In a recent episode of Big Dreams, Small Spaces on BBC 2, Monty Don helped Ant Grimley and Jake Xu make a stunning Japanese garden at their house in suburban Bath. Ant talks more about the process, sharing lots of insights and tips along the way…
When did you and Jake first decide to make a Japanese garden?
It was a good 10 years before we appeared on Big Dreams, Small Spaces. I’d been inspired by a book called Japanese Homes and Their Surroundings by Edward S. Morse, originally published in 1886. In the book was a small chapter on Japanese gardens. They were nothing like I'd seen before: deceptively simple, elegant, artistic, and the book made me want to visit Japan and see the gardens for myself. Jake needed convincing as he's originally from China, and the history of those two nations hasn't been particularly warm, but his opinion changed once we visited Japan, and now he's as much of a fan as I am. I did try creating a small garden in 2010 at the house was renting, and when we finally could afford to buy a house, we knew that we wanted to create a proper Japanese garden – or at least as close as we could get to one without the years of training that Japanese gardeners go through.
How did you go about planning your current garden?
The starting point was the Acer – Acer palmatum osakzuki, a gift from my former flatmate. The garden was planned around that. It needed to be on a mound so we could see it from our elevated position at the kitchen table. Being on a mound brought circular shapes into the garden, so the paved dining area, the spherical Hebes and other elements were based on that. The next design area was the view to the south west through the trees to Bathampton Mill, which you only see in winter, along with the water glistening on the weir. We put low shrubs in the corner and the lantern. The bench, and its bright red and inky black colour scheme, were based on Torii (Japanese gateways). This was Jake's idea and I think it makes the garden.
For the rest of the planting, I took inspiration from the lists of plants in my Japanese gardening books. I made a plan, cutting out shapes of the plants to create a collage based on how wide they'd grow. I also worked out how tall they'd be so that they'd work with the trees in our neighbour’s garden. Well, that worked out well until they removed all the trees… but such is gardening, ever changing and adapting.
There was no path behind the maple originally, and the paved dining area was a lot bigger before. Both those changes were based on Monty Don’s advice. When Monty begins a sentence with "If it was me..." then you know that you'd better heed the advice! After filming with him I ran indoors and wrote down his tips, all of which were gems.
Did you do lots of research via books and online?
I watched a lot of videos about how to make the crazy-type paving using concrete and a plastic former. I wasn't prepared for the effort and frustration of physically doing that job. I spent a lot of time adding to my spreadsheet of plants by researching on the RHS website: position, height, sun/shade, time of flowering, soil conditions. It wasn't quite like studying for an exam, but once we were approved to go on the show there was a deadline to meet. Monty had a great piece of advice on the planting after I had shown him my list: "you know, when creating a Japanese garden, you can't go wrong with any plant called 'japonica'." Each piece of advice Monty gave was useful.
Apart from having to replace the soil in order to make the garden, what were the other big headaches at the beginning?
The soil was certainly a challenge. It had been compacted by the heavy house-building machinery that drove over it and that under the lawn were tons of clay excavated from the house foundations. As we discovered, the original soakaway for the house, which lies at the bottom of a slope, was deemed inadequate, which meant the whole garden had to come out – around 24 cubic metres. Our original filming schedule was three months, and getting that work done took six weeks. It was a frustrating time. Whilst we did get most of the new soil put in by machine I shovelled about 5 tons, which left me with a very sore wrist for about two months. Apart from that it was straightforward, and a good exercise in creative thinking – we even turned an area of ‘no man’s land’ into a Zen garden, where you could meditate and empty your mind.
Did you ever feel like giving up?
No. It was a great opportunity. I got up at 5.30 AM and stopped when the sun went down, and took time off work. Jake worked throughout but he would often stay out later. The deadline of the final 'Reveal Day' was a worry, but the director of the TV show was amazed at our progress.
How much attention and maintenance does the garden need – you guys both work full time…
The garden is becoming a child, so is being left largely to find its own way. No major pruning has been done yet, just so that we can get a sense of it. The Garrya at the back is being trained now so that it looks more architectural and the Kilmarnock willow has had some leaves removed to show off the weeping branches. Most of the work has been keeping nettles and grass from getting a foothold in our chamomile lawn. That and removing hundreds of slugs from it… I’ve just bought some nematodes so hopefully they will assist with that. When visitors come every square centimetre gets the once over.
What are the biggest tips and advice you have for readers thinking of making their own Japanese garden?
1) Get the rocks in earlier. As Robert at The Japanese Garden in St Mawgan in Cornwall subsequently advised us, we should start with rocks. Big ones. Looking at other Japanese gardens again it seems obvious. But we missed it.
2) You can find some great stuff at reclamation yards, such as gateway roof tiles. The stepping stones and paving were also reclaimed stones, and we found the rocks in the Zen garden at the yard. They are called Cotswold Crystal. The Japanese are very particular about their stones… Our stones aren’t as big as we’d like, or perhaps as stunning as the ones you see elsewhere, but they have a local connection.
3) Any space can be a Japanese garden. One of the best I’ve seen was a series of split logs tied together into a rectangular planter and filled with plants. That’s all. The effort and thought that went into it was way beyond what most people put into a ‘Western’ garden.
4) Enjoy the process: the inspiration, the planning, choosing plants, the hard graft. It’s all part of the garden. It’s a collection of all those memories and the ones that grow once you’ve made it.
Learn more about Ant and Jake’s garden at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b088s0bb and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CqdfspyfPjY&feature=youtu.be