California family revels in Japanese-style oasis

Most gardens begin with a landscape plan, but Boonie Teasdel's unique Japanese garden near California's capital city, Sacramento, began with an essay.

"I'd always wanted a Japanese garden like my mother's in New Orleans and [later] Rancho Santa Fe," explains the soft-spoken Ms. Teasdel, "and after visiting the magnificent hillside gardens of Kyoto, I decided that's how I would use the inheritance she left me. I had heard of a wonderful Japanese landscape architect visiting California, and so I went to ask if he would come design my garden."

The man in question, Sensai Katsuo Saito, then 92 and considered a "national treasure" in Japan, listened to her request, then asked if she would write down her reasons for wanting him to do the design, and how the garden would be used.

Teasdel believes to this day that what convinced him to accept the commission was the fact she would share it with others, to form a bridge between cultures.

Mr. Saito's first visit to the site of rolling lawn and trees was in 1985. "He sat right here," Teasdel says, gazing out at the garden through floor-to-ceiling windows off the dining room of her home, "and for two days studied and sculpted our landscape. Then he told us of his plans for the garden we named Myo-Wa-En, 'Garden of Inspiration and Harmony.' "

Teasdel has kept her promise to the late sensai (teacher) - more than 8,000 invited guests have visited her garden over the years, all leaving with a heightened knowledge of Japanese culture and full of ideas for creating their own gardens.

Teasdel's garden is actually three gardens in one: There's a traditional stroll garden, with many scenic views; a Zen garden for meditation, and a roji, which is the approach and connecting link from the main garden to the authentic teahouse where Teasdel practices ikebana flower arranging and stages tea ceremonies for selected visitors and groups.

What separates this garden from the nearly 400 others that Saito designed is the swimming pool.

Winner of a 1989 gold medal award from the National Swimming Pool Institute and more recently winner of another gold medal for "classic pools" over 10 years old, the pool has moss rocks on its edges and a traditional turtle-shaped island (the turtle is a revered symbol of longevity in Japan) with a Japanese black pine in the center.

Along with an adjoining spa and elaborate koi pond, the 60-foot solar-heated pool has a diving rock at its deep end, but swimmers are cautioned to avoid splashing because the chlorinated water would kill the moss on the rocks.

Another innovation that separates this garden from Saito's others is the presence of computer-operated controls for the waterfalls that feed the pool and adjoining koi pond, pool sweep, sprinkler system, and night lighting - blending classic Japanese design with the latest in Western technology.

Lest the impression be left that Teasdel simply wrote checks and let the craftsmen do all the work on the garden, it should be noted that she personally selected nearly every one of the 210 tons of boulders that went into the landscape from a quarry in the famed Sutter Buttes, the world's smallest mountain range.

Her selections won accolades from Saito, who wrote a book, "Magic of Trees and Stones." Teasdel's copy of the 1964 publication still bristles with bookmarks she made during her search.

"I chose most of the rocks," she acknowledges, "but I thought it would be proper for sensai to select the two most prominent boulders in the waterfall. So I prepared a picnic, and we went up to the Sutter Buttes [quarry] and enjoyed lunch in a beautiful meadow while he made his selection."

Teasdel also jumped into action when the late arrival from Mexico of polished black stones for the pool's walk-in beach threatened to delay work.

"I found a supplier in Los Angeles who had the stones, but they said I'd have to pick them up," Teasdel says, "so I flew down and rented a truck bigger than anything I'd ever driven before. The renter said I'd have to drop it off in San Francisco, but after watching me drive it around the parking lot for a little while, he decided we'd all be better off if I left it off in Sacramento."

Thus the 60 bags of shiny black stones arrived in time for work to continue unabated. They were held in place with a mastic that Teasdel thought would never release its grip, but when the beach was sandblasted recently many came loose.

"They flew everywhere," she says, rolling her eyes, "and putting them back where they belonged was like working a giant jigsaw puzzle. But we did it."

The second phase of construction was the creation of a traditional 16th-century teahouse, a project demanding the talents of an additional 75 craftspeople and skillful convincing of her husband, Gil, that it was worth putting up with more noise, dust, and confusion.

Drawing on the talents of a skilled father-and-son team of master carpenters, the curved roof beams were created using 27 laminations of redwood. Over those were placed heavy charcoal gray tiles to maintain the feeling of shibui (the Japanese term for near perfection).

"At first I was determined to use bright peacock-blue tiles, like those on the entry gate," Teasdel says, "but my son convinced me to do otherwise, and I'm glad he did."

Another hurdle Teasdel had to overcome was getting Saito to do a stone and gravel Zen garden outside the fence that surrounds the main garden.

"I read that he'd done a viewing garden at the United Nations building, for which the [Japanese] emperor awarded him a gold medal," she says. "It took three humble requests on my part, and finally he agreed. He called the garden 'friendship' for the way the rocks interrelate."

Nearby there is another grouping of stones next to an intriguing 6-foot-tall black pine. That tree was selected by Teasdel in Fresno, Calif. "My husband will never know what I paid for that tree!" she says with a laugh, "but it fills its welcoming function perfectly."

Overall, the effect is a feeling of shibui. As Teasdel explains, there's no comparable word in English, but it is "the deepest and purest beauty," which is never obtrusive but presents a profound, unassuming, and quiet feeling.

And it conveys to visitors the message that Saito desired. He told Teasdel: "I want people to feel the unity of the rocks and water, and all the trees and plants. Unity is the principle of why I build these gardens all over the world. Friendship, and the feeling that we are one people, is what I express in these gardens."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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