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Landscaper lends Japanese style to local gardens

Koji Morimoto, Japanese landscaper, designed this garden in the backyard of homeowner Francis Lemery.
Koji Morimoto, Japanese landscaper, designed this garden in the backyard of homeowner Francis Lemery. Special to The Star

Koji Morimoto grew up in a peaceful village living “a classic Japanese lifestyle.” Only after immigrating to the United States in 1992, landing in California, then moving to upstate New York, did he fully appreciate what he had and became serious about Japanese gardening.

Now as the owner of Japanese Landscaping, he designs and maintains gardens for clients throughout Kansas City. At the Prairie Village home of Francis and Charlene Lemery, a comprehensive garden he maintains, Morimoto shared his thoughts:

Q. How different is Japanese gardening from regular gardening?

A. In a Western-style garden, you see one big garden all at once, the whole picture. In a Japanese garden, it’s about walking and seeing one part, then turning the corner and finding another. Japanese gardens are contained all the time like in a bento box. American gardens are more like a pizza with all the toppings mixed together.

Q. How is gardening like a bento box?

A. We enjoy separating areas and creating order. Each zone has a different purpose and meaning. There also has to be a framework — some boundary to the design — such as with boulders.

So even when winter comes, the border stays and the design never disappears. And even if you have a small space, you can have a very interesting garden.

Q. What are different areas you might include?

A. A Zen garden is what most people know, where the monks rake the gravel every morning, but that is just one aspect. There could be a healing garden or tea gardens for a tea ceremony.

There are always paths and maybe a bridge. And there is always a water element. The most popular is a koi pond, but having one is like mowing — it has to be maintained every week.

Q. Is this style of gardening less maintenance?

A. To me, Japanese landscaping is much less work than American-style gardening. Mowing grass once a week is like a religion to Americans. I love the design and maintenance, like pruning. Mowing does nothing for me, so I don’t use much grass, rather, more gravel, plants or bare ground with stepping stones.

Q. What materials do you use?

A. Fifty percent or more of the garden is rocks. I start with hardscaping, then big boulders that create the framework. Next comes large trees inside the different zones, then middle-size trees, low-ground bushes and ground covers.

Q. Are there specific plants you use to create a Japanese look?

A. It’s all based on the site. I cannot bring all the plants I know from Japan, because it is a different zone here. And I don’t use any roses or hibiscus like you’d see in American gardens.

The things I use most are evergreens, followed by deciduous trees so you can appreciate each season, and only about 10 percent other materials. The key is that each plant needs to be trimmed each spring. That makes 100 times the difference. You can see the beauty of the trunk and branches, the flow of the tree, and not just an “ice cream cone.”

Q. What are your favorite colors to use?

A. I like green and appreciate the different shapes and textures, from a green spruce to an azalea. It’s more gentle than, say, pink or red flowers.

Q. What type of house would be suitable for a Japanese garden?

A. It doesn’t matter, as long as the quality of the design of the garden is good. Each room of the house or each sitting place should have its own view of the garden, inviting nature inside the house.

That’s a big concept in Japanese gardening and why I believe so many people like this style of garden: It makes the house feel lighter, more open and relaxed.

Q. How do you get started on a design?

A. I never think of what I did on my last project. Each site is a new canvas, and I can create a space 100 ways. First, we remove anything that has a bad shape, is unnecessary or irritating in any way so we can build more positive energy.

I don’t just think of the house, I think of the people living there and ask myself: “What is the direction of the energy? What is the benefit to the people?” Then I reorganize the garden around elements that cannot move. I talk to the trees, plants and rocks, and figure out how they’re giving energy. I eliminate some and add in fresh plant material. I only keep what makes sense.

Q. Is there a spiritual aspect to it?

A. Water, trees, rocks, wind and light all have energy. When you harmonize all the elements, it’s good for the people. It is said that gardeners live longer lives. We’re getting lots of energy from nature, because we’re always touching it, sharing with it and balancing ourselves.

I tell people if they are too tense to go into nature and sit on a boulder, listen to water or touch a big tree.

Q. Who are your clients?

A. People who have visited Japan or have lived there or have friends there. My clients have a deep attachment to Japan, but not many of them are Japanese. Ninety percent of them are native to this country. These people are very special to me. They appreciate and understand the value — sometimes more than me — of a Japanese garden.

Q. Do you have a garden at your home?

A. Not yet. I will definitely make one of my own, but it will be simpler than this. Everyone asks me: “Is this a house? It looks more like what you’d see at a Japanese hotel.”

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