Howdy Rodeo fans. Ready for a hot week?

Howdy Rodeo fans. Ready for a hot week?

The Japanese Peace Garden (JPG) is a mystery in Shawnee to many people. In central Oklahoma, gardens are square or rectangular, flat on the ground or elevated into raised beds and usually produce fruits and veggies. The garden I inherited as a Master Gardener project eleven years ago covered what seemed hundreds of acres. The winds skidded southward across the take-off and landing strips of the Shawnee airport (to the north) and flew over the Japanese Garden with strength and purpose. The south winds, on the other hand, were blocked by an impressive mound of neglected soil that had been rapidly colonized by trees and plants. This functioned as a wind-break for the Japanese Tea House. Further to the south, the Shawnee Pit Stop and two additional large metal buildings attenuated the ferocious winds throughout the summer…. until the metal complex was torn down and the artificial hill removed. The south wind could then fly unimpeded to the north across the airfield.

It all makes perfect sense, since the JPG was built over a former airfield. In 1999 construction began on heavily compacted soil studded with bits of bricks and concrete that surfaced here and there. Shawnee was an airplane stop in 1934, one of 29 in Oklahoma. The site later became a Naval Auxiliary Airfield. In 1944 the airfield was upgraded to Naval Air Station status when the Naval Air Navigation School was moved to Shawnee from Florida.

After World War II, activity decreased, buildings were torn down and the apron (the place planes parked or refueled) was neglected. In 1995 Mayor Pierre Taron wanted to create a Japanese Garden. Three years later this site (four were considered) was chosen to become the JPG. Bulldozers and heavy-duty equipment rolled in to whip the former airstrip into a garden. What laid below stayed below.

The huge Zen Garden was an exuberant effort to accommodate excess gravel. Due to lack of funds, the area was not leveled nor checked for proper drainage. The two Kidney Gardens (self-explanatory) were connected by a narrow isthmus covered by the traditional arched moon bridge “Bridge of Understanding.” Student delegates planted the first trees, but the summer experienced a blistering drought and many plants perished. One volunteer adult suffered a heat stroke. Thirty thousand square feet of sod was installed in one afternoon! Nearly every available Shawnee City employee helped. A water sprinkling system soon kept the sod alive. Flags and lights were added.

In 2001 the Teahouse was built by Don and Karen Wright. The couple landscaped with pines, cedars, elms and willows. The drought of 2005 killed every willow, but the grass lived. So much for the Japanese look in this precarious climate.

The garden was neglected for years before I took it on. Little did I know just how challenging this garden would be!

New beds and trees have been added, the paths renovated, the bridge, gates and fence rebuilt, four prairie gardens installed and some mighty big landscape rocks found their way into the garden. The track around the airport, which wrapped around the JPG, was improved and lined with eco-friendly LED lights.

Hundreds of students from the Shawnee area and Nikaho have traveled back and forth between Oklahoma and Japan since 1990 and most have visited or worked in the JPG. This past week the picnic table in the Teahouse was sanded and repainted by Sister City delegates. The wooden plank hanging from the side of the Teahouse says it all: Building Bridges of Peace.

Shintoism, Buddhism and Taoism have all had impacts on the ancient history of Japan. Japanese gardens have been designed to provide a calm, quiet place for peace and harmony. The gardens employ certain elements wherever they may be located. Deep respect for nature is imitated within the garden boundaries. Since actual mountains and oceans aren’t usually included, symbolism captures the essence. Boulders become mountains and gravel represents water. Some paths are intentionally rough to slow the visitor and allow time to think and meditate in the garden. Although the Japanese garden is a mini-world that may be bounded by fences or pavement, they use borrowed views of mountains or lakes or even a tree in the distance. From the JPG can be seen the rolling plains of the airport that lay beyond.

There are about sixty public Japanese Gardens in the United States. While visiting friends and relatives, I discovered how each of these three gardens are unique in their own way.

The compact Norfolk Virginia Japanese Garden follows the hill and pond style. Their garden elements use evergreen plants, stones and water. Views are hidden around each corner to the surprise of the visitor. Their borrowed view is Whitehurst Lake that actually surrounds three sides of the garden.

Within Brookside Gardens in Wheaton Maryland is the Japanese Garden, a small garden of uneven landscape planted with trees that explode in color depending on the season and native plants along the paths. A pavilion on stilts extends over a small pond and gray boulders nestle around the water and patio. The borrowed view is the urban forest that edges the garden.

The Portland Oregon Japanese Garden sits in the West Hills of Washington Park overlooking the city with a spectacular borrowed view of Mt. Hood. Here the stones form the framework of the landscape, water is the life force and the plants become the fabric of the seasons (how imaginative; I just paraphrased their pamphlet.) Within the main garden are smaller asymmetrical gardens. The Bonsai Terrace presents miniature trees of local collectors. The Flat garden represents the cycles of the year. The Lace Leaf Japanese Maple brilliantly displays autumn, an 85-year old weeping cherry announces spring, black pines are winter and raked gravel signifies the cool water of summer.

The Tea Garden houses a fully operational Tea House. The Strolling Pond Garden follows a stream and has not only the arched Moon bridge but a Zig-Zag bridge set within Japanese Irises. The Natural Garden has hidden benches and walkways. The Sand and Stone Garden features yohaku-no-bi (the beauty of blank space.) It provides a quiet atmosphere for meditation and contemplation.

The Portland Japanese Garden was set to human scale so each visitor feels part of nature rather than being overtaken by it. The Shawnee JPG is also not intimidating. Our garden offers solitude and peace to those who like secluded areas or wide-open expanses.

Gardens constantly change as do we. Visit a Japanese Garden. Enjoy being within nature.