Japanese ‘roji’: a garden path to your mind and spirit—Part 2
Continued from Part 1
The COVID-19 lockdown in the first part of this year provided me with a great opportunity to finally complete a modest roji-style garden at our Melbourne house—a project repeatedly placed on hold when I was actually busy with work. My wife tells me that the semi-shaded, damp strip along the side of the house never had any landscaping since her parents had the house built in the 1960s. For many years, it remained overgrown, initially with climbing jasmine, ‘wandering Jew’, privet and so on—and when I finally eradicated these weeds years ago, it became invaded by an ever-expanding growth of sweet violet (Viola odorata). Over a year ago, I planted several plants in anticipation of completing the project soon, but the opportunity never came...
Now that I actually had the time, it took me some time to get ‘psyched up’ about starting work, as I faced the seemingly intractable tangle of violet leaves and runners. Then, with the first sod turned, I was off! The garden construction in itself provided something of a path to rid my own mind of ‘kleshas’ that had built up since the COVID-19 outbreak—all the uncertainties, frustrations and anxieties that many of us now carry, I guess.
Dodging the fickle Melbourne weather and working solo, it took some two weeks for my roji garden to take shape. Having some plantings from my initial attempt over a year ago really helped to create an ‘established’ look. Keeping in line with the traditional Japanese philosophy of ‘waste not, want not’, all paving was constructed from recycled materials found around the backyard—weathered concrete pavers from the 1960s, broken bricks and so on. To further keep my environmental footprint low, and using a traditional Japanese method, I used clay that was dug up from the subsoil of the garden to set paving material and landscaping rocks in the ground, rather than using cement—with my earth science background, I am painfully aware of how precious our sand and limestone resources are (not to mention the energy required to manufacture the cement). Using clay also means that you can have low ground-hugging plants growing right up to the edge of, and in between, your paving stones—so that the pathway harmoniously blends in with the garden landscape.
One of my passions in garden design is to use Australian native plants in Japanese-style gardens. There seems to be a belief among some that native plants do not mix well with plants from other parts of the world. Certainly, those native plants with shimmering silver or blue-grey foliage would clash with the deep green of Japanese plants, so the trick is to select native plants that have a similar leaf colour and texture to plants that are typically used in Japanese gardens. In the relatively sunny and dry part of my Aussie roji garden, I planted a couple of young kurrajong (Brachychiton populneus) trees I raised from seed as a feature—their foliage colour is similar to the evergreen oaks extensively used in Japan, while the highly variable leaf shape can look like anything from Japanese maples to camphor laurel (a true chameleon of the plant world!). Although they can eventually become a large tree, they are slow-growing and easily kept pruned to a more compact size—as trees in Japanese gardens typically are. For seasonal colour, I underplanted the kurrajong trees with a southern Australian native ‘geranium’ (Pelargonium rodneyanum), with its bright green leaves and beautiful magenta flowers during the warmer months—reminiscent of the wild geraniums in the Japanese woodlands.
A priority in the design of my roji garden was to screen out the wooden boundary fence. For this, I chose the fast-growing native hemp (Gynatrix pulchella), a species found growing in local bushland and, as the name suggests, formerly a source of textile fibre for the Aboriginal people. The fresh green leaves and the upright habit of the native hemp are reminiscent of Hibiscus syriacus (Rose of Sharon, Syrian Hibiscus) that was popular for hedging in Japan in the olden days—and incidentally, both plants belong to Malvaceae, the hibiscus family. A challenging shaded and relatively dry area of the garden was underplanted with the Tasman flax lily (Dianella tasmanica), another local native with dark green strappy leaves—resembling those of the fringed iris (Iris japonica) that one sees often in a shady forgotten corner of a Japanese temple garden, with a similar resilience to neglect.
I combined the Australian natives with classic East Asian plants such as clumping bamboo (Bambusa textilis var. gracilis), Japanese cycad (Cycas revoluta), windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei), maiden grass (or silvergrass, Miscanthus sinensis)*, balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorus), coral berry (Ardisia crenata)*, and Chinese ground orchid (Bletilla striata). [NOTE: Species marked * are regarded as environmental weeds in parts of New South Wales and Queensland. Please check with your local authorities before planting these species in your garden.] For the mossy groundcover—the quintessentially Japanese look—after much deliberation, I settled for the Spanish shawl (Heterocentron elegans), a ground-hugging plant from Central America. Yes, the flushes of brilliant magenta-pink flowers pose a major ‘distraction’ in a roji-style garden, however, they are tolerant of the summer heat in the part-sun aspect and, hey, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of colour on one of those dreary “Melbourne weather” days...
As I plugged away down the side of the house, it dawned on me that there were so many parallels with the history of the roji, and the world we are experiencing at the moment. The Sengoku period, when the first roji gardens were constructed, was a time of recurrent epidemics—accompanying the famines triggered by climate deviations associated with the ‘Little Ice Age’. At the same time, Japan was repeatedly ravaged by natural disasters on an unimaginable scale—including the catastrophic 1586 Tenshō Earthquake, spawned by several megaquakes occurring simultaneously across central and western Japan. In a world of uncertainty with a lack of political direction, the frustration of commoners boiled over in civil uprisings.
Today, we have the COVID-19 pandemic, and do we still remember the horrendous bushfires, droughts, heatwaves here in Australia, and the ‘record-breaking’ tropical storms, floods, droughts and heatwaves around the world in the months preceding? Add to the mix the mounting food shortage, geopolitical tensions, social inequality and injustice… I found it curious that I had somehow gravitated to constructing a roji during our own uncertain times.Perhaps it is symbolic of my wish for the whole world to tread a united pathway to face our challenges, and to live in harmony again…
More posts to follow on Japanese gardens, plants and my own Japanese-inspired garden design projects. Please check on our website at www.deeplyregionaljapan.com or Facebook page regularly for the latest posts.
Deeply Regional Japan offers Japanese-influenced garden design, maintenance and advice services in Canberra and eastern Melbourne areas. We specialise in gardens for small spaces, ecofriendly and low-water gardens, edible gardens, and garden rejuvenation. If you are looking for garden services with a difference, please contact us using the enquiry form at the bottom of our webpages at www.deeplyregionaljapan.com, thank you. [Please note services are subject to seasonal availability. We also regret that we currently are not undertaking work in Melbourne area due to the COVID-19 situation].