By Pamela A. Keene
Photos courtesy Gibbs Gardens
Early in his landscaping career, Jim Gibbs developed a love of Japanese gardens, so when he began planning Gibbs Gardens in Ball Ground more than 30 years ago, creating a Japanese garden was at the top of his list. Today, the 40-acre Tsukiyama garden is the largest in the United States.
“Most larger world-class gardens have a Japanese garden,” says Gibbs, who founded Gibbs Landscape Company in 1969. He lived in Japan for several years touring gardens there and learning from experts about the nuances and symbolism embodied in these meditative environments. “A Japanese garden is a balance of natural and man-made beauty. By tradition, they have three main elements – water, stones and plants.”
He purchased nearly 300 acres in North Georgia in 1985 and began developing more than two-thirds of the land into 16 garden venues that opened as Gibbs Gardens in 2012. “The plan was to give visitors different garden experiences throughout the year,” he says. “If you came here every three weeks you’d see a different garden every time. We’ve planned our bloom calendar for all-season interest from 20 million daffodils for six weeks in the early spring to the water lilies at our replica of Monet’s bridge in the fall.”
The Japanese garden is one of three featured gardens that also include the Manor House and the Waterlily Garden. “The concept features three focal-point gardens in a triangle connected by meandering pathways. People can follow their own paths and, even when we have a large number of guests here, visitors can still experience the gardens at their own pace.”
Japanese gardens by tradition are created in harmony with nature and Gibbs selected the location early on when planning the 220-acre garden destination. “In this area there was a huge spring head, so we created seven ponds with a wandering walk around islands, bridges, boulders and rocks. The natural stone bridge is called ‘Bridge to Heaven.’”
Formally called the Japanese Hill and Pond Stroll Garden, the landscape is a multi-layered sensory experience. “The sounds of water gently moving over waterfalls and between the ponds provide an audible backdrop for the other natural sounds,” he says. “Light reflects off the water and it’s here that people can stop and quietly meditate to take a break from the distractions of their everyday lives.”
The history of Japanese gardens goes back hundreds of centuries, and, in reality, only a few design elements have evolved. One in particular, adding lanterns, has a practical explanation.
“From 300 BC to the 1600s, Japanese gardens didn’t have lanterns, but when they became a place for tea ceremonies, lanterns were added to light the pathways.”
Gibbs’ Japanese garden includes 40 stone lanterns hand-made in Japan expressly for Gibbs’ Gardens. Additionally, each boulder was hand-selected to fulfill a traditional representation within the garden.
From the cherry trees and azaleas that bloom in the spring to the numerous bonsai that grow there, treasures and surprises fill the topography, no matter the time of year. Gibbs is proud of the bonsai. “We started planting them from the beginning and now some of them are 96 years old,” he says.
Symbols abound in the garden, including the boulders that have been strategically researched and place by hand.
“It took us five years to locate the rocks indigenous to this area that reflect the symbolism and they were carefully wrapped in burlap and brought here on flatbed trucks,” he says. “We wanted to be sure that the design elements were authentic. It is by far the most difficult and challenging garden I have ever designed.”
In addition to those in the Japanese garden, more than 3,000 Japanese maples of many varieties have been naturalized and planted throughout the woodland property. In 2018, Gibbs is installing another 1,000 grown and nurtured from seedlings on the property and tended for three years in greenhouses.
Gibbs Gardens opened on March 1. Admission is $20 for adults, $18 for seniors; $10 for children ages 3-17. An annual membership costs $50.
To learn more about the Japanese gardens, visit www.gibbsgardens.com or call 770-894-8303. The garden’s store offers two DVDs that provide detailed information about the Japanese garden, its creation and symbolism. The website includes an annual Bloom Calendar as well as a listing of special events, concerts and festivals.