History of the Pochoda Residential Garden
by Phil Pochoda
I began thinking about constructing my garden when I retired as Director of the University of Michigan Press and returned to New Hampshire full-time in the fall of 2012. I was motivated toward a Japanese garden because I had lived near and loved the grand but imperfect Japanese garden in the Brooklyn Botanical garden that I visited often with my then young daughter, now novelist, Ivy Pochoda. (You will discover, in the slideshow that accompanies this introduction, nominal appearances of her daughter, my granddaughter, Loretta. You should also be able to detect why the 365 day per year, multi-seasonal beauty of Japanese gardens is so appealing to me, particularly living in this New England area of relatively severe, extended winters with deep, persisting snowfalls.) I was also long taken by the great Japanese garden in Portland, OR, and I had spent much time in the beautiful gardens at the Huntington Library in Pasadena, CA where my wife, historian Mary Kelley, had a yearlong fellowship. For worse or for better, I must admit that the evolving design of my garden over the years, much of its planting (alas, in heavy clay, extremely rocky soil,) and all of its pruning and care were done until this year by me personally, though with invaluable, specific assistance from many local nurserymen and craftspeople. I’ve learned by doing that it does take a community to raise a Japanese garden.
I began the project in the summer of 2013 on my property in Lyme Center, NH, around a pond that I’d had constructed twenty years earlier. The pond was placed within an old hayfield, part of a farm that was settled in 1814 or thereabouts. The Japanese garden itself commenced with a series of horticultural blunders on my part (mostly as a result of confusing bonsai with Japanese gardens.) But I got turned around properly by the end of that first summer as a result of purchasing and planting four large, Japanese-style Scots pines from a local plant nursery that had obtained them from an Oregon wholesale nursery. That set the right scale and tone for the garden, and I began reading avidly on the subject of Japanese garden history, design, aesthetics, and practical implementation, relying heavily throughout this whole process on the magisterial books and vision of two garden masters, Isao Yoshikawa and Marc Peter Keane. But I also studied countless other books on Japanese garden design and history that proved helpful — of which, for reasons of length, I can only point to those by authors David Slawson, Teiji Itoh, and Wybe Kuitert, and by garden photographer, Mizuno Katsuhiko.
I learned the basics of the practice of Japanese pruning from two rigorous weekend workshops given by Doug Roth, and then deduced even more of the theoretical principles of pruning by studying the brilliantly pruned trees of my good friend, Palmer Koelb, at his unique, world-class Japanese-style tree nursery, Shin-Boku, in remote Wentworth, NH (fortunately, not too far from where I live). Not surprisingly, I learned most of all about pruning in all its interconnected aspects during the eight years in which I’ve been pruning the conifers, large and small, in my garden. My garden education was much advanced in the fall of 2018 by a magnificent garden tour of Kyoto under the auspices of garden photographer Allan Mandell and with renowned guide and author Judith Clancy, exposing me to a score of legendary gardens that seemed overwhelming and intimidating at first, but soon proved inspirational.
I also began reading seriously in Japanese culture, religion, and history, particularly insofar as I realized how profoundly they intersected with garden aesthetics and practice. That in turn led me to enroll (given my age, probably not wisely and certainly not very successfully) as an auditor at nearby and very welcoming Dartmouth College in courses chosen to overcome my ignorance of Japanese language and Japanese culture. These included several semi-immersive Japanese language courses taught by the endlessly patient and encouraging sensei, Mayumi Ishida, and a course on Japanese prints taught by one of the major authorities on Japanese art, Alan Hockley.
By the end of that first summer, I had planted those four large Japanese-style Scots pines, several other conifers, and many juniper ground covers (now there are perhaps some 90 trees in all in the garden — whose health is sustained by the caring professional arborists at Chippers, Inc.) In the following year, we were able to excavate 45 massive, reddish granite boulders from the woods above the garden; Palmer Koelb placed them brilliantly — with the aid of extraordinary excavator operator Ed Cadreact — around the pond. Stone walkways went in the following summer (installed by two very talented young local stoneworkers, Trevor and Ethan Ball.)
The stroll garden itself soon contained nine or ten different Pinus species (and many more varieties,) and an assortment of Picea (spruce) and Juniperus (juniper) species. In 2015, the initial stroll garden around the pond was expanded by the addition of a connected karesansui Zen garden (with rocks I scavenged through much of New Hampshire, and then installed by the Ball brothers); in 2017, by a long tea garden-type path (though, as yet, no tea house), lined by a variety of flowering deciduous trees — almost all selected and planted by my wonderful local nursery, E.C. Brown’s, and benefiting there from the deeply informed guidance of Chris Wilson, Niña Klinck, and Kevin Brown — winding up the steep hill in back of the garden; in 2018, by the addition of another 15 or so vertical boulders to the hillside (now also planted in a low-growing wildflower meadow); and, finally, in 2019, by a still dicey bamboo grove of some 30 hardy, clumping Fargesia ‘Jiuzhaigou’ at the top of the hill (planted with the assistance of Elisabeth Bilar.)
Since each new section of the garden was unplanned, almost unforseen, until earlier sections had materialized, the garden will, I imagine, always be a work in progress (an additional eight conifers and 13 trees in all, were planted just this Spring.) But I think – indeed, I fervently hope! — that its overall configuration, design, and area (between 3/4 acre and 1 acre) is now firmly and finally established (though two great woodsmen, Charlie Deveaux and Ernst Kling, have recently carved out more than a mile of paths winding through the woods in back of the garden, the path passing by a sizable, tree-filled area strewn with many massive rocks and boulders, itself a potential natural site for an expansion of or adjunct to the garden.)
If I may add a personal note: in addition to the unprecedented social, political, cultural, and biological turmoil of this unsettled and unsettling year (2020), I also underwent a major medical operation last August with later complications. So it has been a year for me of recovery, rehabilitation, and renewal, in all of which the garden has been invaluable, initially for consolation and contemplation; lately for the physical demands and emotional rewards of the meticulous annual pruning of all the conifers; repairs to winter damage; and new plantings. I am grateful in more respects than I can fully articulate for the Way of the Japanese garden and for the country and the culture that made it possible.