Interview with Jim Bier

How would you compare the garden at the Japan House to a traditional tea garden in Japan?

JIM: My goal has really been to make that as accurate as I possibly can with the money available, which is a big issue; and I have seen, now--well, I should say that, I have been back to Japan now, about eight (8) times, I think. I’ve seen the whole country, top to bottom, many times; and I’ve seen probably almost all the major gardens, and a lot of the minor gardens as well, including tea gardens. Now, tea gardens are not too visible in Japan. They’re very private; you don’t go into them unless you’re invited, for the most part; many of them are associated with temples, especially in Kyoto; and the gardens are off a ways if you’re going through a tour of other gardens in the temple, you’ll see that tea gardens are off a ways and that’s about your only view of it. So, it’s very difficult, even for Japanese, to see a tea garden. But with my research and everything, I felt I was doing what I thought was accurate down to every detail. The basic parts of the tea garden being two parts: the inner garden and the outer garden. That’s the main breakdown of the garden. And then the use of fencing, the use of trees, the use of the contrast between the outer garden and the inner garden, as far as plants; this kind of thing. That’s pretty easy to follow with what the Japanese would do. Someone asked me when I first started the tea garden, “Where are you going to get all the Japanese plants?” Well, as it turns out you can go to a local nursery and get a lot of them, because, when you look at what was the origin of many plants sold commercially, I would say, could be as many as 60% in a nursery, had come, originally, either from China, Korea, or Japan. So the common Japanese Yew that everybody uses around their house, is used in Japanese gardens, of course. Korean Boxwoods are also the same way. I'm using them here. So I’m not deviating too much from what they would have in Japan. But, yes, you have to choose plants that are going to survive, especially this winter of minus 10, minus 15 degrees. Kyoto doesn’t have that, Kyoto is like northern Virginia, persay.

What kind of creative vision did you have originally? How has this vision changed over time?

JIM: Gardens always go in for change. You never really expect to have a garden permanently the same all the time. There have even been studies about the very historic, classic gardens in Japan, and what was it really like when it was originally built. And as it turns out a lot of changes have gone through the years on even the famous garden. And so, you can expect that, even here. After I put something on paper, and even while I’m constructing it, trying to follow what I have on paper, I visually see that things are not quite right, that maybe the bush needs to be moved over another two feet from what i had planned, or a tree needs to be moved to another spot, or maybe a different tree should be in that spot: this kind of a thing. And so that happens with the actual construction of it. But once the garden is built and it's now growing, like I told everybody, ‘wait ten years, and then you’ll have a garden’. So when you put it in, it’s quite small. But as it grows, I began to say, ‘Ah, that should be changed, maybe that should be changed’. So I have done a number of things on both gardens, the dry garden and the tea garden, that try to improve it. And that never ends. So even this year we may do something different that we haven’t done before.

Did you also contribute to the landscaping along the front walk and around the lake?

JIM: The cherry trees that were donated by the Headmaster of the Urasenke school. Those are, you might say, maintained by the Arboretum; although I have pruned them at times, and may continue to do this because sometimes they’re just too busy to do these things. I worked with the head gardener who came from the Urasenke school to put the trees in, we discussed where they would go and I took the advice of the head gardener since they were the people who were donating it. But no, we worked pretty good together. But it's all part of the Japan House complex in a way. But it’s kind of divided between what is the arboretum doing and what the Japan House is doing. And, as far as immediately around the Japan House, is what I have built; that’s what I maintain.

Does the placement of the rocks and the raking pattern have any specific meanings in the dry garden?

JIM: In my case, yes. A dry garden can be quite abstract in it’s appearance, and possibly mean hardly anything, except usually the raked gravel represents water and the rocks can be islands in a case like that or peninsulas or whatever how they're handled. And at Japan House the irregular shape of that gravel is to suggest somewhat the real pond that's behind the view you see if you're looking at the dry garden, the real pond out there. It's not trying to copy it, but I'm saying the flowing lines that go around-- this is the water. So okay, the rocks are going to be outcrops along the shoreline, islands. The one big rock there is just really part of the hedge, that wraps around the backside of the dry garden. And that hedge is supposed to be representing hills or a range of mountains, and behind that, the bushes, the bayberries, that are there, when we trim them once a year they look a little better then, they are to be suggesting clouds. It's a very simple design, and it's not uncommon to have something like that in Japan. I may be a little more specific in the mountain range idea, but that mountain range is a particular technique that is used in a number of gardens in Japan, as are other things: the way we prune bushes there, I’m trying to demonstrate certain presentations of plants that you would normally see in a Japanese garden, and try to represent it here. So there's three or four different presentations in the gardens.

