Last week I got the chance to hang out with Francheska Snyder, the Head Gardener of Shofuso Japanese House and Garden, while walking the grounds of the beautiful historical site. As we strolled the grounds and watched the rest of the crowd enjoy the views, we got to chatting and had a conversational interview. Our conversation has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Gregory Chalikes: So, opening weekend has passed and I hear it was quite successful this year. What’s new this year and is there anything new you’re currently working on to keep the momentum flowing?
Francheska Snyder: At the rear of the house, right next to the tea house, we have set up a new stepping stone path with thicker stones that give better footing. The path leads down to the stream where there is a standing ledge. I really like this part of it as it gives people a more intimate view of the stream, making you feel like you’re right up in it. We also took the hill that was in the pathway and stopped it short to improve walkability. To go along with this steeper drop-off, the project needed some new draining to help with runoff from the roof. This will ensure the path from the house to the standing ledge doesn’t erode and will keep it clean when it rains.
I am also working on a new moss installation that I’m very excited about. I love moss and I just got in some new sheet moss from Moss Acres that I am starting to put into the side of the hill above the new stones. I’m working on ideas for other moss patches which is keeping me occupied, not to mention quite thrilled.
GC: So this stepping stone project, how does the garden benefit from it, how does it fit in?
FS: The old stones that we had in place were small and some were too thin. They were prone to move and didn’t provide good footing. These new stones are sturdily set into the ground. They are also wider, making the stone path easier to see and walk on. We also made the walkway safer and included stone bridges to get across the gaps and the stream to get to a viewing bench on the other side.
GC: This garden is deceptively large with a lot of different areas needing tending. What’s the first thing you do or check up on when you come into work with the garden?
FS: That’s a tough one. It mostly depends on the weather. I usually come in with a set plan that differs each day or week. Usually, it’s just something I think needs tending or pruning at the time. If I don’t have a set plan I like to take a lap or two to see what needs the most attention. A lot of the time, this lap involves me seeking out dandelions and other weeds, especially dandelions because I really enjoy seeing the greens uninterrupted. If I’m working on a big project (such as the stepping stones), I’ll go check that first. When it rains, I go straight to the stream to check the flow to make sure it’s not too fast.
GC: Sounds like a lot to keep track of. Do you have a favorite section or feature of the garden? What really gets you excited?
FS: This area here [backside of the house, next to tea house] is my favorite. It has the new stepping stones, the stream ledge, and best of all, it’s the only spot with good shade from the two Japanese maple trees. As for favorite feature, I absolutely love the Japanese red pine. The structure of the branches is always intricate and interesting to look at, like it’s reaching down —
GC: Oh yeah, like The Giving Tree! That’s what that one reminds me of, the tree from the book giving the child apples.
FS: Yeah, like that! They’re just a really cool sight, and the tree’s bigger than the other pines.
GC: Yeah I can totally see why it would be a favorite. Now that we have your favorite, what features would you most like to add to the garden?
FS: Let’s walk over here towards the tea house. So technically, this whole area is part of the tea garden. There’s an outer tea garden, which in some gardens, people are allowed in, some not. The outer garden would be everything out around the tea house up to where the tea house faces. The side that the tea house faces is all considered the inner garden (there are quite a lot more categorizations I could break it down to, but let’s keep it at inner/outer).
The outer garden is a formal waiting area and what I’d really like for there to be here is what is called a Machiai. This is essentially a waiting bench with a half enclosure. It has two side walls, a back wall, and a small roof or awning. I’d really love to have one set up over here near the back corner.
GC: I heard from somewhere of geese being a problem? Something like, the war of two geese?
FS: Every spring we get these two Canada geese that come and try to nest, especially on the island. Kim (Andrews, Executive Director at JASGP) and I have been known to look like crazy people chasing these geese away. We’ve even gone so far as to use a couple bamboo sticks, banging them together and waving them at the geese, to try to get them to go away.
