JARS v43n4 - The Gardens At San Mai An

The Gardens At San Mai An
John Kenneth Elliott
Harwich Port, Massachusetts

The broad spectrum of Oriental culture that became the focus not only of my teaching career but of my personal pursuits as well, and my gradual absorption into the deeper mysteries of the natural world began to express themselves about twelve years ago in the sort of gardening approach that became an inward turning from the artificiality of the outside world.

For years my small, sandy, partially shaded lot never enticed me away from sailing long enough for me to undertake more than cursory vegetable gardening, hedge planting, and occasional rose, chrysanthemum, and herb garden projects. However, in time the stress and disappointments of the professional world sent me in pursuit of some sort of creative and restorative activity that offered freedom of spirit and a sense of "at homeness" in the universe.

Ever one to draw man out, nature had her way with me, and my garden began to assume the shape of my response to her silent voice. I say "shape," but shape blended into design and movement before I realized it. Without really knowing what I wanted, without in advance setting goals to be realized, I went in pursuit of a satisfying continuity with occasional quiet surprises. Looking from my visionary musing to the existing realities of light and shadow, slopes, resident trees, and wind - always wind, I wondered if I might possibly create on this small lot a microcosm of repose. This early contemplation lured me through twelve gardening years to "San Mai An" (Freedom from Worldly Thoughts), which is the name of my garden.

Space being limited, I elected to use small plants. My need for deeper meanings was answered by dwarf conifers, some of which are mystical symbols of nature. Their diverse textures and shapes complemented nicely the subdued foliage coloration and bloom hues of choice heath and heather cultivars with which I was already familiar. These, I learned, could be enhanced further by inter-planting with dwarf, hardy rhododendrons and azaleas and by the occasional emphasis of a graceful dwarf Japanese maple.

Do I have a collection or a display? "Collection" implies categorization; therefore garden structure takes its shape from principles necessary for scientific accuracy and horticultural efficiency; but even collections per se cannot help but be displays to some degree. Therefore, design became the ingredient primary to creating my garden.

Design in turn was motivated by two considerations: beauty and interest, both of which serve to establish and maintain the relationship between the garden and the viewer. My garden had to be both interesting and beautiful of itself if it were to fulfill its reason for existing: to convey to the viewer a sense of fulfillment.

Satsuki hybrid azalea 'Beni Kirishima'
Satsuki hybrid azalea 'Beni Kirishima'
Photo by John Kenneth Elliott
San Mai An garden views'
Left: Heather garden with dwarf conifer garden in background
Right: Dwarf conifer garden at entrance
Photos by John Kenneth Elliott

But are these plants truly distinctive as so many visitors have observed? Speaking practically, they are here because they flourish in the sands of this windy climate, because they withstood the rigorous requirements I set for them during my long and careful research. But for me hardiness alone is never reason enough for plant selection. Besides, I have learned that hardiness, robust health, favorable conditions, and constant care notwithstanding, plants are as vulnerable as people! As to the "distinctive" dimension of a cultivar, that perhaps is a measure of the gardener's personal preference or prejudice.

Straight lines do not exist in my overall design. Gentle curves representing stream boundaries of early Japanese screen paintings lead the visitor from place to place. The element of surprise is not, I think, alien to the atmosphere of serenity. What lies behind or beyond should appear unexpectedly, as a bent-over blueberry picker (having for some time been gone from view) stands up suddenly just beside one!

R. 'Mrs. Furnival'
'Mrs. Furnival'
Photo by John Kenneth Elliott
Acer palmatum 'Red Pygmy'
Acer palmatum 'Red Pygmy'
Photo by John Kenneth Elliott

What have I learned from my gardening experience? I have learned... that instant garden is a myth. A garden evolves only after constant and repetitious thinking, reading, planning, design making and remaking, visualizing, discussing in all seasons over long periods of time. Patience is a virtue one must learn in order to become proficient in the gardening art.

...that gardening, while being creative, satisfying, fulfilling, is most of all hard work. Every aspect of gardening is a privilege that is rooted in a responsibility. There is no place for neglect in the gardening art. Either work at it always or don't pursue it!

...that financial short-cuts are disastrous. Hand-me-downs, sales, and bargains lead to failure. Carefully research all ideas, plants, products. Track down, compare, prove out, and then buy.

...that time is life. If gardening is an important part of your life, then devote your life to it. Otherwise pursue another sort of activity

...that gardeners must not procrastinate. Nature is a hard taskmaster. She waits for no one. Make schedules and lists, schedules and lists

...that gardening is an active partnership, a sacred compact to be honored forsaking all others. Giving up personal plans and dreams is sometimes necessary. Stay home from your trip to see the tree peonies bloom. A garden is a day-care center, requiring daily care of a very capable sort

...that gardens are not tax write offs! If you truly want something beautiful, be prepared to pay (a lot) for it!

...that one must never assume all is well. Rhododendron beetles and red spider mites, those twin specters of sickness and death, lurk behind the facades of beauty and health. You are responsible for the well-being of whatever grows in your garden. Only dire consequences can result from your failure to become involved, to feel concerned.

Tsukubai in Japanese Garden
Tsukubai in Japanese Garden
Photo by John Kenneth Elliott

What might you expect to find here?

Examples of one gardener's ability to adapt to limited space and existing natural environment.

Fluid form, which means not only informal movement throughout the entire garden but also individualized, self-contained shapes.

Variety that surprises and invites one to continue on.

"Quiet" color emanating from the muted winter foliage of conifers and heathers, the subdued color spectrum of summer blooming callunas, and the red woody outlines of dormant acers - all contributing to an atmosphere of serenity.

Involvement, which means not only that the garden is, by extension, the gardener, but also that it is never complete except in the mind of the viewer who alone can close up the interrupted circle if he finds in the garden that which meets his expectations.

Fulfillment, which is, perhaps, a dimension more profound than satisfaction. Satisfaction is aesthetic; it is mirrored in the eye. Fulfillment is mystical; it is mirrored in the spirit. One is nature's handiwork imaged; the other, her presence felt.

Among numerous other things we hope you enjoy are:

Dwarf and pygmy conifers - more than 375 different cultivars representing 16 genera, 70 species

Heath and heather - over 75 different varieties

Small rhododendrons - 40 hybrids, 6 species, 6 large and aged unknowns; 8 Satsuki and 8 North Tisbury azaleas

Dwarf Japanese maples - 21 Acer palmatum , 7 A. dissectum , 2 A. buergerianum
Tree and herbaceous peonies
Wild flowers
Hardy cyclamen
Dwarf bamboo
Perennial beds and a smattering of other treasures and trash.

John Elliott describes himself as a recently retired literature teacher and amateur gardener. One of his special interests is garden design. San Mai An will be included in the gardens on tour at the 1990 ARS Convention in Massachusetts.