The Meditation Garden at Osmosis Spa in Freestone is very much in the Japanese tradition. Everything is tamed and trimmed, small in scale and harmoniously integrated around the glassy surface of a lily pond, broken only by the gurgle of a tiny waterfall.
There is nothing wild about this immaculately controlled and meticulously maintained garden, except for the deer that are not fenced out.
It is the long-held vision of Osmosis owner Michael Stusser, who 30 years ago visited a Japanese garden in Kyoto and experienced such a profound inner peace that it changed his life. He was inspired to study Japanese gardening in Kyoto and in 1985 to establish a spa in coastal California offering Cedar Enzyme Baths, a rejuvenating heat treatment he also discovered in Japan.
And yet this classic Japanese garden holds a secret. It is filled with many California natives, which have been pruned and dwarfed and seamlessly integrated with the Japanese maples, Japanese black pine and azaleas. As soon as you enter the lawn gate that opens to a forested pathway of Purple bamboo leading to the Meditation garden you see rhododendrons and a drift of Japanese anemone on one side, a semi-styled native bush anemone (Carpenteria californica) on the other.
Stusser is particularly proud of how the garden incorporates so many native plants with exotics, like coffeeberry and a hedge of Ribes, without sacrificing any of the classic Japanese aesthetic.
"These native plants are increasing in exposure and popularity," says the soft-spoken Stusser, who is celebrating the 10th anniversary of the planting of this serene garden with the publication of a new commemorative book and photographic guide to "The Osmosis Gardens."
It is master pruner Michael Alliger who helped plant the garden from the ground up using the blueprints and drawings of Robert Ketchell, a renowned British expert on Japanese gardens who Stusser befriended when they were both apprenticing in landscape gardening in Kyoto.
Alliger designed the garden around the theme of The Story of the Ox and the Ox Herder, a Zen Buddhist parable that is a metaphor for the steps toward enlightenment. Large boulders, which Stusser spent two years seeking in local stoneyards for their evocative shapes, are strategically placed around the perimeter so visitors can subliminally experience the same journey as they stroll the garden.
Alliger has carried out the vision faithfully, experimenting with different plants and varieties to figure out which ones can be tamed in the Japanese style.
"Woody plants are really a valuable aspect of garden structure and a lot of people haven't discovered them yet," said Alliger, practiced in the traditional Japanese techniques of sheering and pruning.
One key style is Niwaki or cloud pruning, training trees and shrubs into cumulus cloud shapes. Visitors see this at the very entrance to the garden in a striking Chamaecyparis "Torulosa," with its red bark, twisty limbs and deep green foliage.
"To get the cloud forms it means mostly taking off the upward shoot forms," said Alliger, stressing that it can take many years to achieve the effect.
The garden is bordered on one side by a curvilinear hedge of California myrtle, Prunus caroliniana and pittosporum, sculpted to undulate softly. Nearby is a pittosporum pruned like a rounded pedestal and a manzanita, hand-sheered repeatedly throughout the year so it appears to drift over a big boulder.