Planting Pleasures with Leslie Buck
In 2000, Buck trained with Uetoh Zoen, one of the oldest and most highly acclaimed landscape companies in Kyoto. This became a three season journey which led to her NYTimes-reviewed garden memoir, Cutting Back – My Apprenticeship In The Gardens Of Kyoto. Buck has been an aesthetic landscape pruner and garden designer in the San Francisco Bay Area for over two decades, encouraging landscapes to develop atmosphere and beauty over time. She has worked, taught, and volunteered in hundreds of private landscapes as well as public gardens, including Portland Japanese Garden, Hakone Japanese Garden, and Tassajara Zen Center.
As many of us have been actively looking to reconnect with nature and seek its healing powers, we talked to Leslie to learn about her philosophy of gardening, her tricks to cultivate a garden that delights our senses and how her relationship with nature bloomed throughout the process.
Why do you think it’s a good idea to have plants, or even dedicated spaces to grow plants at home?
Gardens, and sometimes even plants inside the home are living art. Therefore, especially if you have a seasonally focused garden, the artwork/garden alters as the year progresses. It's wonderful to see new beauty every day, with one investment. In my memoir I talk about a homeowner I met once whose garden always had something red in it each season. She was a client of one of the most historic and respected landscaping companies in Kyoto, the company I worked for, who took full, immaculate care of her landscape. And yet she still knew the name of every plant in her garden. Her home and garden were connected in the most subtle ways, to deeply influence her daily life, and those who visited her home. Gardens can make rooms inside homes feel much bigger if the plants are placed carefully, giving one privacy from neighbours (so curtains don’t have to be closed so much), and designed like a landscape painting, so the garden scene appears larger than it actually is.
What are some of the key ideas you’ve learned about gardening while in Kyoto that can be applied to looking after plants/ gardens at regular homes?
To appreciate the beauty of a garden, it's important to have some interaction with it, like having a pair of binoculars on hand to bird watch occasionally, rather than just sweeping a path every now and then. Disneyland wouldn’t be as fun if one just snapped photos of the well-kept playground, one must get on the rides. This holds true also for a garden – find some ways to be involved with a garden physically; go out and have a cup of tea under a maple tree, and treasures will unfold.
Look at some proeprty with balcony / terraces
More practically, how should we design our own garden (no matter how large or tiny) or select the right plants for our home?
Picking plants that sing to your heart is a good start. If you love birds, butterflies and wildlife, then consider picking from local native plants which attract beneficial wildlife and make your garden come alive even more. Most gardens in Japan are inherently native plant gardens.
We often build our gardens for beauty. I built my garden here in Berkeley, California as a refuge for nature, and designed it using Japanese garden principles. But then I found during this particular time in history that my garden became a refuge for me. There is nothing like having a tiny private place to sit, right in the heart of the city, and feel as if all of nature surrounds you, totally worth all my effort! I showcase my garden on my social media often – feel free to take a look.
One thing about growing or living with plants that you wish more people would know about.
Plants are not furniture, but more like children. Nurture them, sometimes be firm, and have some flexibility, and your garden will flourish to its peak potential. This is why hiring skilled professionals who can help you create a garden that gives you some delight and awe is a good idea. They also know how to keep the plants happy and healthy. Building a garden yourself is like raising a family, you can learn as you go along. It doesn’t have to look immaculate to be perfectly enjoyable, as long as you make heartfelt effort.
Does your background in fine arts influence your approach in horticulture in any way?
Definitely. I feel a garden, if designed well and nurtured with heart and effort overtime, can attract wildlife, provide a home for them in a functional way, and also be beautiful for humans to witness and be a place where people and children can play or relax. As an artist, I don’t mind telling people what I saw in Kyoto, rather than what I wanted to find. For instance, the gardens were much more natural, and less sheared than I expected. Sheared plants are often present, but almost always at a minimum. As one of my coworkers said, “The gardens of Japan are as natural as possible."
As far as you know, what are the biggest differences between how Asians and Westerners appreciate and interact with nature?
That is hard for me to answer because my apprenticeship in Japan was more about suddenly finding myself in a foreign culture, where I had to find quite a bit of humour and courage to keep up with the extremely disciplined craftsmen. I learned about the specialized tools they used, pruning techniques and in the end their heart. But I still had so much more to learn. Perhaps I could say that in general Westerners are more focused on which flowers or vegetables might please them, whereas in Japan the gardens are more about creating a scene, perhaps with some flowers, where one can go to spend time with and enjoy nature. In addition to my memoir which allows readers to enter some of the most beautiful private home landscapes, monasteries and even an emperor’s estate with me, as I run and work with the craftsmen, I highly recommend any book written by Marc Peter Keane who has written much on Japanese garden design theory.
Are there any life lessons that working with plants (in Kyoto or in general) have taught you?
Sometimes doing hard work in life to create something of quality, is more rewarding than finding the easiest way to do something just good enough. The craftspeople, men and women, working in the gardens of Japan tend to gardens like parents tend to children. The work is often hard, but one looks back on those challenging moments with pride and satisfaction.
What was the toughest and most memorable challenge that you have overcome which gave you a valuable skill and mindset?
I kept trying to please my boss in Japan, to do excellent work. But they kept giving me more difficult challenges so rarely would I “succeed.” I believe my boss in Kyoto was trying to teach me that pride comes from effort, not just success. If I try my hardest, and a little more than in any job I do back home in California, then I already feel good about my work, before I receive outside appreciations or titles. This helps me overcome challenging times in life whether I win or lose. I always try to just do my best.
Pick 3 plants that would be perfect for an urbanite’s home.
Whether it is flowers, berries or seasonal beauties, find one plant that attracts birds, another that attracts butterflies and lastly one that pleases you immensely. Plants are alive, but native plants bring life back to urban areas. You and nature can have fun interacting. If the plant you absolutely love doesn’t go well with the others, then just put it off to the side. We all get to have a little dessert now and then, but a generally healthy diet leads to a more enjoyable life.
Follow Leslie’s nature posts on Instagram and Facebook under the name: lesliebuckauthor.