A Fascinating Tour: Discovering Japanese Gardens

Published Wednesday, 7th November 2012 in Horticulture and Plantsmanship news

Horticulture Tour of Japan

Peter MacDonald, SRUC Senior Lecturer in Horticulture, saw many incredible, and meticulously cared for, gardens, on a recent visit to Japan with the International Plant Propagators Society (IPPS).

With the aim of using the learning in his future teaching, Peter – who can normally be found in Ayr – travelled to Japan to soak up all the horticultural goodness the country had to offer.

The trip was funded by the SRUC Travel Fund and allowed Peter to explore the region of Shizuoka - south of Tokyo -  which is a major crop production area. With its excellent climate (frosts are rare) Shizuoka's main crops include tea, wasabi, gerbera, roses, vegetables, mikan (satsumas), melons and strawberries.

Peter said: “Land that is not mountainous or forested is limited in Japan and so every usable area seems to have industry, housing and crops tangled together with no obvious design. I was surprised to see that most crop production is labour intensive, the techniques used are about twenty years behind Europe.”

Despite such outdated systems the quality of produce was very high, with prices to match. The cheapest Japanese melon Peter could find was 3000 Yen, or £24. Prices remain high as Japanese shoppers prefer home-grown produce and imports are severely limited.  

A visit to the Suzuki fruit orchard garden showed the careful thought Peter’s hosts put into everything they grow. As well as satsumas, blueberries and persimmons the gardeners grow large round Japanese pears weighing in at at least 1kg each. After a number fall from the trees in June those left over are wrapped in newspaper to protect the skin from damage and on harvesting in October damaged fruit is discarded. The average price of a Japanese pear is 1200 Yen, or £8-9.

There’s concern in Japan that the number of people working in horticulture will drop significantly in years to come. One way they are trying to counter this is by developing ‘plant factories’ that will produce high volumes of plants from limited areas. Public and private money has been invested in exploring high tech production methods such as growing lettuce entirely under artificial lights.

“Our guide told us that production was 500 times that of field grown lettuce and that the shelf life was nearly twice as long as the plants are disease free and don’t need to be washed” Peter said. “Plus, they still make a good profit even with the cost of constant electric lighting.”

Nowhere was the meticulous and precise approach so apparently deep-rooted in Japan and its people clearer than when viewing a Bonsai village. In Britain these neat sculpted miniature trees rarely last a year, but in the village Peter saw there were 500 year old specimens, still perfectly pruned but proud and beautiful and far larger than those found in UK garden centres. It takes five years to train as a Bonsai grower in Japan, and no wonder.

To see some of Peter's tweets and photos from his trip check out the SRUC Horticulture Twitter feed.

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