East meets West in Hawaii’s beautiful gardens


In Hawaii, China and Japan, rock and water are used to add interest to the garden. The stone water basins that usually stand outside the tea houses are an example of rock and water used on a small scale. Participants in the tea ceremony first wash their hands and at the same time, symbolically wash away the stain of the noisy and confused outside world. In almost any garden and for whatever reason, the gentle sound and sight of water dripping over cool stones is refreshing.

The use of rock and water is becoming very popular for private patio landscaping. Here especially, we enjoy water splashing over rocks into shallow pools. The special mix of Eastern and Western culture in Hawaii allows us to create tropical gardens with the flavor of Bali or Thailand combined with the colonial plantation influence of the last century. Even in the smallest garden patio or condo lanai, we may experience a peaceful mind by creating a small meditation garden.

When one is truly in tune with nature, a state of mindful peace may be found in the art of bonsai.

According to David Fukumoto, founder of Fuku-Bonsai, bonsai “pays tribute to the Japanese who advanced and spread the art. And yet, it does not adhere rigidly to traditional Japanese guidelines. Throughout the world, bonsai is increasingly a bridge to friendship.”

Penjing, the original artistic approach to miniature gardening, preceded bonsai by 1,000 years. It developed in a highly advanced individualistic aristocratic society and was casually practiced as one of many artistic activities. The horticultural techniques were highly advanced and each effort was interesting. Although early penjing had a strong philosophical influence, there are numerous modern forms of Chinese penjing.

In Hawaii, rocky land abounds. The tendency in the last 40 years was to bulldoze a building site flat and then landscape. Today, we are learning to appreciate rock forms, water elements and plants as sculpture. The Eastern influence of bonsai, penjing and other cultural contributions like the Balinese reverence for banyan trees also contributes to our landscape awareness.

If you would like to try your hand at creating a small meditation garden, using rock, water and plants, you can focus on one small tree or a miniature landscape.

Here are some tips to help you avoid mistakes. First, you may want to contact a landscape architect familiar with East-West designs. There are also landscape contractors and designers who have done some fine designs. Some area landscape designers have a tropical flare that combine color, texture and fragrance to create a riotous Hawaiian experience. Still others focus on the use of native plants where appropriate.

Location and choice of materials are important. Your tropical Asian garden may be located in a sunny area but some shade is usually much better. Sunny locations require plants that prefer intense sun and dryness such as agave, yuccas and cactuses. This type of plant material does not fit well with water or Eastern design in general. If you have no choice and must use a sunny spot, then plant shrubs or trees for shade. Shady locations are ideal for that lush tropical growth of ferns, elephant ears and palms that look right near water. If your garden is on the Hilo side or mauka West Hawaii, then too much sun is not usually a problem.

In selecting rock avoid a silly little pile of rocks. Use large boulders; the larger the better. Our native stone is beautiful, but large stones may weigh several hundred pounds. It takes heavy equipment to move stone like this and you will probably be better off contacting a landscape contractor who has the kind of equipment you need. If you are fortunate enough to have natural rock or water elements, then use them.

Be sure to place the rocks so that there will be little nooks and crannies for planting, as well as an interesting pattern for the flow of water. Pool construction is not difficult or expensive but does mean some work. Obviously, you need a waterproof basin in which to catch the water. This can be constructed with concrete and wire mesh for a permanent pool. To get the water moving, you will need a small circulating pump.

Once you have your pool, try plants such as papyrus and lilies. You can’t beat waterlilies for adding a flare of brilliant color to garden ponds and fish pools. The flamboyant tropical waterlilies are among the most beautiful of all flowers. Waterlilies can even be grown in oil drums and washtubs that are sunk into the ground. Large containers like those made locally by Mark Kimball or imported from China and Indonesia make excellent water elements. Place mosquito fish in the pool to help eliminate mosquito larvae. Also, a few koi and snails add interest.

Several books are available to give you ideas on how to design and build your unique garden. Sunset Books has excellent basic publications that are available at bookstores and some garden shops. A beautiful book available our local book stores is “Tropical Asian Style.” Books on Balinese gardens that are also good sources of ideas. Many private homes have been landscaped using rock, water and carefully selected and placed plant materials.

Some of the most beautiful gardens are hidden away in gated communities. Others are found in neighborhoods throughout the island, so there are many examples from which to get ideas. The important thing is to spend a little time to create a little heaven here on earth and enjoy it.