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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The Japanese-style Stroll Garden at Shin-boku Nursery in Wentworth projects serenity with its meticulously sculpted trees, whimsical stone lanterns and winding paths. This garden is a testament to nursery owner Palmer Koelb’s diligent work ethic and passions for Japanese gardening and trees.  

In Japanese culture, garden building is honored as a high art. For Palmer Koelb, owner and founder of Shin-boku Nursery in Wentworth, the revered principles and techniques of Japanese gardening are equally respected and admired. He considers these natural-looking, asymmetrical gardens a second home, a place in nature where he finds beauty, peace and inspiration.   

New Hampshire Home spoke with Koelb to learn more about his passion for Japanese gardens and his experience growing specialty Japanese garden trees at Shin-boku Nursery, the largest Japanese garden tree business in North America.

New Hampshire Home (NHH): Where and how did your interest in gardening, particularly Japanese gardening, begin?

Palmer Koelb (PK): I lived and grew up in eastern Massachusetts, beside the original Weston Nurseries, which in those days was the state-of-the-art nursery in New England. Both my parents were avid gardeners. My father, in particular, built stone walls and planted a couple of trees around our property; he even built a pond with my neighbor. 

When I was seventeen, my father passed. It was sort of my destiny to continue the landscaping he had begun and do what my family could afford. I would go over to the Weston Nurseries’s dump and salvage plants that had been given up on. These plants were really the bones of the plant materials I put around my family’s house and pond. Those were the early gardening days.

In high school, I didn’t really know where I was headed, so I joined the military—the draft was looming. I spent three years in the army. Toward the end of my enlistment, I spent six weeks in Japan. There, I saw gardens around the Tokyo area and had a remarkable time. I knew I was home, at least a second home. I returned to Japan again—in the fall of 2008—and went on a walking tour of the gardens in the Kyoto area, which of course is the “mecca” of Japanese gardens.

Shin-boku Nursery owner Palmer Koelb grooms a tree outside his White Mountain home, giving it a distinctive character and shape.

When I got out of the military, I spent two years at Boston University in a liberal arts program. It wasn’t for me, so I started a tree-trimming business as a summer job, and it flourished. I also took a number of classes at Harvard in the horticultural field.

Since then, I have established, moved and sold a couple of nurseries, most particularly the Salisbury Nursery. When I sold this nursery, I took some of the grafted plants that had been produced there. These plants—mostly grafted conifers that were propagated in the early 1980s—became the early plantings for my nursery in Wentworth. Here, I have eight hundred feet of frontage on the Baker River and the quality of the loam is the second best in the state.

In Wentworth, time went on, and I did a lot of landscaping and continued on with the nursery, doing both wholesale and retail. At one point, about 20 years ago, I decided to grow, prune and shape some Japanese garden trees like I had seen in Japan. I then began to bring these trees to a new location—about a mile away—and started to grow and maintain some in large pots and others in the ground.

These trees are now the hallmark of the Shin-boku Nursery, which is the largest Japanese garden-tree business in North America. We are currently cultivating more than five hundred trees.

NHH: Tell us more about your specialty trees. 

PK: At Shin-boku, we follow the tradition of Japanese garden-tree trimming. Our trees are trimmed to produce a shape and personality consistent with the finest trimmed trees found in Japanese gardens.

Pruning is an integral part of my work, and it is also a very old Japanese discipline. Some of the cultivars we use are very dense if left unpruned, so trimming is done to open these trees up, which is foreign to most Western gardens. Most of the trees that I am pruning were grafted; they have distinct qualities that only a graft can truly re-create, and we prune these to be kind of like giant bonsai. Actually, they tend to be a whole lot bigger than bonsai—they can be between six-feet and twenty-feet tall.

We grow most of our trees in large containers—some up to five-feet in diameter. Our trees are groomed to have a distinctive character; we want them to be informal and have different shapes. The trunk is often S-shaped, curved or crooked; this detail makes the tree look as if it had experienced some trunk trauma in its early years.

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