ROCKFORD, Ill. — Japanese gardens are about inspiring and soothing the soul. And you don't have to be a gardening expert or Zen Buddhist to appreciate all they have to offer — the beauty, the tranquility, even the Zen.
Anderson Japanese Gardens, a 12-acre wonderland of landscaping and design, is regarded as one of the top Japanese gardens in North America, along with ones in Portland, Ore., and Delray Beach, Fla.
Most every day, diverse groups of visitors can be seen strolling through the site: hospice patients, cancer survivors, people practicing yoga and tai chi, brush painting classes, Red Hat women, grief counselors, church congregations holding services and just plain tourists.
Reflecting a design that originated in 12th-century Japan, the gardens contain a large pond, a five-story waterfall, a granite pagoda, curving bridges over boulder-strewn streams, and well-manicured plants and trees leaning toward the water. They attract about 40,000 visitors a year in this city 80 miles northwest of Chicago.
"It's a great space to cast away a lot of the baggage of the modern world and tune back into something more elemental," says curator Tim Gruner.
The gardens were the inspiration of industrialist John Anderson (no relation to the 1980 independent presidential candidate from Rockford with the same name).
During a business trip to Oregon in 1977, Anderson visited the Portland Japanese Garden on a cab driver's recommendation, and was so impressed by its calm and serenity that he decided to create his own version. He invited the garden's highly regarded Japanese landscape architect, Hoichi Kurisu, to Rockford and asked him to design a garden around a swampy pond next to his new hillside house.
Construction began the following year, with Kurisu remaining faithful to the style and methods used in Japan's Kamakura period, for manmade structures as well as the dozens of natural features. An authentic Japanese guesthouse, tea house and gazebo were built by a traditional craftsman using just files, chisels and hammers.
The gardens were opened to the public in 1998 when the Andersons turned them over to a foundation.
John Anderson, 69, recently handed off the chief executive's duties to his son, David, but remains actively involved. Kurisu, too, still visits periodically to provide guidance.
David Anderson, 40, first got to know the gardens as a "pretty cool" place to grow up next to, riding his bike, playing hockey and fishing there. Now his goals are to add a children's garden, carry out a shoreline restoration and overcome patrons' disappointment at the closure of the popular onsite restaurant, which he says had become a distraction.
The gardens are costly to maintain and unprofitable, he says, breaking even only with several hundred thousand dollars in annual contributions from his father.
This landscaping marvel shows no outward sign of financial challenges, however. The site is pristine, and reflects a devotion to daily pruning and upkeep — woe to the renegade pine branch that tries to grow upward rather than outward.
And discoveries await visitors who take the time to examine nooks and crannies: the bamboo "deer chaser" fountain in the woods that periodically makes a knocking sound as it hits a rock; the coin basin; the detailed craftsmanship in the gazebo by the waterfall.
"There's a lot of little detail," says Anderson. "If you fly through, you miss it."
The gardens embody three essential elements of Japanese gardening: the permanence of stone; plants for texture and color; and the soothing, reflective qualities of water. Even the most basic of backyard gardeners can take home ideas on how to use those elements themselves.
With input from curator Gruner, here are some tips to help create the feel of a Japanese garden:
— PRUNE HEAVILY. Pruning keeps plants in proper scale for their space. It also makes your garden more interesting if you can see through to the other side. Prune in a way that creates a sense of mystery — a little added texture and depth.
— LEAN YOUR PLANTS. Lean plants in to a focal point, whether it's a waterfall or your front door. Plants leaning in toward the sidewalk make for an inviting, comforting feeling.
— INCORPORATE WATER FEATURES. The sound of running water creates interest in a garden. It also attracts frogs, dragonflies, and birds bathing and preening.
— USE BIG ROCKS. Go with the biggest rocks you can afford, handle and move. "You don't have to have boulders, they're just really great," says Gruner. You can also use rocks to change the flow if you have a water feature.
— THINK CHARACTER AND COLOR. Restrained use of unusual plants and trees, or those of contrasting color, will enhance a garden. One good option is dwarf white pines, which have great character, few disease problems and grow in small spaces.
— APPLY WHIMSY CAREFULLY. Whimsical features such as wind chimes, stone frogs or humorous sculptures can spice up a garden, but don't overdo it. If the oddities play off nature (no gnomes, please) and are carefully integrated, whimsy can work.
— VISIT MODEL GARDENS. Take a look at some other gardens that "really pop," says Gruner, and adapt the features you think work best.