I Was Raised in a Japanese Nursery
by Mary Jasch
“I started small. I try to create gardens that have meanings. I am a dilettante.”
Of the 31 garden areas that comprise Dr. Vincent T. Covello’s 20-acre garden, collectively named “Yugen,” that mean the most to him are: the Dancing Chinese Ladies, Jurassic Park, the Himalayan Birch Grove and of course, the mosses that cover a solid five acres on Long Island’s sandy soils.
For it was in the beginning, young Vincent created Japanese tray gardens.
Vincent was raised in a Japanese nursery, where his parents dropped him off every day to be watched by his aunt, assistant to the nursery’s owner who wrote the first published book on bonsai. Mr. Saihojo, the owner, liked Vincent and taught him to make little tray gardens of stone, moss, trees and water – the fundamental elements of Japanese gardens.
“In Japanese gardens, you start with rocks. He asked me to take the rocks and plant the trees, add a little river and cover any empty spaces with moss,” Covello says. It was a miniature tray landscape known as Boneki. It became a hobby for Vincent throughout his life.
Mr. Saihojo sent Vincent to Japan to study under a great master and the world’s leading expert on bonsai, Yugi Yoshimura. When he returned to the U.S., Vincent wrote The Japanese Art of Stone Appreciation: Suiseki and its Use with Bonsai, a bestselling book coauthored by him and Yugi Yoshimura, his mentor. “Respect for your teacher is the first and foremost key to education in the Japanese tradition,” he says.
When Covello bought the land for his country home on Long Island, his wife challenged him to convert the land into a life-size version of his tray landscapes. Thus the first garden, an inspirational garden, was created, thanks to Mr. Saihojo - and his wife. “To my amazement, the moss did very well,” he says.
Covello started collecting moss on his property, then transplanted five species of moss together that grew together. They thrived. When he planted a single species, they died. “Moss is a community,” he says. It took several plantings before all five species fruited and grew together when moved into habitat similar to their original homes – now under high-limbed oaks in moist shade. “Moss needs partial sun and if moved, it wants to move with its friends as part of its ecological system," Covello says. He spent a lot of money buying moss until he found the 80 species that grow best in his Long Island sandy soils. Regular maintenance consists of blowing leaves off the moss to allow moisture in and photosynthesis to occur plus an irrigation system.
He found he could walk on and trim the moss and even let it dry without damage. In fact, he conducts Wellness Walks in his moss garden. “It is helpful to people. Moss is very tranquil. It is the botanical equivalent of drugs that people take for depression,” he says.
In the Stone Garden, moss grows a foot deep. Covello's love of stone began when visiting Stonehenge in England while attending Cambridge University. Then one day while driving through Connecticut, he saw 14 stones that weighed three tons each from an old barn foundation along the side of the road. He “imported” them to his garden and the Stone Garden was born. He planted the stone half underground. According to Japanese theory, stones are not inorganic. They have spirit inside – Kami. The more beautiful the stone, the more Kami it has. In a Japanese stone garden, first you plant the stones, then add water, plants and moss later. And as with siting plants, try to replicate where the stones had been for a thousand years.
Among the 15 unusual species in Covello’s “Jurassic Park,” subtropicals such as cycads and the threatened Wollemi Pine survive winter wrapped in burlap. The Wollemi Pine, Wollemia nobilis, found in Australia in 1994, was indigenous to the southern half of Pangea about 200,000 years ago. When Pangea broke up and land moved north separating from the South Pole, the Wollemi Pine and other “Antarctic Flora” moved with it. They now inhabit the southern hemisphere.
Five years ago, seedlings of this primitive plant were sent to devotees of unusual plants including Covello and the Queen of England. Covello’s Wollemi Pines are 20 feet tall now. “They’re fossil plants, thought to be wonders of the botanical world. These dinosaur plants have dinosaur qualities and grow fast," he says.
There are few to no flowers in a Japanese garden, nor scent or color – just “variations and textures of green. Japanese love the visual and sound.” it is a sensory experience of sound as with chimes, the light rustling of bamboo (with 3’ subterranean barriers), whispering of pine, and the soft flow of waterfalls. Rocks change the sounds of water so you can keep changing rocks until they make harmonizing sounds. Rocks tune a waterfall.
The Dancing Chinese Ladies came to be when Covello limbed up a grove of mountain laurel to show their graceful forms seemingly twirling ballet-like on a velvet moss stage.
The Himalayan Birch Woodland is another favorite. In winter, the dwarf varieties of Himalayan birch shed their outer bark, revealing bright, white-as-snow inner bark.
These days, Dr. Covello is founder and Director of the Center for Risk Communication. He is involved in risk assessment and communication of infectious disease in crisis situations on a global scale.
The largest moss garden in the world is Bloedel Reserve in Washington State. Yugen may be second in the US, says Covello. He has studied the art of Suiseki since 1972 and is the author/editor of over 25 books on Japanese natural arts. He is thought to be the foremost authority on Suiseki in this country.
Read more about Dr. Vincent T. Covello here.
Visit Bloedel Reservehere.
**Photos by Mary Jasch unless otherwise noted
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published January 11, 2019