the Woodley Park Japanese garden, an expanse of gravel, just inside the entrance, surrounds a cluster of boulders which, according to a garden brochure, represent the ``island of immortals'' and ``everlasting happiness.''

Appearances can be deceiving. In the Japanese garden, concealment itself is elevated to an art form. Winding paths, abrupt changes in topography, teahouse windows that are criss-crossed with bars; these are some of the ways the visitor is deprived of seeing everything at once and is forbidden from capturing a single unobstructed view. An abiding sense of mystery draws you through the garden.

Microcosm of nature

In the Japanese garden, to quote from docent Diane Glassman, ``form takes precedence over flower.'' The idea is to represent nature as realistically as possible and, in most snapshots of the natural landscape, flowers - except for brief moments in the spring - are too few to be noticed.

Although evergreens provide the framework in Japanese gardens - since nature, in the mind's eye, is always green - deciduous trees serve an important function as well. At the Woodley Park garden, annual life cycle changes in fruit trees, Japanese maples, ginkgos, and crepe myrtles document the transition from one season to the next. Cherry trees and unusual weeping peaches are covered with clouds of soft blossoms in spring, crape myrtles bloom dark pink in summer, leaves relinquish their green chlorophyll as other pigments, in burgundy and gold, take over in fall and, in winter, the silhouettes of leafless trees suddenly appear, revealing smooth or textured barks and sculpted branches.

Unexpected, fascinating subjects for the visitor are the large white egrets, which are a type of heron, that visit this garden. They are attracted by algae-eating tilapia fish, which live in the extensive pond of processed sewage water - it's really a small lake - that is betwixt and between the various planted areas. An egret will stand on a rock in motionless contemplation and then, suddenly, when the spirit moves it, slowly glide over the water. As you watch the big white bird spread its wings and take flight, you'll be transported to a remote place and to a distant time blissfully removed from the here and now. You'll want, briefly, to make an egress from this world on the wings of the egret. Abruptly, though, you'll return to Earth when you recall that this ethereal bird would not be here except for the tasty fish that are swimming about in reclaimed water.

It's the water

Until about a year ago, half of the Japanese garden was watered with reclaimed water. Then the decision was made to water the entire garden with reclaimed water. Having visited this garden probably 20 times during the past decade, it certainly appeared to me, last week, that the plants had never been more lush.

An important horticultural principle has been illustrated by the use of this water. On the west side of the garden, a few water hyacinths (Eichhornia crassipes) were recently placed into an otherwise plantless pool. In a matter of weeks, these rhizomatous plants have just about covered the pool, which must be more than 2,000 square feet in size. Most instructive though is the absence of flowers from this flotilla of iris. Normally, in September, scads of pale violet-colored blooms stand above the curvaceous, orbicular blades and bloated petioles of water iris leaves. Overfertilization with nitrogen, however, will keep the water iris, or any other plant, from flowering as it channels all of its energy into making more leaves. It would appear that the nitrogen-rich reclaimed water has thus depressed the iris' ability to flower.

Gardening traditions

I once asked a friend who had taken a tour of gardens in Japan about the training of gardeners in that country. I was told that there is no formal training per se, that the care and pruning of plants is really more of a tradition and ritual practice that is passed on, rather than a skill that is learned in school. You need to have learned on the job with a master, to have imbibed philosophy and history as well as horticulture, in order to be a gardener in Japan.

For information on tours of the Japanese garden, call (818) 756-8166.

Tip of the week: Now is the last window of opportunity to fertilize established trees, shrubs, ground covers and other perennials before spring. Fertilization after the end of this month can lead to succulent growth that will be sensitive to cold and easily battered by winter storms.
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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Sep 27, 1997
Words:856
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