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Designer Visit: A Gray and Green Garden at Tiger Glen

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Designer Visit: A Gray and Green Garden at Tiger Glen

November 6, 2020

When the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY built a new wing, architect Pei Cobb Freed & Partners was hired to expand on the classic I.M. Pei design from 1973. A Japanese garden was part of Pei’s original plans but was never realized. To complete the look, landscape designer Marc P. Keane, who trained in the art of Japanese gardens in Kyoto, Japan, for 18 years and lives in Ithaca, was brought on board to design a courtyard garden. The result–the Tiger Glen Garden–is a gem. Inspired by an ancient parable, it’s dense with detail, showcasing what a Japanese garden is all about.

Photography by Don Freeman.

All of Keane&#8
Above: All of Keane’s work is in the Japanese mode, which he explains, “consists of a very simple palette of materials brought together in an organic way.” 

Keane has written many books and lectured extensively on the subject and has designed a number of Japanese gardens for private and public clients. To see one of Keane’s gardens is to take a journey to Japan. He is not interested in the artifice that has become so cliché in North American interpretations; what he creates is the real deal.

Garden designer Marc P. Keane in the dry river he created at Tiger Glen Garden.
Above: Garden designer Marc P. Keane in the dry river he created at Tiger Glen Garden.

For the Tiger Glen Garden, Marc was inspired by the karesansui or dry-landscape style of garden, where the image of a landscape and water is created without the use of actual water. A simple palette of green moss and gray stones was used to create the effect of a river. The stones are a metamorphic rock called gneiss, deeply weathered and covered with lichen and moss. Stones are an essential part of Japanese gardens and Keane went to Sticks and Stones Farm in Connecticut to carefully hand pick pick each for its unique attributes.

Another overhead view of the river of stones. Azalea is planted along the edge.
Above: Another overhead view of the river of stones. Azalea is planted along the edge.

Azaleas, when in bloom, are the only point of color in the garden. Most of the year the garden is composed of only shades of green and gray. At Tiger Glen, Keane used no less than 12 different species of moss to form a ground cover quilt. For the focal tree, Keane found “the tree that no one else wanted. It had too much irregularity for most gardeners who are looking for the perfect straight specimen,” he explains. The Japanese choose trees for their personality, the more sculptural the better. A Japanese red pine called Tanyosho ( Pinus densiflora ‘Umbraculifera’) was craned in and is pruned by a Kyoto-trained gardener each year, and the bark is polished to maintain its form and luster.

Palm fiber twine is strong and resistant to rot. It is used in Japan for protective and decorative purposes. Here it protects the pine where it was damaged during transplanting.
Above: Palm fiber twine is strong and resistant to rot. It is used in Japan for protective and decorative purposes. Here it protects the pine where it was damaged during transplanting.
A view across the courtyard garden to a large Vermont granite bench.
Above: A view across the courtyard garden to a large Vermont granite bench.
A favorite view of Keane&#8
Above: A favorite view of Keane’s: the stone river.
A wide shot of the courtyard garden. The Japanese red pine shows off its well-pruned and maintained structure. The wooden walkways are made from Ipe.
Above: A wide shot of the courtyard garden. The Japanese red pine shows off its well-pruned and maintained structure. The wooden walkways are made from Ipe.
Handpicked stones have a human-like quality and symbolize the three men in the ancient Chinese parable that inspired the garden.
Above: Handpicked stones have a human-like quality and symbolize the three men in the ancient Chinese parable that inspired the garden.
Keane&#8
Above: Keane’s talents in Ithaca have not gone unnoticed. Tiger Glen was awarded the gold prize from A’Design in Como, Italy, along with two others, the International and American Architecture awards.

Inspired by Japanese gardeners? See A Gardening Shop Plus Café in the Mountains of Japan and get the look in Garden Style Inspired by Japanese Workmen.

N.B.: This is an update of a post published November 21, 2013.

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