How much work is it to upkeep the gardens? Who are your helpers, or do you prefer to work alone?

JIM: Pruning is major. And it's going to be coming soon. About the first week of April, definitely get into it, maybe even earlier. And that'll go on for a good two and a half months, and I do have helpers--I have to. I do have people from the community, master gardener people some of them. And they come in and volunteer their time, and they learn how to handle japanese garden pruning, but I use their skill in general gardening, so it makes it a lot easier for me. Ii don't have to do a lot of explaining. But the helper is absolutely necessary because this is a wild time of year for maintaining the gardens, when it becomes pruning time. It takes quite a bit of time. But when that's done, say the middle of June, then we can relax through July and August, it's much easier. The gardens are much easier. It’s a crazy time right there in April, May, and June.

Were the Sakura trees hard to plant? Are there many Japanese plant varieties in the gardens, or are the majority North American plants? Are there Japanese plants you couldn’t use that you wanted to?

JIM: Our zone, and if you know gardening, the country is divided up into zones and we’re in zone 5b, and this zone, the winters are, compared to Japan, our winters are like Hokkaido. And I've been to Hokkaido,I don't see too many gardens up there--there’s certainly no really important gardens up there. None historically, because, for one thing, Hokkaido is so cold it wasn't settled until very recent times. But Kyoto, while I did mention Kyoto being like northern Virginia, I take that back, I'd say Tokyo is more like northern Virginia or Washington D. C. Kyoto is like northern Georgia, so there's a big difference in plants you can use, obviously. The biggest one, the biggest plant that I cannot use, and that is used the most in Japanese gardens, is the Evergreen Azalea. And it’s borderline here. You can grow it for some years, and all you have to have is one bad winter and you lose it. So there's no way that I’m going to try to train bushes the way they should be in shape, and then find it, after four or five years, dies on me, and I have to start over again. So that's why I use the Japanese Yew and the Korean Boxwood. Now, they use that also, but not as greatly as I do, and that's because I have to rely on that cold, cold winter that might come.

Which part of the garden, if any, is particularly difficult to take care of?

JIM: Oh, definitely the tea garden. We have some problems with it, right now, which I hope will be solved this year. The dry garden is very easy, and I like it because it is so easy. And it's easy to keep the weeds out of it. When you have raked gravel, you don’t have weeds coming through it. It’s underlaid with plastic so it prevents weeds from coming in, and if you did you can just pluck them out real easy. And it's just a cleaner looking type of garden. But the tea garden is supposed to be, at least the inner garden, is supposed to be fairly wild looking, in contrast to the outer garden, which is semi-formal in its appearance. And it's kind of a transition, the outer garden is more of a transition between what I have over in the dry garden and what the inner garden would be. It’s kind of in between there. And so, I have to rely on plants that I can get that will survive here. And American plants, yes, I will not hesitate to get anything. At the entrance to the tea garden are Redbud trees, which are native to this area and they fit in very nicely into a tea garden. And it's nice here, they bloom right after the cherry trees are blooming, so we get extended blossom time. But there are European plants in there, some of them. And the little handout that the Japan House has to describe the gardens, on the back is a list of all the plants that I put in, and I tried to show each plant where it originated--not necessarily that plant, but where it would originally had been found, wild. And this gives people an idea of how many different varieties of plants you can have to make a garden.

How long have you been giving garden tours?

JIM: Since the beginning. I would say, the very first year, while I was still constructing the garden, people were coming to Japan House, and, of course, there's not much to see. And if you look at some of the--Japan House has some of their pictures taken the first couple of years, and, like the tea garden was the first one built, and that took two years to build that, and it's pretty sparse-looking. I mean, you put in a plant that's only maybe 18 inches high and 2 feet across and, eventually, it's going to be three, four, five feet high, something like that makes a big difference. But it's interesting for people, if they're interested in gardens, to watch how a garden does mature, and, like I told Japan House, it takes about 10 years. And even now, some of the trees are not totally mature yet, but the bushes are pretty much the way they should be.

Have you received any interesting or memorable questions during one of your garden tours?

JIM: I get all kinds of questions. nothing that i would say would be particularly strange or unusual. I do talk alot about the plants, and people are interested in what plants I am using and how can they grow some of that at their own house, in their own place. But I get more comments about people enjoying the gardens when I'm there. This is something that I didn't expect, especially when I‘m working there, and they don't know who I am and--I’m just a worker--and I get these comments from them about how much they like the gardens. And so that, to me is the bottom line as far as, for me, if people enjoy it that much then my work is worthwhile, I guess. It's just like that. And, of course, I like gardening too, but if other people enjoy it, that's what I really enjoy.

