Month: May 2010

Gorgeous tree garden despite lack of ground space

People often complain that there space is too limited to have a garden. This amazing single family residence in Sendaji has a tiny front yard between the house and wall that separates it from the street. Yet they have managed to create an amazing mini-forest garden of nicely pruned trees. Some are in the ground floor soil, and others in pots on the three levels of balconies and roof. There are dozens of trees, including evergreen and deciduous. On our visit, the pines and azaleas were especially beautiful.

I imagine this garden has been growing for at least ten or twenty years to reach this amazing fullness. So many people think that all they can plant are simple flower boxes, when vertical solutions can be so much more lush and interesting. This residential garden, discovered while visiting the famous restored Yasuda house across the street, is very inspiring.

Dead space plaza in front of Koenji JR station

Koenji is one of my favorite Tokyo neighborhoods: full of cool small businesses, great food, live music, Itoh Toyo’s new theatre ZaKoenji, and many places to explore. But the plaza in front of the Koenji station is unbelievable ugly and full of dead space.

Apart from the thinnest border of flowering azaleas and a few sparse trees, the space is mostly dedicated to cars and buses, with a large concrete plaza that is difficult to access. This enormous public space is impermeable to rainwater and unwelcoming for resting or socializing.

Given how walkable the neighborhood is and how many people arrive in Koenji by transit, it is a lost opportunity to create a great public space focused on residents and visitors. Redesigning this entry point to the neighborhood could be low cost and high impact.

Mountain dairy farm (森林の牧場)

On the trip to Nasu in Tochigi two weekends ago, we visited a unique mountain cow dairy called Shinrin no bokujo (森林の牧場) that produces delicious milk and ice cream while addressing a crisis in Japanese forestry. The recycling company Amita created this dairy and another in Tango, northern Kyoto on the Japan Sea, as an ecological experiment.

With the collapse of Japan’s timber industry, many mountains are covered with single species trees that have not been maintained and are now dying. The mountain dairy idea is to allow the cows to maintain and improve the forests. The concept ties dairy farming with healthy food production, watershed conservation, and rice farming.

The milk is currently sold at Isetan department store Queen Isetan grocery stores, as well as onsite. Lots of families came with young children to see this unique dairy. The milk was extremely rich and delicious, with a hard cream top, packaged in a glass bottle with attractive graphics.

One of the TEDxSeeds members will be starting work there, and we met the farm manager, who is a graduate of Tokyo University of Agriculture. It was exciting to see this ecological experiment run as a business. The Japanese president of Qualcomm is also interested in new farming techniques that address food quality and ecological revitalization. Since rural abandonment has become a major national issue, these experiments are very timely and needed.

Visiting the cows was fun. They were extremely friendly. They allowed some heavy petting, and in return offered a very slobbery welcome. I had no idea their mouths are so full of saliva! Some of the young calves are lent out as natural lawn mowers, much as goats are now providing fossil fuel free mowing and complementary fertilizer in Silicon Valley. The grown cows are too heavy to transport easily.

The buildings on site, both for visitors and for milking, are simple and very attractive.

Rice planting in Nasu, Tochigi

It’s always an adventure to get out of Tokyo and see rural Japan. Recently, TEDxSeeds executive producer Ito Hiromasa (伊藤 弘雅) invited me to join some of his friends on a day trip visit to an experimental “mountain cow” farm and Free Farm, which produces rice and vegetables, in Nasu, Tochigi.

We were lucky to be there on the day of rice planting, called taue (田植え). Farmers use a simple machine that inserts the seedlings into the wet rice paddy. It is amazing how symmetrical it becomes. There was something magical about seeing rice planted. Along with the small machine, two women were working very hard unloading the seedlings and making the watery mud even with a large wood instrument.

The farmers invited us for gyoza dumplings and zero food mile rice. Free Farm has a great blog that connects city people to farmers, and a fresh food delivery service (link in Japanese with lots of great photos). Another TEDxSeeds organizer, Sato Hirotsugu, was at the farm for the weekend, and he was very welcoming.

Okusawa shrine in Jiyugaoka

Leaving Sinajina bonsai shop in Jiyugaoka, I stopped recently at Okusawa shrine. Jiyugaoka is a very pleasant residential neighborhood, with many free-standing houses and gardens.

This shrine is an incredibly peaceful and magical oasis: mature trees, a beautiful structure, and, apart from the two friends I was with, not a person was visible. It amazes me that beautiful green spaces in Tokyo can be open to the public without guards or attendants, and still remain pristine and inviting.

Ceramic flowerpots in balcony garden

In May I spent a lot of time on my balcony garden: planting seeds, putting in starter vegetables (corn, watermelon, eggplant, cucumbers, and kiwi), planting herbs (basil, thyme, in addition to last year’s parsley), and adding new flowers and new types of fabric pots and coconut husk soil.

One aspect of my tiny garden I am enjoying are the flowerpots I made at Shiho ceramic studio last year. My theme for the ceramics was geometric shapes in terms of the pots and the glazing. I chose neutral colors so that the flowerpots would not distract from the plants.

Because the apartment is so small, the garden becomes part of everyday life. I see it from the kitchen table, where I often write on my laptop, and from the living room. With sliding walls, the garden is visible from the bedroom, too. Going outside is always just a few steps away.

Although I am a very amateur ceramicist, it is fun to have something you made yourself playing a big role in a small garden. There is something about the clay that provides an earthy feeling when you are in a high-rise with limited soil. I also like the contrast between the flowerpots and the cityscape beyond.

