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A Japanese Garden in Oxford

As well as growing and studying Japanese plants, Mark Griffiths and his partner Yoko Otsuki sometimes create gardens with them. In these, Mark’s horticultural expertise combines with the aesthetic sense and traditional values that Yoko learnt from her late father, the maker of one of the most beautiful private gardens in Northern Japan.  

They have just made a small scheme for a friend in North Oxford, a passionate gardener with long experience and deep love of the Far East. It consists of a gravel sea bordered and punctuated by coasts and islands composed of acid soil and planted with Japanese species and cultivars. These photographs show the garden two days after completion.

A Japanese Garden in Oxford

‘Give it a century of weathering and pruning,’ says Yoko, ‘and it’ll be ready to judge.’ To which Mark adds that he hopes ‘it’s not too bad even now; but please do remember that the azaleas, which are so screamingly bright at the moment, will soon subside into calm, dark green domes and clouds and stay that way for the rest of the year. It’s that sculpted evergreen look, almost or completely flower-free, that one associates with Japanese gardens, and rightly so; but one can forget that, for a month or two each year, even the most serene-looking Japanese garden can turn into a flower festival. It’s during this short season of colourful disinhibition that you see the new North Oxford design.’

A Japanese Garden in Oxford By Mark Griffiths and his partner Yoko Otsuke

Those azaleas include several of the 50 Kurume cultivars that the plant-explorer, E.H. Wilson introduced to the West a century ago this spring. There are also Satsuki, the azaleas, bred from Rhododendron indicum and R. eriocarpum, that have been the evergreen upholstery of Japanese gardens for centuries. Mark and Yoko are introducing more of these beautiful and classic shrubs which remain little-known in the West. Other plants in this jewel box landscape that they’re responsible for bringing into British horticulture include the original (and true) Mahonia ‘Narihira’, the hardy orchid Calanthe Takane, and a cypress-like fern ally Selaginella involvens ‘Yoko Otsuki’. 

A Japanese Garden in Oxford By Mark Griffiths and his partner Yoko Otsuke

There are also Japanese plants that have long been familiar in Western gardens: Acer palmatum ‘Kadsura’; Aucuba japonica; Chamaecyparis obtusa and C. pisifera; evergreen and deciduous Euonymus cultivars; numerous hostas; Ilex crenata, Japan’s box-like holly; the blood grass, Imperata cylindrica; Lilium auratum and L. speciosum var. rubrum; Ophiopogon planiscapus in both the black-leaved form and the green; Pinus parviflora ‘Negishi’; various Pieris; the exquisite Rhododendron reticulatum with glowing mauve blooms borne early on leafless branches; two cultivars of the umbrella pine Sciadopitys verticillata, a living fossil that’s a special favourite of the garden’s owner; the wonderfully straight bamboo Semiarundinaria fastuosa; Trachycarpus ‘Wagnerianus’, a small and straight-fingered Japanese selection of the Chusan palm.

A Japanese Garden in Oxford By Mark Griffiths and his partner Yoko Otsuke

‘That’s by no means all,’ says Mark,  ‘and let’s not forget Mahonia japonica. The real thing, with an elegant habit, lily-of-the-valley-scented flowers, and foliage that flushes scarlet in cold, has almost disappeared from the UK trade. I was going to give up on it for this new garden when I spotted some superb plants for sale in Oxford’s wonderful Covered Market at one of my favourite shops there, called, aptly enough, The Garden. I was told that they’d been raised in East Anglia and were thought a bit peaky because the leaves had turned brilliant red. My friend and I didn’t hesitate: we bought the lot.’ 

A Japanese Garden in Oxford By Mark Griffiths and his partner Yoko Otsuke

‘It’s a genuine Japanese garden,’ says Yoko, ‘It has that essential quality of Ma [space in Japanese], although I’m always chiding Mark for using too many plants. And it deploys the visual tricks that my father taught me, such as throw-and-catch, a sort of false symmetry where the eye goes from one side of the garden to the other connecting similar-looking plants. But, strangely, what – to my eyes – are some of its most authentic-looking elements are not, in fact, Japanese. Two of the most brilliant azalea hybrids, ‘Blue Danube’ and ‘Maruschka’, were both bred in Europe. One of the Satsuki azaleas, ‘Sir Robert’, was bred in the US. We planted it because it’s lovely, tough and it has the same name as our friend, the garden’s owner. As North Oxford doesn’t have Japan’s rainfall and humidity, instead of moss, we chose Scleranthus, an Australasian cushion-former that prefers a well-drained spot. I don’t think any the less of it for not being moss; it’s very close to the essence of Japanese style. Then there’s the gravel, which is local shingle and supposed to be rather ordinary. But, to me, it’s utterly beautiful and perfectly suited. If this material had been available in Japan, my father and I would certainly have used it.’

Mark Griffiths (Horticulturist, botanist, historian) can be found here on Twitter.

Plant list

A few of the plants in this garden include:

Athyrium niponicum var. pictum
Lilium auratum
Hosta 'Blue Mouse Ears'
Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Tsatsumi Gold'
Rhododendron 'Maruschka'
Lilium speciosum var. rubrum
Scleranthus uniflorus
Rhododendron indicum
Calanthe Takane grex
Pinus parviflora 'Negishi'
Sciadopitys verticillata 'Sternschnuppe'