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 Shin-boku Nursery Stroll Garden is a work of art as well as an ongoing project and growing passion for Palmer Koelb. It is open year-round.

NHH: What makes a Japanese-style garden unique?

PK: Japanese gardens have a different flavor than most Western landscapes. This style in Japan is called “sukiya living,” which describes bringing the outside in and the indoor living area out. This is typically accomplished with sliding doors or moving panels that allow people to move easily from one area to another.

Japanese gardens are not formal. They don’t have the cookie-cutter, symmetrical feel that I have found in some Western gardens. Japanese gardens are not put together to create a “look at me” kind of thing. Instead, Japanese gardens seem to be, in my opinion, more natural. They tend to have the viewer or participant feel like they are in a kind of magical woodland.

Also, the scale is different. In most Japanese gardens, there are not many large trees; the trees are closer to a human’s size. Some Japanese gardens, however, do have big trees, which are typically set in the background and used to frame a picturesque or a distant view—this is called “borrowed scenery.”

Overall, there is a sense of serenity and tranquility in a Japanese garden. When I visited the gardens in Japan, I remember feeling this sense of comfort, which I loved. In these gardens, there are paths and benches, places to rest and reflect. It is a much different experience.

NHH:  At Shin-boku, you have a unique Japanese-style garden of your own, called the Stroll Garden. What is a stroll garden and what is yours like?

PK: A stroll garden is a garden that you participate in by walking through or around. The Stroll Garden at Shin-boku has a very informal feel and is set at the nursery’s entrance. It showcases some of the best techniques and features of a Japanese-style garden. It is also different from most Western gardens, which are done with more cookie-cutter trees and plants, which I find terribly boring. We have put in large trees and have placed big Japanese lanterns along its paths.

I’ve been working on the Stroll Garden for about nine years, and I continue to expand on it. The trees that are planted there are ones I have been working on for the past twenty years. In time, the garden will include an acre-and-a-half pond, lots of stones, an azumaya (a teahouse-like structure), a machi-ai (a covered waiting bench for reflection and garden viewing) and an “earthen” bridge (a wooden arched bridge), similar to the beautiful ones I saw in Kyoto.

NHH:  It sounds like a labor of love: an impressive, beautiful and passionate project.

PK: I invite visitors to the Stroll Garden and the nursery any time. Some visit in the coldest of temperatures—they want to walk around the nursery, ask questions and explore, and I am delighted to have them! I love what I do, and I am happy to share this passion.

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