5-10-5: Horticulturist Leslie Buck
Interview by Eric Hsu
Photographs by Leslie Buck
England, Germany, and northern European countries are often destinations for Americans seeking to expand their horticultural training overseas, but Japan, while an obvious choice for its gardening traditions, is a less-opt country despite tours and courses held there. Those who surmount the language obstacle and the cultural gulf, and readjust their expectations often find the experience an enlightening one, just as horticulturist Leslie Buck discovered after working for a Kyoto gardening company. Now based in Northern California, Leslie focuses on skilled natural pruning that enhances the shape and silhouette of woody plants. She is the author of Cutting Back-My Apprenticeship in the Gardens of Kyoto which has received a New York Times book review and more articles and podcasts can be viewed at Lesliebuckauthor.com.
How did you become interested in gardens, plants, or horticulture?
When I was young, I would play a lot outside which developed my love of the outdoors. It’s important to expose children at an early age to nature, art, and design in conversations so they have a familiarity with it. Otherwise we may lose their interest in these things when they grow up.
After college, I used to do a practice to find out where my heart was at in terms of a future career. Every Friday I would only do things I loved with no housecleaning, answering phones, and Facebooking allowed. Despite being allergic to dirt and dust (I had tried working with landscapers, but it caused me asthma), I still found myself gardening. So, I decided to enroll in classes at my local horticultural school at Merritt College and see if I couldn’t find something I was interested in that didn’t involve dust. I discovered the pruning classes and the volunteer group.
After being armed with a fine arts degree from UC Berkeley and studying horticulture at Merritt College, you were inspired to learn about pruning from your mentor Dennis Makishima, an early practitioner of aesthetic pruning. What were some of the early lessons from that period that struck you?
Early on, Dennis told us that if we wanted to train with him, we had to show not only skills, but also had to volunteer every weekend with him. This requirement taught me two Japanese ethics: first the importance of taking time out of our craft to benefit others, which would eventually translate to taking time out to mentor others. And secondly it taught us that Japanese appreciate how hard you try, more than how well we succeeded. Dennis personally mentored others who did all the volunteer work, not the ones who necessarily pruned well. Sacrifice on our part, equalled sacrifice on his part. () Volunteering taught me early on a love for volunteering my time in my craft. This love motivated me to dedicate 7 years of Fridays to write and publish Cutting Back which is my attempt to educate a larger audience about the beautiful, challenging craft of natural pruning.
I also remember when Dennis got tired of my unwillingness to speak up my opinions. I was rather shy. He made fun of me one day mimicking my voice, “I don’t know, I’m not sure.” I went home and cried. But I tell you when I talked to him, and all my clients from then on (about 10 years since that day) I talk with a firm, authoritative voice. Dennis taught us to not speak to our teachers unless we had a good, well developed question or answer. And “to buy time,” with clients when we didn’t know the answer. If we didn’t know how to work on a specific plant, we were to say confidently, “I need to wait for another season to work on the plant,” and then go ask a more experienced pruner how to prune that particular plant, and work on it later.
Dennis taught us that to learn pruning appropriately would require years of training, not just a few classes.
Uetoh Zoen, the Kyoto gardening company whom you worked for, is tasked with the serious responsibility of tending the Katsura and Shugaku Imperial Villas, and Maruyama Park. Within the company, how are the tasks doled out among the staff?
As I am not fluent in Japanese, and have not thoroughly investigated the Japanese apprenticeship system, I can only speak in so far as what I saw, and have heard over the years. That said, many people, including Sadafumi Uchiyama, the head curator at the Portland Japanese Gardens who trained in Japan loved my memoir and how I described the apprenticeship system!
