Gardening for serenity

Inspired by Japanese traditions, Palmer Koelb grows specialty trees in the foothills of the White Mountains and designs gardens.



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A pruned, S-curved pine borders the walkway of the Shin-boku Nursery Stroll Garden. The trees at the nursery are like no others, and pruned to produce shapes and characteristics consistent with those found in Japanese gardens.

NHH: The climate of Wentworth differs from that of Japan. How have you adapted your Japanese garden trees to the terrain and weather conditions of New Hampshire?

PK: Our trees are carefully selected to be hardy: we use two-needle and five-needle pines. I am also exploring the hardiness of some of the Japanese maples. It is my experience that if the ground is heavily mulched, even the more tender trees will get through the colder months without completely dying.   

The Japanese black pine and the Japanese red pine are probably the most common and certainly the most famous of the pine trees that are found in the gardens in Japan. The Japanese black pine, however, is not hardy enough for Wentworth, especially during the winter months.

A stone lantern adds a touch of beauty and scale to the Shin-boku Nursery Stroll Garden.

I have found that the Jack pine—a two-needle pine—is quite hardy and is similar in growth to the Japanese black pine. With proper training, a Jack pine can give the same feeling in a garden as a Japanese black pine. There is a dwarf white pine that works very well here, too.

NHH: What are some of the unusual projects you have provided trees for?

PK: Once, we delivered and planted a dwarf white pine tree, trimmed into a typical Japanese garden tree, at the balcony of a nineteenth-story condo building in New York City overlooking Central Park. It was quite an adventure and a fascinating project that took a little more than two years to complete. The homeowners’ landscape designers put this project together: they came to the nursery, tagged a number of trees and took several pictures to show their client for approval. When the decision was made, we delivered the tree. 

NHH: How do you help either a homeowner or a landscape designer select a tree or design a garden?

PK: We work closely with clients, helping them select trees to create a Japanese-style garden that suits their desires, budget and site.

I always like to visit the physical site, so I have a feeling of what is involved in terms of the home, its grounds and so forth. Seeing the location is important, because I can tell what trees will be most suitable for that landscape. For example, some trees will not withstand constantly moist soil, so this changes the selection choices. I show the clients the most appropriate trees and then they make the final decision. 

Also, one of the important things in Japanese-style gardening is the view from the house. We’ve done projects where we have suggested to the homeowners that they install a big picture window, so they can see the garden from their house. And if the physical property allows, I suggest that homeowners build a patio that comes right off that big picture window or insert a sliding glass door, so that they can be drawn out into the garden—almost immersed into it—while still inside.

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