Kicking Back In Seattle’s Lovely Kubota Garden

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Covering over 20 acres of rolling hills and valleys, Kubota Garden is a quiet refuge amidst the bustling city of Seattle. The garden is a magical blend of what might at first glance seem to be contradictions; that is, Japanese garden concepts and native Pacific Northwest plants. Somehow it all works, though, and the garden unfolds in a progression of spaces to reveal streams, waterfalls, ponds and dramatic rock outcroppings, all embellished with a rich assortment of specimen trees and plants.

If you’re looking to reconnect with nature, this place is for you.

FROM DREAM TO REALITY

The garden is the legacy of Fugitaro Kubota, who emigrated to the United States in 1907 from the Japanese island of Shikoku. As a young man in America, he discovered a hidden passion for gardening and in 1923, he established his own nursery and landscaping firm called the Kubota Gardening Company.

Entirely self-taught as a gardener, Kubota began his first garden in 1927 with the purchase of five acres of logged-off swampland in the Rainier Beach neighborhood of Seattle. His initial intent was to use the land as a nursery for the native plants he sold to his customers. But as the years passed and his nursery stock grew in size, he began experimenting with ways to showcase the plants themselves in a garden-like setting.

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Kubota began to dream of one day creating a garden that would display the rich diversity of Pacific Northwest plants in an intimate, multi-layered Japanese setting. To gain expertise, he returned to Japan a number of times to study traditional gardening techniques. As his business grew, the Rainier Beach garden grew as well, eventually expanding to encompass 20 acres.

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Over time, Kubota began introducing Japanese-inspired streams and ponds to his Seattle garden, enclosing them within high hedges of native cypress, spruce and hemlock. He positioned specimen blue spruces, white pines and weeping hemlocks amidst broad swathes of indigenous hydrangeas, viburnums, and rhododendrons. To his garden’s winding paths, he added low masses of indigenous azalea, cotoneaster and flowering perennials that, just like in Japanese gardens, functioned to both reveal and conceal the view.

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In the 1960s, Kubota brought in 400 tons of stones to create a ‘Mountainside’ featuring waterfalls, reflecting pools and mature specimen trees.  He also introduced traditional Japanese garden ornaments into the garden, such as lanterns, bells and bridges.

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In Japanese gardens, bridges symbolize a journey from one world to another

Eventually, Kubota’s garden came to serve as a home, nursery and business location for the entire Kubota family. As their Japanese-American style garden grew in popularity, the family regularly opened it to the public. By the 1950s, Kubota Garden had become a center of social and cultural activities for Seattle’s Japanese community.

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In 1972, Kubota was awarded the Order of the Sacred Treasure by the Japanese Government “for his achievements in his adopted country, for introducing and building respect for Japanese gardening in this area.” Kubota died in 1973 with the hope that one day his garden would help increase American understanding and appreciation of Japanese culture.

In 1987, the City of Seattle bought the garden from the Kubota family, and it is now maintained by the Department of Parks and Recreation as well as volunteers from the Kubota Garden Foundation.

 

THE GARDEN

Visitors begin their tour of Kubota Garden by passing through a traditional Japanese entrance gate. Imbued with deep, symbolic meaning, the gate functions simultaneously as a screen and a threshold, offering tantalizing hints of the garden beyond.

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A large bronze bell is located to the right of the walkway.

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To the left, a broad path winds uphill to a Japanese pagoda. The walkway climbs through masses of azaleas, dogwoods, rhododendrons, irises and thousands of specimen evergreens and Japanese maples.

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Path leading uphill to the overlook and pagoda

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A small sampling of the diverse number of evergreens at Kubota Garden

Directly behind the pagoda, at the highest point of the garden, a green lawn fans out towards a backdrop of large evergreen trees. The expansive area is framed by generous groupings of hydrangeas, viburnums and azaleas interspersed with flowering perennials.

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Right side of lawn behind pagoda

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Left side of lawn behind pagoda

From the pagoda, a series of serpentine paths lead back down the hill into different sections of the garden. The garden spaces, which vary greatly in character, are all carefully maintained to look as natural as possible, in keeping with Japanese gardening principles.

 

JAPANESE INFLUENCES

Kubota Garden is at heart a Japanese garden; albeit composed entirely of native Pacific Northwest plants. And, in Japanese gardens, water is a fundamental component. Flowing streams, waterfalls and ponds are all common features in Kubota Garden. This quiet pond inspires reflection, framed as it is by the colorful and multi-textured evergreens planted along its borders.

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This natural-looking waterfall cascades over a ‘mountainside’ composed of large rocks.

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There is also a healthy respect for mass and proportion at Kubota Garden, both in the arrangement of plant materials and the placement of garden structures and ornaments. All these elements contribute to a sense of balance and harmony in the garden, in keeping with Japanese principles. This pair of simple stone bridges, while slightly different in design, are united by their diminutive scale and proportion, a perfect complement to the small pond they traverse.

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In Japanese gardens, ponds can represent lakes and rocks can represent whole mountains. In Kubota Garden, stones (or are they mountains?) carry deep symbolism as they point the way through the garden.

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To a Western eye, the ‘emptiness’ of a Japanese garden can prove unsettling. However, it is a key element in Japanese landscape design. This striking space, reached through a small opening in a hedge, makes use of empty space to show how nothing defines something.

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These spaces, and many more, are all free to the public. For more information on Kubota Gardens, click here for the official website.

 

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About carole funger

I'm a garden designer and Maryland Master Gardener living in the Washington, DC area. I blog about new trends in horticulture, inspiring gardens to visit and the latest tips and ideas for how to nurture your own beautiful garden. Every garden tells a story. What's yours?

4 thoughts on “Kicking Back In Seattle’s Lovely Kubota Garden

  1. A really wonderful post, Carole, with great pictures and commentary as usual.

    Your quote “To a Western eye, the ‘emptiness’ of a Japanese garden can prove unsettling” is interesting. Did you feel a sense of confusion or unease looking at the dry gravel gardens and other highly abstracted areas? And if so, why?

    I guess a visit to Seattle is in order the next time I visit Vancouver, B.C.!

  2. Thank you, Paul, for your kind words and I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

    Yes, I think the emptiness can feel confusing and the same goes for the apparent lack of symmetry or pattern. Then, to understand that many of the plants and particularly stones are symbolic of other things, it makes me think of the early Cubist painters, who didn’t actually paint a window, but wrote the word instead. The empty space in the last photo, for instance, made me think simultaneously of the place where my mother is buried and my early years at summer camp. Dark and light at the same time! Obviously, I have a ways to go…

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