History Trails

The Japanese Garden

Today the plans sit in a drawer at the headquarters of the University of Alberta Devonian Botanic Garden.

Two years ago — even one year ago — the prospects looked good that the work which would transform a five-acre (about two hectares) bowl-shaped plot of land at the Botanic Garden into a fine Japanese Garden, a place for relaxation and contemplation, a lasting heritage for the people of Alberta, and a reminder of the many ties that Alberta has with the island nation across the Pacific, could soon begin. But then the recession took an even tighter grip on the economy, funding prospects dimmed, and the plans for the Japanese Garden had to be set aside.

They have not been forgotten though. Pat Seymour, director of the Botanic Garden, is confident that the project will go ahead. At the first signs of an improved economic climate, fund-raising will begin in earnest. And once financing is secure, the plans so carefully drawn up by the distinguished Japanese architect, Dr. Tadashi Kubo, will be taken from their drawer and workers will begin the awaited transformation.

It is intended that Dr. Kubo himself will directly supervise the work. A professor of urban landscape design at the University of Osaka Prefecture, Dr. Kubo was an obvious choice when a designer for the proposed Japanese Garden was sought. He was the designer and consultant who interpreted the prairie grassland of southern Alberta in the Japanese idiom to create the distinctive Nikka Yuko Centennial Garden in Lethbridge, Alberta. He is also the architect of many noted Japanese Gardens in Japan and abroad; these include such diverse projects as the Rose Garden of Sayama Recreation Park, Osaka; the Japanese Garden of Murata Pearl Company of Kobe; and the Japanese Garden of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center in Los Angeles, California. In 1971 he was responsible for the total environmental design and planning for the Singapore Garden City Project.

The Japanese Garden he has planned for the University of Alberta Devonian Botanic Garden is a sensitive statement of traditional and modern Japanese design principles applied to enhance the natural beauty of relief and mature vegetation existing on a carefully selected site. As far as possible native Alberta plants are to be used, and all plants chosen for the Garden will have been proven hardy in Alberta's parkland area. While the Garden is to affirm that it is not essential to use Japanese plants in designing a Japanese Garden, the soul of Japanese thought in Garden design, so basic to the planned Garden, will be reflected in various shelters and stone garden ornaments of Oriental design. The wooden entrance gate is also to be of traditional design.

The Japanese Garden tradition is firmly rooted in Japanese culture. Indeed, its beginnings can be discovered in the sixth century, at which time Buddhism was introduced into Japan from Korea. Those first gardens, greatly influenced by the Chinese predisposition for grandeur and by the preferences of the wealthy nobles who owned them, were invariably large and usually surrounded by mountains. Later, from the blending of Chinese and Korean design in the eighth century, a distinctive Japanese style emerged with an emphasis on the reproduction of natural scenes.

In about the twelfth century, Zen Buddhism, with its speculations reaching beyond the limits of human knowledge, began to bring its influences to bear; while the reproduction of nature continued to be central, the gardens tended to become more symbolic, and smaller. Eventually this led to the extremely abstract dry garden arrangements of sand and rock popular in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. These gardens, designed to be gardens of meditation, fit in well with the philosophy of Zen Buddhism in which meditation is essential.

In later centuries, succeeding generations added their own variations to the themes previously laid down, and no Japanese Garden landscaped today can escape from incorporating elements from all the styles preceding it.

Within the context of the Japanese Garden tradition, the proposed University of Alberta Garden embraces three basic design concepts. The first is that of a sunny and open garden echoing the nature of Alberta with its sunshine and open spaces. In Dr. Kubo's design this translates into a series of grassy hills and sunny open areas which melt into ponds and streams.

The second concept embraced is of a garden faithful to the natural site and its context. The site selected for the Garden is bowl-shaped with its highest point being the proposed entrance. From there it slopes downward, inviting the presence of a small waterfall feeding two branching streams which are to be complemented by rock and foliage arrangements in accord with traditional Japanese techniques. The streams are to come together to flow under a bridge and then into a pond edged on one side by an iris garden — not of the traditional Japanese irises but the more hardy Siberian variety. On the opposite side of the pond is planned a traditional Ariso beach in which the pebbles are arranged in a meaningful Japanese pattern.

The other basic concept, that of diversity of scenery, is to be enhanced by the use of man-made artifacts, which will include three different types of stone lanterns and a stone pagoda almost six metres high. Additional focal points planned are three different tunes of Azumaua (shelters) at hillside vantage points. From these, a bird's-eye view of the entire site will be available.

The site itself derives its character largely from wind-shaped sand dunes formed some 12,000 years ago by pre-glacial Lake Edmonton. On their slopes, birch, aspen poplar, white spruce and pines, together with an understory of pincherry, chokecherry, hazelnut and roses predominate. Much of this is to be incorporated into the Garden. The pines, in particular, fit beautifully into the plans, and a search is to be made in the wild for other pines of unusual shapes and sizes which could be incorporated into the Garden. In the areas between the dunes, peat has accumulated, and most of the balsam poplar and willows which characterize these low areas will be removed to allow development of grassy knolls, the stream beds, and the pond.

Surrounding the Garden is to be a buffer zone, offering it protection from sonic and visual disturbances while at the same time melding it with its natural surroundings. The plan calls for this to be planted heavily with native trees and shrubs — kinnikinnick and creeping juniper especially, as these will form a dense cover and reduce maintenance costs.

In fact, the entire Garden is to require minimal maintenance. Once funding for the initial transformation is secured and the Garden planted, its upkeep will not be demanding. And the Japanese Garden will continue to be an important addition to Alberta's public gardens, fitting beautifully into the over-all concept of the University of Alberta Devonian Botanic Garden in both its aesthetic and educational aspects.

The University of Alberta Devonian Botanic Garden

The University of Alberta Botanic Garden was founded in 1959 on 80 acres of land donated by an alumnus, the late H.A. 'Sandy' Dyde, QC. In 1976, 110 adjacent acres were purchased and the name of the garden changed to acknowledge a large developmental grant from the Devonian Foundation.

The principal features of the Botanic Garden include an alpine garden, a herb garden, a garden of plants used by the native peoples of Alberta, extensive collections of trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants and bulbs, ecological reserves, and a nature trail system.

It is hoped that in the future gardens for the handicapped, home demonstration gardens, a series of ethnic gardens, and the Japanese Garden can be developed.

Much of the support for the Botanic Garden is provided by individuals associated as "The Friends of The University of Alberta Devonian Botanic Garden." During the year a number of courses are offered to the public at the Botanic Garden, and it is open to visitors throughout the warmer months.

The Botanic Garden is located adjacent to Highway 60, the Devon Highway approximately 23 kilometres west of Edmonton.

Published Spring 1983.

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