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Gardens for Good tour offers layers of cultivated beauty

Photo by Rhonda Nowak Lionel and Garin have dozens of koi in one of three ponds in their garden. One of the fish is about 45 years old.

“Over thousands of years, the sculpting of Japanese garden trees, or niwaki, has become a finely honed art with a distinctive set of pruning techniques meant to coax out the trees’ essential characteristics.”

— Jake Hobson, “Niwaki: Pruning, Training and Shaping Trees the Japanese Way,” 2007

This week I had the pleasure of meeting Lionel Cunningham and Garin Bakle while visiting their Japanese/Asian-inspired garden at their home in the Rogue Valley Country Club neighborhood. Their garden is one of eight that will be showcased in this year’s Gardens for Good tour hosted May 14 by the North Valley chapter of Soroptimists International.

Lionel and Garin’s garden is named Toriniwa, the “Bird Garden,” and covers about an acre of land around their mid-century home, which features an imported Japanese blue tile roof and floor-to-ceiling windows with spectacular views of the garden from every room and Roxy Ann Peak and Mount Ashland as backdrops.

“I’ve always liked Japanese gardens,” Garin said. “Every house I’ve lived in, I’ve had some form of a Japanese garden.” He shares that passion with Lionel, and since they bought their home in 2000 they have gradually turned the garden into a meditative oasis that captivates all the senses.

When visitors come into the garden through the Japanese entry gate made from cedar, they enter nine garden spaces that embody the traditional elements of a Japanese garden: water, stone, plants, bridges and lanterns. In addition, care has been taken to incorporate five essential Japanese design principles: asymmetry, enclosure, borrowed scenery, balance and symbolism.

The peaceful sounds of waterfalls and wind chimes accompany a stroll across the stone footbridge and through the pond garden, which includes a water lily pond at the top level, a goldfish pond in the middle, and a lower koi pond with a dragon fountain that spits water at the brightly colored carp.

Lionel and Garin said that koi fish can live up to 60 years. In Japanese culture, koi symbolize courage, strength, patience and success through perseverance. The pond was built with rocks at the bottom so the fish can hide from herons and raccoons. During the winter, koi enter a state of hibernation called torpor, which allows them to acclimate to the cold.

“Koi fish are the perfect pets if you’re gone for the winter because you stop feeding them when the temperature falls below 55 degrees,” Garin and Lionel said. They spend the winter in Mexico and start feeding the fish again when they return in spring.

Surrounding the ponds are other garden spaces: a raked sand garden, moss garden, meditation garden, Zen garden, rock garden, chrysanthemum garden, maple-rhododendron-fern garden, and a serenity deck. Placed throughout the gardens are beautiful Japanese lanterns, a 900-pound marble Buddha, and a double gong stand.

Garin particularly enjoys growing bonsai, and there are more than 50 on display in the bonsai house at the back of the property. Garin showed me one of his favorite bonsai, a miniature conifer with a moss floor. “When you look into it, it’s like looking down a trail in a forest,” he said.

Bonsai is not just an art form; the long-term process of growing and shaping a bonsai tree is a way of practicing patience and reflection.

But it’s not just the bonsai that are carefully trained. The garden is filled with different species of Japanese maples, rhododendrons, wisteria, hydrangeas, peonies and many more that are carefully pruned by landscape architect Jerry Few, who has worked with Lionel and Garin for four years. Jerry specializes in a Japanese style of pruning called “niwaki,” which is translated in English as “garden trees.” Pruning, or sculpting, trees is another essential aspect of traditional Japanese gardening. Again, it’s not just the end result that is important, it’s also about the contemplative process of becoming familiar with the plant and its natural growth habit.

“It’s really important to know the plants you’re working with and what you’re trying to create from them — to know what that plant wants to look like naturally and then blend it into the landscape,” Jerry said.

Jerry prunes branches and foliage in layers so sunlight filters through the leaves. By strategic sculpting, he creates the effect of floating branches and flowers that appear to dance in the wind.

These days, Lionel and Garin leave most of the pruning to Jerry and their arborist, Jimmy Lindenberger, and are happy to do the light gardening tasks “that never seem to end.” In 2019, they retired from owning and operating the Cripple Creek Music Company in Ashland, and since then have been enjoying working on home and garden renovation projects and spending time in Puerto Vallarta.

The Soroptimist’s garden tour includes seven other gardens in Medford, Talent and Ashland. After a two-year hiatus, the tour will take place from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. May 14.

The tour is the Soroptimist’s major fundraiser that supports local women and girls in accomplishing their educational and professional goals. Tour tickets are $20 each and can be purchased through May 13 at any Rogue Valley Grange Co-op or the Blue Door Garden Store in Jacksonville. Tickets are available May 14 at Roxy Ann Winery from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information, see www.soroptimistinnorthvalley.com/.

Correction: In last week’s column about Joan Thorndike and Le Mera Gardens, the story should have said Joan moved here in 1984, and her husband, Dan, was born in the Rogue Valley.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher, and writer. She is the founder of the Bard’s Garden at Hanley Farm in Central Point. Learn more at www.literarygardener.com, and email Rhonda at Rnowak39@gmail.com.