As I described in the memoir, hierarchy rules the task order. When you join a garden company practicing a craft in Japan (carpentry, movie making, pottery, cooking) you begin with the simplest tasks regardless of whether you have had 2 days or 20 years’ experience. In a landscaping company, those tasks would be sweeping, cleaning up, arriving earliest to wash the cars and leaving after the last employee has left. Then when another person enters the company (2 days later or 2 years) your duties are raised to a new level. This process seems long to a Westerner, but it ensures that workers do not switch companies after they have been taught for many years. As a Westerner I am outside the hierarchy. Therefore I was given lower and higher tasks as long as I had a fairly good knowledge of the task. This was a real plus as a visitor. It’s good to enter either as a beginner in Japan if you can stay long or to have skills before you study in Japan. Still, I went there expecting that I might just get to sweep and observe, not expecting any fancy treatment. Studying in Japan takes sacrifice and is a challenge. One shouldn’t be mistreated, but the system there is very different than ours that it’s hard to know when one is being challenged or simply has a bad boss. I had people back home I could check in with, and I interviewed many people before going to Japan to understand the expectations. This knowledge helped me adjust to a new work culture.
No explanation of how to do tasks such as pruning, rock work, or bamboo craft are given. You are expected to watch, observe and learn that way, then try to do your best with trial and error, only being told when wrong before discovering the right approach. This type of learning seems slow to a Westerner. However, when you learn this way, the lesson becomes deeply entrenched in your spirit. You learn to love the craft, not just learn it. A parent and a child have a deeper relationship than that of fun friends because they experience the ups and downs together. Still, I am Western, so I teach verbally. Yet we have to give teachers from Japan some slack because they have not been taught verbally. Sometimes the Japanese teachers are learning how to do this as they teach in America. My teacher told me that in Japan I was expected to be a good student, rather than the teacher being expected to be a good teacher. So I had to figure out a way to learn, regardless of my Japanese mentor’s skills.
Rooted in their Confucian values, Asian societies largely follow along patriarchal lines. Hence, men assume leadership or top roles. How receptive and flexibile is the horticulture profession in Japan to the advancement of women?
I feel strongly that craftspeople in Japan are just that, craftspeople interested in learning skills and passing them on. They do not pray during work time, nor did I notice them being in any way spiritual at work. Nor is spirituality considered when designing a garden, unless the person was particularly spiritual. Design is design based on nature. Just as there are religious universities in the US and non-religious, but you don’t have to be religious to teach at a University in the US—even if teaching’s origins began with teaching in religious groups.
Back when I was in my company, a Kyoto gardener told me that out of thousands of gardeners in Kyoto alone, maybe a few hundred were women. I saw two women in two different companies, one working with the Shugakuin Imperial Garden employees. I heard of one woman being a gardener in my company which I talk about in my memoir. When I studied in Japan it was harder for a Japanese or Japanese-American person to train in Japan, than a non-Japanese ancestry person, because they were fairly low in societal hierarchy. This distinction is important for Japanese-Americans to know ahead of time before going to Japan to find their cultural roots. I was outside the hierarchy as a white Westerner, which served me well since I could be given any level of tasks. But when my mentor here in California, being Japanese-American, studied in Japan, he explained that he was lower than me in Japan and treated as someone inside the hierarchy with a stricter place.
That said, a Japanese gardener I know said that now in Japan women have more rights. She is from Japan. As a Western woman I was outside the hierarchy and always would be, so the men treated me fairly as an equal. It worked out well for me and I was challenged almost more than I would have been than if I’d trained in America in a traditional man’s field.
Another difference is that the egalitarian approach between the gardeners and clients in Japan is not reinforced in Western horticulture. How may this mutual respect be encouraged here so gardening is a collaborative effort, not a social standing?
Not sure I understand this question. Do you mean how do we raise the level of respect people give to gardeners in the US from low level laborers to professionals? I hope that with my memoir, I might raise the level of respect gardeners, who are willing to challenge themselves and train/learn for years – more than just a few classes, in the US from its current fairly low standing. But respect shouldn’t be just given to gardeners, it should be earned. We need to show we are willing to learn about our trade, have professional business practices, be reliable and always do quality work. Too often in the US we are trying to make as much money as we can with as little effort. In Japan a craftsperson is always willing to sacrifice to do quality work. In return, he or she can be paid well, but only after 5-15 years of practice.
