Member Spotlight: Francheska Snyder

Francheska first entered the world of Japanese gardens by chance. After college, she was living in Rochester, New York and had an office job. Her work space had no windows! Having originally grown up on a farm in Pennsylvania, she felt a strong connection to nature and wanted to spend more time outdoors. This led her to volunteer at a local garden. She found she was happy there. The plants made sense to her and she enjoyed their simplicity. One of her first projects in this historic garden was garden bed restoration. She was intrigued with the project and enjoyed learning about the garden’s history and restoring the beds to their original condition. Other volunteers, seeing her passion, encouraged her to pursue a career in horticulture. She made the move slowly, first taking classes in garden design, and then, working part-time for a landscape company. The company offered her a full-time position, but instead she decided to leave her office job and return to Pennsylvania. She applied for several horticulture positions throughout the state. One of these jobs was Head Gardener at Shofuso. 

When Francheska first started at Shofuso, she felt intimidated. While fascinated by the Japanese aesthetic, she didn’t know much about Japanese gardens, but she worked hard and learned quickly– developing a strong appreciation for the ancient art form.

She began at Shofuso in February. It was the perfect time to start because it was winter. This allowed her some time to become acquainted with the garden before it opened to the public in spring. She had the opportunity to meet with Shofuso’s garden consultant early on to understand the garden’s design and its underlying principles. 

During her first season, she did a lot of clean-up and since she was the only gardener on staff, leveraged Shofuso’s volunteers. She worked with them almost every day. Her goal was to focus on what would be easily apparent to the untrained eye (i.e. no weeds!). The garden consultant came to the Garden about 4-5 times a year. He taught Francheska about pruning and directed her work on repairs and construction projects. She appreciated the one-on-one instruction this provided. She stayed at Shofuso for four years and with support from Kim Andrews, the garden’s Executive Director, was able to grow the Horticulture department to include additional seasonal staff. 

Francheska has had the opportunity to visit Japan four times. Her first trip was to participate in the building of the Tohoku Memorial Garden, a project sponsored by the Garden Society of Japan. Individuals from all over Japan and a few Americans gathered to help build this Memorial Garden while receiving valuable training. The Garden was built over the course of five years. Francheska first learned of the project in its third year and participated in years three through five. 

The first year she traveled to Tohoku there were approximately 50 participants who were then split into smaller working groups. A master and an assistant were assigned to each group. Each master led a specific project. Francheska’s group built a dobashi earthen bridge. Other groups dug trees from the mountains, built stepping stone paths and stone bridges. Francheska enjoyed this work and how all these small projects happened simultaneously as part of a larger whole. 

During her first visit to Japan, Francheska sought to meet someone she could work with for additional training. She found a match in the group’s assistant. They worked well together during that week in Tohoku. After returning to Philadelphia, she asked a friend to help her write a letter to him in Japanese. In the letter she expressed interest in returning to the Tohoku garden project during its 4th year and inquired as to whether she could work with him for a week before or after their time at the Memorial Garden. He agreed and Francheska lengthened her second trip to Japan.  She traveled to Kanagawa two weeks before the Memorial Garden project was scheduled to begin and spent this time working alongside him. She had the opportunity to work at several residential gardens and even a couple of temple gardens. She built a nodeban and stepping stone path, planted and pruned. They then traveled to Sendai together. After her time in Sendai, Francheska spent a week in Kyoto to study their gardens. It was the first time she’d seen these gardens live- in 3D. She was very excited to see in person the master works she’d only seen in photos. Later that year, her mentor was building a temple castle wall. He encouraged her to come. She didn’t waste any time and immediately bought a plane ticket to take part in this unique opportunity. 

Francheska’s fourth and most recent visit to Japan was to participate in the fifth year of the Memorial Garden construction. During all three years, Francheska enjoyed being part of the Memorial Garden project. She welcomed the opportunity to learn and use traditional techniques and materials, some of which are no longer frequently used. 

After spending four years at Shofuso, Francheska moved to Portland where she joined the Horticulture team at Portland Japanese Garden (PJG). Francheska left PJG last year to venture out on her own and open her own business. While she hasn’t yet had time to build a website, word of Francheska’s skills and passion has spread via word of mouth so she has been very busy. 

Francheska is inspired by nature. She loves garden construction, but considers maintenance to be a set of mini constructions- ones that require you to have a vision of how the garden will look in ten years. 

When asked what steps she recommends for people looking to enter the field of Japanese gardening, Francheska suggests connecting with people who are doing the work you want to do– both domestically and internationally– and if possible, observe them at work. She feels she benefited from observing others working firsthand— “you can learn tricks of the trade that may seem small, but in reality are so important.” She suggests you find people you work well with, collaborate with them, cultivate these relationships and approach the work with an open-mind and humility. 

Francheska also recommends taking good care of your body– “eat well, get enough sleep, drink lots of water, lift smart– whether for lifting heavy materials or nimbly slipping between trees, your body is very important.” She also recommends having basic gardening and horticulture skills before jumping into a horticulture specialization like Japanese gardening so that you have a strong foundation. Furthermore, she subscribes to a Japanese garden youtube channel that offers many live demonstrations. She also suggests having a full-color Japanese garden book (coffee-table style) that you can turn to for inspiration. 

In the years to come, Francheska hopes to continue her professional development and travel more frequently to Japan. Though she doesn’t speak Japanese, Francheska says her most valuable training was working with a Japanese crew. She noted that while sometimes her inability to communicate directly was frustrating, it also forced her to be more observant. She had to step back and observe. This is how Japanese arts are traditionally learned- by observing and doing. When she was at the Tokohu Memorial Garden project she was impressed to see and be part of the workflow. Despite the number of people on site- everyone was working together, focusing on the task at hand and moving in synchrony. She equates this to her experience playing rugby. She remembers that on the field all of her mental and physical energy was focused on the game. This is how she feels in the garden– it is her happy place!