Sandi Polyakov, Shofuso’s new head gardener, has just uncovered a foot stone beneath the bench in the roji garden. The area is called a machiai, and is where participants in a tea ceremony would wait while their hosts prepared the tea room. Since the teahouse is a space of purity, it makes sense to place a stone beneath the bench.
“The ground around the stone was probably mulched at one point, but it had been worn down over time into bare, compacted soil,” says Sandi. “We came through with garden forks and aerated the ground, which will improve runoff, then put pine needles down to visually separate the stone. One of my goals is to further develop the preexisting aesthetic of the garden, so it’s important to have rocks in the landscape pop out compositionally, making sure there’s as sharp an edge as possible around them. It’ll also help with traction in the path itself,” he adds.
Though he is a newcomer to nihon teien (traditional Japanese gardening), Sandi has built a career around a holistic approach to gardening. He began studying self-sustenance agriculture as an undergraduate at Tyler School of Art, which led to an interest in botany. In addition to being a fine gardener, he’s also an ethnobotanist who has focused on studying native species and edible wild plants for much of his career. He continues to lead workshops and walking tours centered around foraging, wild plant identification, and plant-based crafts. “I was attracted to horticulture for its science and evidence-based platform. Especially with foraging, the only way to safely explore that field is through a rigorous scientific approach. Ornamental gardening became the avenue linking those various botanical pursuits with the design and composition skills I had honed in my fine arts education.”
Sandi’s experience includes working for two gardening companies in the greater Philadelphia region, Garden Gallery Design and Kylin Arts. There, he gained expertise working on everything from stately home gardens and small plantings to bird sanctuaries and certified wildlife habitats. The experience of working with more than seventy clients helped him develop a knowledge base for solving problems in a variety of environments, as well as an eye for detail. “Working on a singular site, your exposure to problems (and their subsequent solutions) regarding soil management, plants, and pests can be limited. Working on a diverse array of landscapes with an equally diverse array of partnering specialists has helped me build a more extensive garden repertoire. You begin to notice patterns across the various gardens and this helps you preempt issues, ideally before they even truly begin.”
At Shofuso, Sandi has already begun handling troublesome spots in the garden. Much of the soil in the garden is clay-heavy, which can be detrimental to certain plants like grasses and moss. Improving the soil composition can improve water flow in the garden, leading to healthier, longer-living plants. “My main goal right off the bat is to survey everything, take soil samples, and try to get the plants as healthy as possible, satisfying their light, water, and nutrient requirements. Plants are always naturally competing for survival, and anything we can do to make the conditions ideal for our ornamental plants the better. When we know that what we already have established is thriving to its fullest, we have a solid platform from which to begin the work of aesthetic refinement.”
In terms of striking a balance between naturalism and design in a Japanese garden, he’s confident on the ability to merge those aspects. Sandi read about Shinto shrines, which directly influenced the development of Japanese gardens, as part of his education, and describes how the process of humans shaping a natural space isn’t dissimilar conceptually from a bird fashioning a nest inside a tree. The tricky part, then, becomes executing it gracefully.
“For contemporary humans whose day to day lives are spent increasingly further away from nature, it becomes necessary to tap into a more fundamental, sensory part of your psyche to do this kind of work convincingly,” says Sandi. “You must look upon the space the way the animals do. Your finished product needs to feel as if it has somehow always been so. Many of the most esteemed gardens in Kyoto are based upon actual existing ancient landscapes in Japan – it’s no coincidence that an old growth forest aged 300 years or more resembles a well kept garden more closely than an existing garden left fallow for even a few years time. It’s really important to let the space itself, and the essence of the larger countryside inform your decisions down to the smallest cut, because creating an ancient landscape anew is no small feet. When visitors come to the site, they may not remember every single planting or the location of every rock, but if they walk away with a feeling of having passed through someplace special, somewhere with a gentle hum of natural harmony weaving in the air, I’ll know I’ve done my work well.”