GC: This seems like a personal vendetta, let’s just steer away from warring with geese for now. In your opinion, what spaces in the garden have the most draw for people?
FS: I’d have to say the island and the bridge to the island scenery always have people staring. They really are beautiful. People also really love the overhanging tree above the water and the waterfall. Of course, given that these are most popular areas with the most focus, it requires more attention from me to make sure it’s all pristine looking.
GC: Are there any particular gardens that inspire you? I know you’ve done a fair bit of traveling, so I wonder if any sites had you enthralled with structure or volume of plants or anything like that?
FS: That’s really tough for me, actually. I don’t necessarily go to other gardens to find inspiration or anything like that and there are so many out there, but one garden that caught my attention was Seattle’s Kubota Garden. It’s more of a park, it’s a public space, and within the larger garden is a small Japanese garden and it just stood out to me as being so simple, natural and green.
GC: That sounds awesome; I hope I get to visit something like that sometime as well. As a gardener, what’s your favorite season?
FS: I love autumn. There’s definitely a different sort of scent in the air around that time that I can’t get enough of, it’s cooler in that time which feels great right after the hot summers we get. I’m definitely a jeans and a hoodie type of girl and autumnal weather is perfect for it. Spring is similar but in the spring in tends to rain more and seems like it goes straight from cold to hot; it’s more unpredictable. Plus who doesn’t love the color changes in the trees?
GC: We can agree on that, I too love autumn and especially in Japan. There was this time I went to Nikko, just north of Tokyo, and the trees were an absolutely brilliant hue of red.
Back to the nitty gritty, What got you interested in gardening and more specifically Japanese gardening or Japanese culture?
FS: Well, my interest in gardening, horticulture, and nature in general stems from growing up on a farm. I have always been very used to the lifestyle and it remained in my life as a hobby growing up. I majored in Biochemistry in college and got an office job for about 3-4 years. It was windowless office. It drove me crazy and I realized I needed more as I wasn’t too happy where I was. I started volunteering at public gardens in my free time to get back to my natural roots and it made me happy. After some time, other volunteers, mostly older women, noticed how passionate I was and how well I did, and started asking me if I ever thought about doing this ‘for real’ as a career. I hadn’t thought about it before; it was always just a hobby, but I started looking and I landed at Shofuso. This spawned my love for Japanese gardens. Completely by chance, it ended up blossoming into a lifelong love for this style of garden and I completely rearranged my life by happenstance. So yeah, that’s that.
GC: Wow, that’s actually quite the story. It’s a very unique experience and I’m glad it worked out like that for you; you’re clearly an outdoors-y type of person. So one last question, to sort of jump off that last one, what is the distinction between Japanese gardens and Western gardens, and what’s your favorite aspect of Japanese gardens that sets them apart from Western gardens?
FS: This one is sooo easy, the biggest distinction, and my favorite, are that in Western gardens, the garden typically faces outwards from its basepoint or house, for all to see, but only when you’re looking at it from the outside. In a Japanese garden, the garden itself is sort of concave, and it faces you while inside the house. It surrounds you and once you enter the grounds you feel enclosed, surrounded by the garden. You just don’t get that from a Western garden that is just open and facing outwards. If you enter the house, you no longer see the garden. Japanese gardens also tend to focus more on simple plants. There’s a lot of green as opposed to the lavish, loud colors of most Western gardens, which have more of an emphasis on bright colors and big flowers while Japanese gardens lean towards grass, trees, and more simple but natural-looking features.
Walking the grounds of Shofuso on such a gorgeous day with the person who knows the most about the nature within was quite an experience. I learned a great deal about the necessary measures taken to upkeep it all. Every section is its own big project, needing much attention, and Francheska certainly knows how to handle it. Thank you for taking this in-depth look with me into the world of Shofuso’s Head Gardener.
*Editor’s Note: We’d like to express special thanks to Moss Acres for their support of Shofuso Japanese House and Garden.