What is your favourite part of the garden? Least favourite?

JIM: Well, I do like the dry garden more. Maybe because of its simplicity. Tea garden is more of a headache. Right now, it's more of a headache. Hopefully we get it solved. Or I get it solved. It--the inner garden is almost supposed to be a little bit wild; so there are trees around it and the trees are getting taller, and what it’s doing is shutting out the light in the center somewhat. And the plants that I had in the middle--the ground covers wanted light, if not full sun, at least to have it bright. But that's getting a little hard to do, so now I'm trying something new in the semi-shade. I have to find new plants, but one thing I don't want is bare ground. I need to have plants in there of some kind. And so that’s a little bit tricky, trying to do that; and same with what I call the woods, which is at the end of the tea garden. That's still in a state of construction because I waited until the trees got big enough so that there was shade in there, so I could put shade-loving plants there. And I tried to find something that, if it’s not Japanese, at least Chinese, or Korean, or Siberian possibly. But I’m even putting in American plants like Trilliums, Jack-in-the-pulpits, plants like that, and ferns, that still give it a woodland feeling.

Which season at the Japan House do you think is the most beautiful?

JIM: Well, everybody likes when the flowers come out. So, the cherry trees especially, are good maybe the first week of April, and immediately after that, the Redbuds. But, in a Japanese garden, it really isn’t full of colour, except for the Evergreen Azalea, which we cannot grow. And the Evergreen Azalea there is trimmed like our Yews and Boxwoods, say half-sphere appearance, and this would be all covered with blossoms, solid. And you can just imagine a whole garden full of all this, blooming at one time or even in a succession. And that is quite impressive, but it is very short; it only lasts about a week and it's gone. But other than that, they don't really have big beds of flowers, like you might see in an English wall garden or something like that. And so, what you want to do is put plants and a little color here, and a little color there at different times. And I'll be putting in more things this year to try to express that, but it's lowkey. And in the winter time, of course, the garden should look good--just as good--in the winter, as in summer, and I have often told people who want to build a garden, ‘design the garden for looking good in the wintertime, and then you can put colour in for the summer and it's very easy to do that way’. And so, the tea garden is a good example, as well as the dry garden.

What is your favorite garden you’ve seen?

JIM: There are many in Japan that I like very much; and probably the one that everyone talks about in Japan being the number one garden there is the Adachi Museum garden, which was built in the early 70;s, I believe. And that will just about outshine anything that was in the country for the last four or five hundred years. It's amazing. And I’ve been there twice to that garden, the Adachi Museum, and you can get that on the internet, and you can see what it looks like, but it's a fabulous place. What’s my favourite garden? Oh, that’s too broad of a question. Because I've seen many, many gardens in Europe, and all over. There are favourites in Italy and in England, even a good Japanese garden in Poland that I’ve visited. I don't look for Japanese gardens particularly, but when I'm travelling if I do find one, it’s fine--like in Australia, I found, I think, four of them down there that were quite good. But I like gardens in general. And I’m very impressed by English gardens and what they do. It’s very, very different from Japanese, but, yet at the same time, they do sculpture their evergreens: their hollies and their yews. And the way they do it is very appealing to me. So it’s a very broad question.

Illinois can have very brutal winters; has the winter ever killed off some of your plants?

JIM: Oh, winters are hard here--very hard for gardens. This winter, now ending, is quite good. But the previous two winters we had were very hard on the gardens. As you probably know, the cherry trees didn’t bloom at all last year, or hardly at all; and even the previous year hardly at all. Although cherry trees are borderline here anyway, you wouldn't expect them to be troublesome. When I planted my gardens, I learned what survives and what doesn't, down to minus 15 to minus 20 degree Fahrenheit. So I carried that thought over to Japan House, and with that experience of what’s going to survive, I try to use those plants as much as possible in Japan House. And I love to experiment with borderline things. You have microclimates in any garden, so there could be a little patch someplace where a delicate plant can survive, simply because of the way the vegetation is around it, or it’s hilly and it protects it, or a fence and it survives. But winters are hard here, yes. And you don’t have those winters in Japan for the famous gardens. The famous gardens there are in the stretch of what we might compare with northern Virginia to middle of Georgia.

Is it true Gunji-sensei has an Ikebana Garden in the back of Japan House? Is it a part of the main gardens, and do you help grow those flowers?

