Garden Talk

view of a verdant pond landscape with a Japanese-style lantern and wooden pilings along the pond's edge

By Katherine Hale
Marketing & Communications Assistant


Visitors to Duke Gardens will notice an uptick of activity over the next few weeks as an exciting new construction project begins in the Culberson Asiatic Arboretum. For most of February and into March, the area along the pond between the Waterfowl Observation Area (the “beach”) and the Zig-zag bridge will be closed off as Gardens staff works with Duke University Facilities Management and outside contractors to address a long-term maintenance issue as well as enhance the view from the Ruth Mary Meyer Japanese Garden far beyond its current borders.

This project is in the area of the Kasuga-style Japanese stone lantern, donated in the early 1990s by the late Dr. Merel Harmel, founding chair of the Duke University School of Medicine Department of Anesthesiology. The existing shoreline is currently supported by a row of pilings. Although this barrier has served well for decades, many sections have become unstable and are in dire need of replacement. After consulting with Sadafumi Uchiyama of the Portland Japanese Garden, who has generously provided Duke Gardens with cultural and design advice on many arboretum projects over the years, curator Paul Jones opted for a naturalistic arrangement of boulders that will be both functional and beautiful.

“What we're doing with this project is twofold,” Jones says. “We're going to shore up the pond edge with these boulders, which is a pressing need. But instead of creating a straight row like the pilings, the end result will be reminiscent of a boulder-strewn hillside visible from the current Japanese Garden across the water. Though not physically contiguous with the Japanese Garden, this feature will feel appropriate, given that looking upon boulders flanking a distant shoreline is a common feature in many Japanese gardens."

a boulder flanked pond in Japan with trees in fall colors

Preliminary site preparation has already begun and the construction will continue through February, as long as the weather cooperates. During the process, the base water level in the pond will be lowered for two reasons: to expose the shoreline where the boulders will rest upon a bed of supporting stone, and to uncover water control valves at the base of the tower that have become buried by silt.

The university’s Facilities Management department will pump the pond’s water level down to address both issues. Then longtime Duke Gardens contractor Vince Williams of Creative Garden Landscapes will set the 2- to 3-ton boulders in place using specialized equipment. Once the boulders are situated in their final locations, this area will remain primarily an open space, with the Harmel Lantern reset close to its original location. New plantings will be limited to small shrubs and herbs to mimic the feel of an exposed mountain slope.

“It's a pretty good size project dealing primarily with setting large rocks. And while we've done a lot of setting of rocks over the years—I mean tons and tons—this is one of the more exciting ones,” Jones says. “I'm looking forward to it.”

Photos from top: A view of the project area from across the pond (photo by Cathi Bodine); a traditional Japanese pond landscape incorporating boulders (photo by Serg Zastavkin / Shutterstock).

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