Much has been publicized about the lack of young people pursuing horticulture worldwide. Given Japan’s aging population from a declining birthrate and reluctance to embrace immigration, where do you see the future of Japanese gardeners whose hierarchy system may be seen anachronistic in a modern society?
I find Japan more willing to embrace older, different genders, people who are not Japanese (than teenagers) employees/apprentices (note: an apprentice is a paid employee learning as he/she goes along at low wages, rather than paying for classes) in order to keep the craft going until the young Japanese find interest again outside of high paying tech jobs that tend to be less rewarding for the human spirit. In the West we need to take hands-on craftsmanship more seriously. In Japan, craftsmanship is still highly valued.
In your clients’ gardens, at what point do you let go of pruning before the shaping becomes too manipulated?
I try to figure out how much I am going to prune before I begin. As a rule of thumb, if a pruner doesn’t know what he or she is doing, don’t prune more than 30% if healthy or thriving, and no more than 5% if weak or old. More can be pruned if you know what you are doing, or if you know the plant well. I keep stepping back to make sure the plant still looks natural and not “over pruned.” I never shear or miniaturize a plant. This approach is completely a misunderstanding of Japanese gardens.
My goal is to bring out the beauty of the plant either during that pruning stint, or a little bit each year over many years. Each year, after pruning, the plant has to look completely natural. That is the specialty of natural pruning, which others call aesthetic pruning in my area.
Natural pruning is difficult for me for I am an "aggressive” rather than a “shy” pruner, I like to solve problems. Shy pruners will not make important cuts and branches that are beautiful will be lost due to shading out from boring branches above them. While shy pruners should try to make a good cut once in a while, I need to slow down. Sometimes my trees look a little over pruned and I feel disappointed in myself and my skills. So I am still learning how to prune.
Gardeners in Japan are often fortunate to have well-made tools (the Hasegawa ladders are incredibly lightweight) and attire that make work more efficient. What are some of the tools and attire you would not be without?
I never saw Hasegawa ladders in my company in Japan. They used wooden, aluminum and bamboo ladders and just carried them with effort and eventual strength. I love my Hasegawa ladder though! As a natural pruner I need only the following:
- Shears that are “by-pass” (blades pass each other during a cut)—and holder.
- Small saw (need a sharp saw, not a big one for branches up to one foot diameter)—and holder.
- 8’ ladder of any type (have to balance weight needs with cost needs).
- 8’ and 10’ pole pruner for the tall branches.
- Belt and scabbards to hold tools.
Any advice for someone interested in taking the brave step of going aboard for a horticultural experience?
Read Cutting Back-My Apprenticeship in the Gardens of Kyoto, which precisely describes what this experience is like so you can decide if this is the challenge you want to pursue.
Go to Japanese garden conferences and listen to the lectures of the people who have gone abroad. Read their books.
Learn Japanese either intensively or part-time at night school. Even Japanese language tapes are helpful. Learning to write Japanese is not at all necessary. You just need to learn simple conversation so you are not a burden on the company.
Learn horticulture at home so you can understand lessons abroad with perspective.
If you understand the great physical and emotional sacrifice to study in Japan, and you still want to do it, and you have studied Japanese and researched Japanese culture, have tried out gardening at home to see if you are really interested and not just fanciful, then you can begin to consider studying in Japan. Other cultures will be different.
I’ve heard of woofing (undertaking World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) in different parts of the world, including Japan, as a way to dabble in overseas gardening rather than make a huge commitment.
But I would definitely recommend reading my memoir to have a good understanding of what you might expect if you want to do gardening or any other craft in Japan. I’ve heard from many expats who were professionals in Japan that my book held many cultural attitudes they witnessed in Japan, and gave them insight into the garden world they’d always been curious about.
I can't help ask, but what are some of your favorite Japanese dishes that you miss from your time in Japan? Of course this is a good question! Food is one of the rewards of hard work, it nurtures us as we are challenging ourselves to be excellent craftspeople. Local gyoza and ramen shops I miss the most as someone with American tastebuds. The fresh bakeries in Japan. Home cooked food from Japan. Tea trays with snacks from my Kyoto garden clients.
Thank you for your interview, Leslie!