JIM: Ikebana gardens are different; they’re not part of anything that I have there--you wouldn’t say it’s part of the tea garden, it’s not part of the dry garden, or any other garden. And, frankly, I have never seen one in Japan, but I’m sure they’re there, because Kimiko Gunji wanted a garden for cut flowers, particularly for her use. And there’s not enough for a whole class there, but that kind of a garden, I could see the sense of it. You would want to have a supply of flowers for Ikebana. And even if you have your own hobby of making flower arrangements, in Japan or here, either way, it is handy to go outside and pick something out. I have a patch in my garden, right off the side of the house, that I put in various plants that my wife likes to use for Ikebana. And, although the ones she likes are the tropicals, and I can’t grow the tropicals. At the, what I call Professor Gunji’s Ikebana Garden, I try to select a number of plants that are actually wild in Japan that they use for flower arranging. So there are a number of them, and there are some hybrids, too. But I tried to select as many as I can, plants that actually come originally from Japan, that way she is more familiar with them, more associated with them.

What first inspired your interest in the Japanese gardens?

JIM: When I was first in Japan, end of the Korean War, thanks to the Army--drafted into the Army--they eventually sent me to Tokyo. That’s where I stayed for nearly a year. That was my first experience outside of the U.S., and I was--I can remember even that very first day when I got off the boat--and the boat was 15 days to Japan! Now I know how Christopher Columbus felt going across the Atlantic--but, once I got in--I got off the boat and in to see what was there...Frankly, it was, I tell everybody, it was like landing on Mars. It was totally different to me, and I was fascinated. And fortunately, the time I was there, I had no idea of having a house Japanese, or a garden, or anything. It’s just that I was absorbing the culture, of what I could see--which was quite superficial, I will admit. But I said, “I have to have something like that at home someday.” Of course, I was still in the middle of school when I was taken out to go into the Army, and so I said that when I graduate and have my degree and am working, that I would save my money and hopefully have a house built that would be half Japanese, half American, and get into a garden. Well if I’m going to get into a garden I’d better learn something about it! And the land that I bought here--6/10s of an acre of land was big, but it was something I could afford at that time, fortunately--and I had to fill it up with garden! And that's what I have done. So it--the reason i started was just simply that exposure to Japan the very first time; and I had a great opportunity to travel all through the middle third of the country numerous times, and got to see a lot of experiences that you couldn't see today. Because a lot of that, back in 1954, a lot of Japan still was like pre war too. That way, a lot of women still wore kimonos daily on the street, things like and there were many things: the stores were all open fronts like they used to be, even a couple hundred years ago. Today, try to find those in Japan now are kind of hard, but I saw all this and it was fascinating, so it's still with me today.

How did you come to create the Japan House gardens? Did you approach Gunji-sensei, or did she approach you?

JIM: I don’t know who approached whom. I knew that Professor Gunji needed a tea garden. I don’t remember whether she asked me or I just said, “I’ll do it”. Because I was very interested to try something different than my own garden. But anyway, the go-ahead was very easy. I don’t know who said yes, but we went ahead. And I did make a plan, I did my research--did a lot of research: read a few books, read through my slides because I have a lot of slides I took in Japan over the years (thousands of slides)--and so I made the plan. And then I thought, well, even though I’m a cartographer and I knew how to draw plans, even a garden plan, other people maybe can’t read it so well, so I made a model. That was more realistic for people. And they may still have the model--I don’t know, I don’t think they threw it away. But anyway, it was a clear picture. And it was also good for me to see what it would look like in a model. And so I just followed the tea garden from that. So that’s how it started. I’m not really sure who said who, but I knew that they needed it for teaching purposes, and so I’m glad I made it!

Where does your funding come from?

JIM: From my back pocket. Yeah, 100 percent, pretty much. When the gardens were built--the tea garden was built very early--the Arboretum did help a little bit to shape the hill that’s there the way I wanted it. And they moved some big rocks in for me--all the big rocks for the tea garden were brought in. But as far as the buying of everything, I bought it, 100 percent. And I still do it. So if something dies, I just go out and buy it and put it in. And, like the ground cover I put in this morning, I paid for it. I just ordered this stuff--now I do a lot more ordering by internet, I reach a greater number of companies than I would normally, with the catalogs I would normally receive. So yeah, it’s just all from me. And my wife, of course. We agreed on this, that we were going to do this. And the same for, well all of it around there; everything to do with the gardens: both sides, the front, and the far front; that was all by me.