JUSFC Meet Our Grantees Series: Ron Henderson – Landscape Architect

September 27, 2016 

In celebration of its 40th anniversary, the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission is having conversations with a number of grantees.

Landscape architect Ron Henderson was awarded a Creative Artist Exchange Fellowship in 2011 and traveled to Japan in 2012. The Fellowship is funded by the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission and administered in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts. Here, Henderson reflects on his experiences as a Fellow living in Japan.

Ron Henderson's "Orihon" - folding sketchbooks.

Ron Henderson’s “Orihon” – folding sketchbooks.

“As a landscape architect, Japan is an important place for the profession because of its garden traditions,” says Henderson. “It was a great opportunity for me to spend time as a landscape architect investigating the gardens and horticultural practices of Japan.”

Seeking ancient cherry trees that had been cared for and protected in Japan for generations was a remarkable experience for Henderson, who visited ancient trees and culturally-celebrated cherry blossom sites.  He researched the unique phenomenon of Japanese cherry blossoms, and interviewed scholars, garden designers and anthropologists. He also documented the particular local horticultural practices of Japan such as pruning, branch crutching, and rope-tenting.

Like many fellows, Henderson presented his work at a public event at the International House of Japan. The event shared his research into the significance of cherry trees and sakura blossoms in Japanese design and culture. His presentation included an exhibition of his sakura orihon, folding sketchbooks, which he used to archive his travel throughout Japan.

While in Kyoto, Henderson interviewed Toemon Sano, the 16th generation head gardener of the Ueto Gardening Company. He has designed many renowned Japanese gardens in Japan and overseas, including the garden at the headquarters of the UNICEF. He also inherited the title of Sakura-mori (cherry tree doctor), previously held by his father and grandfather.

“He has deep family knowledge of cherry trees and their role in the culture of Japan and the imperial family,” Henderson tells us. “Gaining his perspective on all the things that have to do with cherry trees was remarkable and it was spectacular to meet him at his house and tree nursery. Sano and his family have cultivated Kyoto cherry trees for generations.”

After he returned from Japan, the arborists at Pennsylvania State University asked for Henderson’s advice in preserving a one-hundred year-old Japanese maple tree that had been damaged by wind and lost a branch. “I met with them to introduce the horticultu

ral practices from Japan that are used to keep 1,400-year-old trees healthy and vital and thriving,” Henderson remarks. The University acquired funding, for the first time, to use the techniques that Henderson had studied in Japan.

Funding was acquired to allow them to use, for the first time, the techniques Henderson had studied in Japan. Penn State invited Kurato Fujimoto, a master gardener from Kanazawa, Japan to lead a workshop on horticultural techniques. “Seventeen wooden posts are lashed to the branches with rice straw ropes so the wind and weight of snow does not break them,” Henderson explains.

The impact on the Penn State staff was significant. “The American perception is that the work of an arborist should be invisible. After the installation of the Japanese tree supports, many people noticed their work, asked them about their expertise, and learned to recognize and value their work to sustain the collection of trees on the campus. The greatest lesson is that horticultural practices do make visible the work of humanity in conserving the natural world.”

The experience in Japan has continued to influence Henderson’s work. The 15 folding sketchbooks he created while in Japan continue to inspire him. They were exhibited in Baltimore in 2014 and Henderson has used his Japanese techniques on several professional projects in the United States, including the Gardens of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

“We lashed 54 newly-planted Chinese elms in the courtyard with bamboo to stabilize the young trees and to provide a tectonic spatial structure that amplified the grid in which they were planted. It gave evidence of horticultural practices and added a layer of culture artistry that made visible the often hidden work of arboriculture. The courtyard planting was intended as a temporary garden, but it was so well received, it was permanent.”