Beautiful “walklet” replaces parkings spaces in San Francisco

Rebar, an art and urban planning project in San Francisco, has just unveiled their first prototype of a street-side “walklet.” Rebar became famous for converting parking spots one day every year into inventive urban parks. The event grew, and drew more and more people around the world who changed the streetscape for one day. Now, Rebar is putting in semi-permanent “walklets” with benches, tables, bike parking, and planters on top of parking spaces. The project has been OK’d for six months, and can be continued if well received.

This is genius!

To quote from Rebar’s site:

Inspired by Rebar’s PARK(ing) Day and other efforts to convert parking spaces into people places, cities around the United States are transforming excess roadway into public plazas, pocket parks and experimental sites for new forms of urban infrastructure.

To help support this growing trend, Rebar has created “Walklet”—a modular, flexible sidewalk extension system designed to create new public spaces for people by extending the pedestrian realm into the parking lane.

The installation at 22nd and Bartlett in San Francisco is part of a pilot project supported by the City. The collection of benches, planters, bike parking, and tables, sheathed in stained bamboo and red wood, will be in place for six months, and if it’s well-received, could remain in place indefinitely.

The prototype has been arranged to suit the needs of that neighborhood’s site, but Walklet are incredibly adaptable. Each three-foot wide Walklet module provides a single, specific program that can be mixed and matched with other Walklet modules to create the right design combination for each unique site. Walklet extends the sidewalk surface into the street but provides much more than just a place to walk—it creates an adjustable, flexible, full-scale laboratory for developing and refining the perfect combination of user programs.

Like Flora Grubb Gardens, I, too, wonder what will they plant?!

Update: Here are photos of the planting.

Benefits of corporate gardens

Great New York Times story about benefits of corporate gardens, including Pepsi-Co and Aveda. Improves worker morale, eating, health, and informal conversation across departments. Why doesn’t every company create a small edible garden? By adding native plants to storefronts and walls, and giving small plants to customers, corporations can brand themselves and create distributed habitat, too.

Two embassies in Azabu Juban

I visited the architects at Front Office Tokyo, and had the shock of discovering huge estates, corporate clubs, and sprawling embassies in Azabu Juban. It’s an area between the station and Keio’s campus that I have never been to. Probably the largest and most intriguing grounds belong to the Mitsui Club.

The contrast between the gorgeous wooded grounds of the Italian embassy and the newly constructed Australian embassy is painful. The Italian embassy is hidden inside a huge park-like setting. The Australian one is an enormous modern building with almost no landscaping.

Perhaps adding insult to their national pride, the animals that represent the nation are in what look like cages. Is this to express the cultural heritage of the former penal colony? My spouse reminds me that Australia is one of the few countries that eats their national animals. Is that bad or just practical?

Ginkos in Sendagaya

I go to Sendagaya often to swim in the Olympic pool. The boulevard in front of the Tokyo Gymnasium has beautiful, mature ginko trees. It’s amazing how fast they go from bare poles to lush leafy mass. Once leafed out, the ginkos also hide the elevated freeway and elevated train lines between the gym and Shinjuku Park.

Squeezing mini-creek into San Francisco sidewalk

I am amazed by this illustration of how to squeeze a mini-creek into a San Francisco sidewalk (from the wonderful Streetsblog). Faced with an aging sewage infrastructure at risk of failure, San Francisco’s water utility is experimenting with bold, low-impact designs, including green roofs, daylighted creeks, rain barrels, and permeable pavement.

The obstacles to this change are enormous. For decades, urban water management has meant removing green space and channeling water into treatment plants. But if successful, mini-creeks and urban watersheds can significantly reduce sewage discharge to the city’s bay and rivers, with estimates ranging from 28% reduction to 91% reduction in water pollution.

In addition to the functional benefits of reduced pollution, mini-creeks will add beauty to what are now life-less streets, and attract wildlife and nature. Restoring creeks will provide a greater connection to the natural environment and urban history.

Quoted in San Francisco Chronicle article about high speed rail

The San Francisco Chronicle quoted me about what California can learn from Japan’s high speed rail. Japan’s rail success is not just about traveling quickly between cities, but the convenience and efficiency of city transit and car-free living.

Coco husk soil

For urban gardeners, one key question is how to get plants, soil and pot from store to house. I buy many of my plants from small shops that are on my way from the train station to my apartment. Sometimes I bike to a DIY big box store called Shimatchu, and use a combination of large backpack and balancing plants in plastic bags across my handle bars.

Recently I discovered coconut husk as a soil. It’s sold at a wonderful Kichijoji indoor growing shop called Essence. Made entirely of husk, it recycles what would otherwise be waste, and it seems to be a high quality organic soil. Even better, it is sold dehydrated, so it is very light weight for transportation from shop to home.

I have bought three blocks (also called tampons) that make 11 liters when hydrated. Nakata-san of Essence recommended blending it 3-1-1 with perlite and vermiculite, which are also very light weight and low cost. When blended it makes about two regular sized buckets of soil.

I also used coco husk soil in small disks that expand with water to form seedling starters wrapped in a simple rope pouch.

You can see that my morning glory seeds were the first to sprout.

I also bought this funny Gro-Pot, a thick plastic bag with coco husk that you hydrate and plant directly into, as if it were a flower pot. I’ve put a sunflower in my Gro-Pot (bought for 500 yen, just over $5 from a local flower shop). Both the Gro-Pot and the coconut husk block are from U-Gro.

For the coco husk mix, I used another light weight new idea: Smartpots, a soft-side fabric container that claims to be better than plastic and clay containers, is super easy to carry and store. The makers claim that these polypropylene containers aerate and air prune the roots. When you buy the smartpots, they come folded up, which is very convenient.