Adventures in DIY Gardening

Adventures in DIY gardening and salvaging plants with Sean Michael Wilson

This is a guest post by Sean Michael Wilson, writer of The Garden. Gorgeously illustrated by Fumio Obata, The Garden is available now in our webshop and from your favourite bookshops!


In our new book The Garden, Joanna goes to Japan to learn about a mix of gardening and zen-type mindfulness….

Zen gardening in Japan (from The Garden)

Japan has the image of loving nature, or making beautiful gardens and mixing this focus with a meditative aspect. This is true, in one way. However, I’m sad to observe that the amount and size of Japanese gardens is very much on the decline. I’ve written various articles on this, such as in The Japan Times, showing that new houses built over the last 20 years very rarely have large gardens. When a new house is built, the old garden is normally 95-100% cleared, with all its trees and plants uprooted. There are various reasons for this that I won’t go into here.

What I want to focus on now is that my reaction to this is to try to save something from a garden that I see being destroyed. I can’t save everything as I simply don’t have the space; my garden here is rather small. But if I can save a couple of plants or a small tree then I feel a sense of satisfaction of helping that something of a garden, many of which are very old, to continue on, even if in another location.

Let me tell you of some examples of my DIY salvage gardening…

When I was a kid in Scotland a favourite tree of was the Elder tree, because its branches often grow very straight and they are good for mock swords. My pals and I used to use dead branches in sword play fighting. When I got to Japan I realized that Elder trees are very rare here (in the south area anyway). I have only seen three of them so far in all the woods and parks and gardens I’ve seen. By a somewhat amazing coincidence, one of those three is in the garden of my son’s Japanese grandmother! The other is high up in the hills at a shrine. And a couple of months ago, I spotted a third Elder tree in the nearby hills. It was in an area in which various trees were being cut down, and it was already partially damaged. So, I thought I would save it, in case the tree cutters were to destroy the whole thing the next day. So I dug it up, carried it home (on my bicycle, even though it was about 150cm, with Japanese looking at me as I went past and probably thinking ‘crazy foreigner!’) and replanted it in my garden.

What I want to focus on now is that my reaction to this is to try to save something from a garden that I see being destroyed… I feel a sense of satisfaction of helping that something of a garden to continue on, even if in another location.

To my sadness it declined rapidly and within a week or so seemed to be dead, even though I had been careful to dig up as much of the roots as I could. I felt guilty about this. Maybe I should have left it; the tree cutters might not have completely destroyed it. Only one of its branches was cut; better than dying completely! Oh dear…

However, I went out in my garden last week to find – joy of joys! – it has started to sprout new shoots! About six beautiful new green shoots were coming up from the base of the tree. I really felt happy to see this. I was punching the air with joy. Actually it was a bit like the feeling I get when a new book of mine arrives – I helped make this thing of beauty! Now, a week later I’m happy to say there are about 12 lovely new sprouts growing up and looking very healthy. 

Sprouts coming to life on Sean’s elder tree

Another example is from the new houses next door to me. The garden before had about 20 trees and bushes in it, and the new garden has…absolutely none. Zero. The housing company, which loudly proclaims its ‘eco’ focus had not replanted a single tree from those 20 it rooted up. As it goes, I have contacted them to point out how this policy, which they apply to most of their new houses, is very bad for the environment, but their reply was weak and evasive. Except, Sean comes to the rescue again – I went round when the diggers where rooting up the trees and managed to save two small bushes when they were having a lunch break. I’m glad to report that both these are doing very well in my garden, and are about four times the size now. Below is a comparison photo of one that I have at my house door. Nice!  


Another of my wee DIY gardening adventures has been making a lovely row of wild strawberries on a bamboo pole. Very simple to do, but looks great! I just hunted round for old bamboo that had died or been cut down in the nearby hills, and reduced it to a size small enough for this purpose by the (very advanced!) technique of smashing either end against a big rock a few times… the sound of which echoed throughout the hills! Then I simply tied a small rope on either end of it, and put them onto two hooks at the top of the garden wall. I placed soil along the length of it and then planted the strawberries.

I used wild strawberries because they are smaller and fit into the narrow bamboo area. Then it’s just watering and tending as normal. They just started to develop some fruit this week.

Planting strawberries in an old piece of bamboo

I think if you use a plastic or metal tube you need to do put some drainage holes in it too, but my bamboo one had already split a bit in a couple of places, so that should be enough I presume. I’m looking forward to some tasty strawberries and cream soon. Oishi!

Another cute thing I did was take a broken tricycle and use the basket as a mini garden. Again, I planted strawberries and a cute wee flower in the middle.

A factor in this salvage DIY approach is that it’s all very cheap. After all, you don’t get much cheaper than free! Our book The Garden is not free, but get a copy anyway, please! It’s a thing of delight in itself!


The Garden is out now!

Buy The Garden from our webshop.

It’s also available worldwide from your favourite local or online bookshop!

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