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Required Reading: Dan Pearson’s ‘Tokachi Millennium Forest’

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Required Reading: Dan Pearson’s ‘Tokachi Millennium Forest’

March 11, 2021

At the beginning of his latest book, the acclaimed British landscape designer Dan Pearson mentions how American gardens have sprung up in an atmosphere that is outward-looking, while garden-making in Japan draws on its own strong traditions, developed over many centuries. He doesn’t dwell on the comparison but it’s a great starting point for anyone curious about, yet not well-versed in, the culture of Japanese gardening. In Tokachi Millennium Forest we have not only the perspective of a western designer whose approach is instinctively ecological but the native insights of his head gardener and longterm collaborator at Tokachi, Midori Shintani. The story of the forest reads like a modern fable.

We begin with Dan sitting with no clothes on in a hot spring up a remote, frozen mountain. The year is 2000, and he is in a conversation with the landscape architect Fumiaki Takano–who appears to have summoned the moon to light up the ravine just at the moment when he asks Dan whether he’d like to help him make a conservation park of almost 1,000 acres that would be sustainable for at least the next 1,000 years. At that time it had been managed as a forest for 10 years, having been acquired by the newspaper magnate Mitsushige Hayashi. It was intended as a carbon offset but the concept was not purely transactional: Mr Hayashi’s personal mission was to tighten the connection between Japanese people, whose culture was so closely bound with nature, to nature itself. City dwellers do not just make up the majority in Japan; they are over 90% of the population.

“All Japanese art culture springs from aesthetics based on the appreciation of plants and the view of nature,” writes head gardener Midori Shintani, highlighting the dichotomy that helped to make this project so compelling. Interspersed with Pearson’s detail, her texts are a delight, beautifully describing the way that transient moments are observed in Japan, not least in the 72 micro-seasons of the ancient calendar. If we all saw five days in early summer as ‘frogs start singing’ and a little later, ‘plums turn yellow’ imagine how contemplative everyday life could be.

The forest is open–join us on a tour:

Photography by Kiichi Noro.

Above: The Tokachi forest is on the island of Hokkaido, which is distinctly colder than the main island of Honshu, being just across the sea from Siberia. Summer lasts for about four months, with an accelerated growing season. Shown here, native orange daylilies (Hemerocallis esculenta) flowering in late June.
Above: Dan was hired, as a western designer, to bring a new layer to the forest management that was already going on. He was tasked with making the wild woods less daunting and more appealing to an urbanized population. Cultivated plants mix with natives to heighten the atmosphere, overlaid with paths that become less refined as the park spreads out from the Entrance Garden. Selections of natives in the Meadow Garden include Hosta ‘Harvest Dandy’ and Veronicastrum sibericum, shown here. Early-flowering Galium odoratum (sweet woodruff) provides part of the understory that crosses into different areas around the boardwalk.
Above: The Meadow Garden is “Dan’s masterpiece,” according to Fergus Garrett. It’s quite an accolade from Great Dixter’s legendary head gardener, who writes in the foreword of shared aims in their respective landscapes: “The biodiversity-rich habitats in both gardens are closely connected with the wild land surrounding them.” Shown here, Polyggonatum odoratum (angular Solomon’s seal, a Japan native), flowers with Trollius x culturum ‘Lemon Queen’, a cultivated hybrid with wild Asian ancestors.
Above: “I wanted the garden to have a quality of a natural environment, as though the plants had chosen their own place,” says Dan Pearson. Here, Iris x robusta ‘Gerald Darby’ forms part of a complex matrix of planting comprising 19 different mixes. The masterplan is described in detail in the text and in a chart at the back, divided into ‘original plants’, ‘additions’ and ‘removed/failed’. It is a gift to gardeners who want to adapt the results of years of research and experiment to their own environment.
Above: Daily picks from the Rose Garden in July are floated in bowls in the plant laboratory, where all kinds of plants are put together in an unhurried ritual, for the display table by the café. Shun marks the seasonal appearance of  edible and ornamental plants. “Shun is the wisdom to lead a healthy life in harmony with nature,” says Midori Shintani. “Welcoming shun unites people.”
Above: : Cephalaria gigantea, well known in western gardens, lives up to its name here, growing to at least 10 feet in one season. “The cephalaria are brought deliberately close to the paths so that you have to move among them,” says Dan.
Above: The seasons of July and August are divided into ‘lesser heat’ and ‘greater heat’. When the air is humid, hundreds of wind chimes are hung in the trees to ‘call the coolness’. The sound is the response of the breeze.
Above: Tokachi Millennium Forest by Dan Pearson with Midori Shintani is out this month in the US, published by Filbert Press. Available from Bookshop.

Further encounters with Dan Pearson:

Dan Pearson in Lambeth: An Explorer’s Garden by the River Thames
10 Garden Ideas to Steal from the Chelsea Flower Show Winner
Garden Visit: Dan Pearson’s Old Rectory.

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