Japan meets Puyallup

Asian garden: Carl and Betty Schmidt have turned a former dump into a calm sanctuary – on a tiny budget

Tacoma News TribuneNovember 6, 2013 

Thirteen years ago, the front corner of Carl and Betty Schmidt’s yard in east Puyallup was a mess. Used as both an oil dump and a school bus parking area by former residents, it wasn’t beautiful or serene.

Today, it’s both.

Peek through the rectangular dark wood “windows” in the front fence and you’ll see a calm, Japanese-inspired garden complete with waterfall, maples and a Tori gate, attracting neighbors and birds alike. And thanks to thrifty shopping and a lot of DIY, the whole thing was done on a retirees’ budget.

“When we moved in, it was ugly,” remembers Betty Schmidt. “The neighbors used it as a dumping ground.”

“We all hated it,” adds the Schmidts’ daughter Sydney, who lives with them and helped create the garden.

Then one day the family saw a Tacoma house with an enclosed courtyard – and got inspired. Carl moved the fence-line out to the street, enclosing the former dump and parking strip and painting the trim black. He built rectangular, Japanese-style wooden window frames into it, painted red the swoop-top gate that was already inside the yard, and the Asian garden began.

It’s a story of DIY, thrifty shopping and smart re-use. The Schmidts relocated some items from the rest of their yard (which is a collector’s trove of deer statues, fancy bird house, pink flamingoes and the like) and noticed an Asian theme. They continued it. A Japanese maple was relocated, and an azalea that was on the verge of death suddenly perked up in its new home, a recycled wok – the stress has given it an elegantly pruned bonsai look.

A neighbor donated some leftover maple lumber, and Carl turned it into a square-framed bell-tower, rescuing a bell from an old waterfall that didn’t work.

The family built a new waterfall feature next to the Tori gate, finding some boulders free for pick-up on Craigslist and digging up many more smaller rocks as they worked around the yard. Carl built a miniature pagoda to go on top and churn out the water like a mill, painting the plywood for an aged patina.

The family spent a few weeks pouring their own concrete pavers, then found an old fuel stove shaped like a pagoda to put some deck chairs around. Cheap Chinese dragons from Fred Meyer got painted in bright metallic reds and greens, an old birdbath got new life as a glass ball stand, a plastic pots got new red paint to house a lush Chinese lantern bush and a host of Japanese-themed plants (bamboo, more Japanese maples, reedy grasses, red twig dogwood, viburnum, dwarf evergreens) came from garage sales and discount stores.

“We had to get creative – we didn’t want to spend a lot,” explains Sydney, estimating the entire garden has cost around $5,000 at most over the last decade. “It’s about being open – you never know what you’ll find and where you’ll find it.”

But the Schmidts’ Asian garden looks anything but haphazard. The fence windows are strategically placed for peek-a-boo views of the streetside dogwood; on the garden side, red geraniums flank wine-dark heucheras. A creeping Jenny spills out of a raised pot like a golden sculpture. A string of red lanterns (bought at the Washington State Fair’s recent Luminasia exhibit) brightly inhabit the corner behind the bell tower. Nothing is cluttered, and the ornaments work together in harmony.

Now, over a decade later, the neighborhood dump is a destination. Birds flock to the garden, and the next-door-neighbor likes to visit to listen to the gentle rush of the water.

“It’s very calming,” Betsy explains.

So what are the challenges of a Japanese-style garden?

“It’s pretty low-maintenance, other than watering a lot in summer,” says Betsy.

But there are lots of pine needles to pick up from the towering trees that keep the garden in semi-shade, she adds – one key aspect of Japanese gardens is neatness. And the Schmidts are constantly working to improve things: to find more plants, pour more pavers. They’re also hoping to lay a gravel path.

And have they ever been to Asia, to see the real thing?


“We’d love to see Japan,” Sydney says, wistfully.

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568


Wish You Were Here

This story is part of an occasional series called “Wish You Were Here,” profiling gardens around the South Sound that make us feel we’re on vacation somewhere glamorous. Have a garden you think fits the bill? Send photos and a brief description to rosemary.ponnekanti @thenews tribune.com. Get the Look

Want to incorporate the Japanese look into your own garden? First, visit local public gardens like the Japanese garden at Tacoma Community College, the Kubota Garden in south Seattle, or the Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle to get some visual ideas. Portland’s Japanese Garden is also one of the country’s finest.

Then, follow these tips from the Portland Japanese Garden website, japanesegarden.com.

 • Begin with the element of stone, the “bones” of any Japanese garden. Place large boulders thoughtfully as structural elements or to enhance terrain or water features. Secondary stone elements might include small pagodas, lanterns, basins, arbors and bridges.

 • Water is the second element. If you don’t have room for a pond, small waterfall or stream, install a simple bamboo pipe fountain above a large decorative pot. Or simply create a dry streambed with small and larger rocks, lined with plants.

 • The third element is plants. Choose these to create a “tapestry of the seasons,” keeping trees and shrubs to human scale. Typical plants used in Japanese gardens include cherries and maples, azaleas, dwarf spruces, mounding grasses, bamboo, moss, hydrangea, akebia, daphne, rhododendron, holly. Keep plants neatly pruned, emphasizing branch structure, and clear debris from beds and paths for a neat look. Use a fine, dark mulch.

 • Make sure you have sitting places from which to admire the garden – a bench or chairs.

 • If you can incorporate them, architectural elements like a Tori gate or wooden tea house can add to the effect.

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