How Does Your Garden Grow?
Get to Know Ben Schrepf
Garden Curator & Head Niwashi
at the Japanese Friendship Garden of Phoenix
The interview was conducted by Phil Pochoda, NAJGA member and new NAJGA e-newsletter correspondent. Phil wrote a piece about our Anderson Regional Workshop, “Impressions of NAJGA’s Regional Conference,” and will prepare pieces for the NAJGA e-newsletters from time to time under the title “How Does Your Garden Grow?”. This interview is part I of II about the Japanese Friendship Garden of Phoenix. In March, Phil will prepare an article about next month’s regional workshop at JFGPHX. Register now for the Phoenix regional:najga.org/phxr. Space is limited.
Were you involved with gardening, personally or professionally, before you launched or stumbled upon a career in Japanese gardening?
I took what I assumed would be a three-month summer job at a garden center in 2000 while taking a break from college. Shortly after starting I became obsessed with plants and bonsai and knew I wanted to work with plants in some capacity. The following fall I visited a couple of Japanese gardens on the west coast and knew it was what I wanted to do for my life.
How did you wind up as curator of the Phoenix Japanese Friendship Garden?
My teacher, John Powell, and I did pruning and improvement projects for various gardens around the country. RoHoEn was one of the gardens we worked at. Several years later they offered me the position.
What do you consider the primary mission of the JFG?
Our official mission statement is:
To provide a beautiful place of serenity, peace, education and cultural engagement.
We also have 8 core values; they are as follows:
Authenticity: Sharing the essence of a Japanese garden
Tranquility: Creating space for serenity
Beauty: Inspiring through nature and art
Education: Building cultural connections through engagement and learning
Tradition: Honoring Japanese history and culture
Quality: Ensuring mindful attention to detail
Community: Engaging with our neighbors and partners
Hospitality/Omotenashi: Caring deeply for every relationship
The garden itself is obviously the centerpiece of the JFG: why is a Japanese-style garden the best kind of venue to symbolize and sustain a broad sister-city relationship between a Japanese and an American city?
I wouldn’t know if it’s the best kind of venue. I do know that it has been and continues to be a great source of pride and inspiration for both Phoenix and Himeji. Because of the original relationship we were able to establish a sister garden relationship with our sister garden, Koko-en. Through this relationship we have developed great cultural exchanges, friendships, and experiences.
How or why did the two cities, Himeji of Japan and Phoenix of the US, decide to create a “sister-city” relationship, and then jointly underwrite that relationship with such an expensive, magnificent garden?
Our website, which provides an overview and many photos of the JFG can be found at:
In particular, the story of the forming of the Himeji/Phoenix sister-city relationship in 1976, and the decision and the process to create the Japanese Friendship Garden in 1987 is sketched in the “about” section of that site:
The JFG is likely one of the warmest if not the warmest, site for any major Japanese garden in the world (and, like everywhere else now, getting ever hotter). How do you go about planning and planting for such extreme temperatures as well as drought? What in the whole history of Japanese gardens provides you with guidance in dealing with such extreme conditions?
Upon moving to Phoenix, I visited surrounding neighborhoods to document what plant material was doing well. Downtown Phoenix where we are located is an especially hot micro-climate which had to be respected. The garden as well was an excellent guide. Mature plant material that had survived since the construction of the garden could be relied upon. Additionally, I studied original planting designs to document what had not survived.
Are there any Japanese-style gardens in Japan or elsewhere that provide useful, even partial, examples for gardening in such a desert environment?
Not really. I have researched Australian plant material, some of which we are currently trying in the garden.
What book or author(s) have you found provides the best overall guidance and perspective for constructing Japanese Gardens in most circumstances?
I’ve certainly learned the most working directly with my teacher. However, I regularly reference dozens of different books and Sukiya Living Journal as well. A few of my favorites have been Magic of Trees and Stones by Katsuo Saito; A Japanese Touch for your Garden by Kiyoshi Seike, Masanobu Kudo, and David H. Engel; Secret Teachings in the Art of Japanese Gardens by David A, Slawson; and Building Bamboo Fences by Isao Yoshikawa.
Do any books or authors provide useful guidance for creating a Japanese garden in such hot (and arid) climate zones?
I haven’t found anything that specifically addresses a climate like ours with respect to Japanese Gardens. Because the plant material for Japanese gardens should be selected according to textures, forms, habit, and survivability I tried to pick plants that fit these requirements. Again, the garden and the surrounding areas were the best teacher.
Your garden, like other large, public Japanese gardens in the U.S., now provides an impressive array of instruction and participation in ancillary Japanese cultural disciplines (e.g. calligraphy; ikebana; tea ceremony; etc.). Does it also provide specific instruction or motivation for individuals who are, or who may become, interested in creating their own, small-scale, Japanese garden at home?
We do. We provide gardening, pruning, and garden related cultural workshops such as Kadomatsu and Ikebana. We have a YouTube Channel with instructional videos as well.
Do you think that your spectacular garden, erected at what was obviously a great cost and involving a small army of professionals in its construction and a smaller permanent maintenance crew and support system, acts either as a barrier to or as an inspiration for the creation of individual Japanese gardens? Does the growth of private, small-scale Japanese gardens matter to you? Or to normalizing and disseminating Japanese garden practices and aesthetics among the vast US gardening community?
I certainly hope it’s just inspirational! Hopefully if a garden is well-maintained, one could recognize that even a small space could create a wonderful garden.
How do you yourself use and benefit from this garden in personal, non-professional ways? What does it provide you privately, personally, that you don’t or can’t get elsewhere?
There are countless ways I benefit from the garden. What immediately comes to mind is the Japanese cultural education I have received from our staff and the opportunity to work with such a passionate, dedicated group of people. Our staff has introduced and continues to teach me about Japanese cultural and artistic disciplines, omotenashi, etiquette, and more.
What are you proudest about the development of the JFG during your tenure?
I’m not sure. I’d like to think we have elevated the quality of the garden significantly. We’ve had a 3-fold increase in attendance during the last four years which has given us the ability to hire more gardeners and make improvements to the garden. Okita sensei, our designer and head builder of the garden, has been complimentary (which was nice to hear). I will be spending 3 months working with Okita sensei in Japan this spring. I’m certainly excited for the opportunity.