The mature Japanese maple, katsura, and smoketree provide a colorful backdrop for the turtle-shaped island in the pond at the Hammond Japanese Stroll Garden. Symbolically, the island is offered as a resting place for spirits.
Photos by Andre Baranowski
There’s a moment in fall when the Hammond Japanese Stroll Garden goes vivid. It begins blazing in mid-October and reaches flaming crescendo right before the museum closes for the season in November. You don’t want to miss that interlude, when the ginkgo is raging yellow and the Japanese maples are electric orange — it will make your heart throb. But, in truth, a pulsating experience is not what a Japanese garden is all about. Just the opposite.
In autumn, the ancient stone lantern serves as a quiet moment beside the fiery Japanese maples on a terrace where the sculpted trees predominate.
The Hammond Garden is meant to be a meditative journey. The circuit around a series of thoughtfully composed vignettes is designed to calm your pulse and quiet your mind. Apparently, the maples didn’t get that memo. Or perhaps they felt compelled to stage a little uproarious interval before going fully naked. For the remainder of the season, the Stroll Garden is purposefully clad in various shades of green. Deeply imprinted with symbolism, every step of this landscape is meant to send you into an inward odyssey — and it succeeds. No flowers are planted to steal the show. Instead, it’s a slow, thought-provoking space that sets the stage for inner explorations based on Asian understandings and principles.
Benches provide a place for reflection beside the pond and turtle island.
Originally, the 3.5-acre garden was the brainchild of Natalie Hays Hammond, a well-traveled costume and set designer, author, and accomplished needlepoint artist. A friend of dancer Martha Graham, Hammond notably collaborated in the first all-female Broadway production. Her father was diplomat John Hays Hammond, who was a contender for William Howard Taft’s vice president. A cosmopolitan visionary, Natalie Hammond took a unique turn when the time came to design a landscape around the North Salem acreage that she acquired in 1957. Though the vast majority of her contemporaries were installing English-style gardens, Hammond went for a Japanese theme. In fact, her goal from the onset was a public space where visitors could experience how Eastern and Western cultures can mingle. She wanted to expose Americans to cultural understandings and insights using plants as a metaphor. Fifty-plus years later, the mature garden is even more eloquent than when originally designed.
Pathways are shaded by fully mature trees thoughtfully sculpted and pruned over decades.
Although the Japanese Stroll Garden claims some beautifully sculpted plants, it is not meant to profile individual trees or shrubs. Instead, it suggests a journey in which groupings are staged to conceal and reveal vistas. Negative space is as valid as the plants, and shrubs/trees are clustered into threesomes to form triangles representing the human relationship with heaven above and earth below. Even your tour through the space is purposefully paced by pathways that are sometimes irregularly paved with stepping stones to slow your step. Entered through a teahouse; the space sets the mood with a waterfall to introduce music plus the tranquility of flowing water. There’s a traditional Zen garden with its raked pebbles and metaphoric stones before the path opens up to a pond with a turtle-shaped island (the turtle is a symbol of longevity) accessed by rocks.
In autumn, the maples on the terrace contrast against restive conifers.
As you wander around the pond and beyond, the landscape unfolds with meaningful moments. Features are concealed and revealed to deliver understandings through vistas. Individual plants stand out and recede but also interact with antique lanterns and carefully placed sculptures. The age of the landscape alone is remarkable; this garden has a sense of permanence and continuity over generations. Interestingly, the Hammond Japanese Stroll Garden is not tended by a crew of professional gardeners. Instead, volunteers and staff maintain the grounds, lovingly pruning the shrubs. In other words: You can do this at home.
When a bamboo grove was planted in the 1980s, a subterranean concrete barrier was part of the installation to contain the wandering roots.
The Hammond garden is an on-going affair. Recently, thanks to a Boy Scouts project, a human-scale chess set was added; it doubles as a game of shogi (Japanese chess). And events — concerts with traditional Asian instruments, big-band showcases that demonstrate Eastern and Western accord — are continually scheduled to draw visitors into the landscape. School groups tour the garden and learn the cultural lessons. There are moon-viewing events, tea ceremonies, art classes, ikebana (flower arranging) classes, etc. According to garden director Lorraine Laken, 5,000 people visit the garden annually, including many from Europe and Asia.
Sculptor Chuck von Schmidt crafted “Tsuki Gongu” and donated it to the Hammond Garden in 2016.
You could go to the Hammond garden to find inner peace or learn about another culture, but you could also visit to find subtle ideas to feed into your own home garden. The concepts of borrowed landscape, staging stone groupings as a metaphor, using water in a space, meaningfully pruning shrubs, and balancing forms are all translatable to your backyard. Even the use of simple green plants that are restive until they burst into brighter color just before slipping into slumber is a concept worth adopting on any scale.
We could all use a little Zen in our lives. Fall is a beautiful time to be enlightened.