Shin-boku's Japanese Gardens

Stroll gardens are common in Japan, but rare in the west - They're designed as a sensual experience to invite contemplation



A Weeping Canadian Hemlock.

Photo by John Hession

Shin-boku is the finest Japanese garden-tree nursery in North America," claims Doug Roth, publisher and editor of Journal of Japanese Gardening. It's also the largest. Located just off Rte. 25 outside of Wentworth, its trees have survived the Granite State's rugged winters for 23 years. Unlike Japan's milder climate, only hardy trees can be successfully grown here, but this doesn't intimidate Palmer Koelb, owner of Shin-boku and Baker Valley Nursery.

As a child Koelb loved looking at his father's books on Japanese gardening. His fascination was heightened when he visited Japan and saw several gardens while on leave from his Army post in Hawaii. Upon his discharge, he took classes in horticulture and plant propagating, focusing on growing dwarf, weeping and unusual needled evergreens at his nurseries in Massachusetts before moving to Wentworth.

Koelb starts his plants by following the Japanese protocol of planting them in the ground where they'll stay for a few years. Although the pruning of Japanese garden trees is almost unknown in this country, Koelb has the expertise to meticulously root, prune and trim several hundred large trees such as weeping hemlocks and assorted pines. This makes them ready for transplanting into containers as large as 6 feet in diameter, where they'll remain until planted in someone's garden. Some of these trees are 85 years old, some are pruned to reach a height of 20 feet and some are potential bonsai shape. Koelb transports them a few miles south to a gentle hillside below his home and places them in his other nursery, Shin-boku means specimen or principal tree in Japanese. He trains them to resemble ancient weathered trees, some with damaged trunks and branches. He's amassed more than 100 different cultivars, genetic subdivisions of plant species with slightly different characteristics. Most are conifers. "Each has its own personality," Koelb says. "They're trained to have the appearance of age with dignity and range from excellent to amazing."

In 2008 Koelb and his wife, Deb, traveled to Japan and took a 14-day garden walking tour. "I also fulfilled a life-long dream of visiting Katsura, my Japanese garden mecca, although the Adachi Museum gardens are a close second," he says. They returned home with a plethora of new ideas, many of which are being expressed both in the gardens he landscapes for clients and in the stroll garden he's building at Shin-boku.

Stroll gardens are common in Japan, but rare in the West. "One can observe a regular garden from afar," Koelb says. "A stroll garden is more participatory." They're designed as a sensual experience to invite contemplation as one strolls along paths and stepping stones and crosses natural bridges. "I follow my heart in developing mine," he says.

Rock placement is important in Japanese gardens. Along with foreman Bill Balch, hours were spent locating and harvesting large moss and lichen-covered boulders from the Koelb's woods and pasture lands. Moss was carefully lifted and planted around the boulders and an irrigation line was added to keep the new garden watered. Japanese stone lanterns, sculptural trees and trimmed shrubs were added to what will be a 750-foot stroll garden when complete. Three of the five connecting bridges are in place. One has large stepping stones across a Karesansui (dry pond), another is a single piece of granite and a third is a zigzag bridge made out of granite slabs. Of the two remaining, one will be wood, the other an earthen bridge, which will be one of perhaps 10 in this country. A roofed contemplation bench, a machiai, is also planned. This phase is 60 percent complete - but perhaps not. Koelb says. "Construction may go on for many years, I hope. This has been my dream for more than 50 years."

Koelb hopes that visitors will take away new ideas to incorporate into their gardens and spread the word about the beauty of the natural appearance of Japanese gardens. He understands that some gardeners will not have the space or pocketbook for his specimen trees, so much of his business is done over the Internet. Each tree has a unique serial-numbered seal attached for identification purposes.

The Koelbs warmly invite you to visit Shin-boku and the stroll garden, both of which have been aptly described as having an aura of fairyland. NH

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