Q. and A.: Greg Afman on the Richard and Helen DeVos Japanese Garden

Greg Afman, lead horticulturist at the Frederick Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, Michigan and a member of the North American Japanese Garden Association (NAJGA), recently talked to us about the newly opened Richard and Helen DeVos Japanese Garden.

NAJGA: The garden is definitely a destination for people who love Japanese gardens in North America and beyond.  What do you think will be the highlights of this garden for a visiting Japanese garden enthusiast?

Main gateGA: It’s hard to choose what to highlight in this Japanese garden of over eight acres, but both the tangible and intangible elements come to mind. The main gate and surrounding area definitely make a strong impression. The gate itself sets the tone for the garden with its earth-colored plaster, copper roof, and inviting wooden doors. The attention to detail and the level of craftsmanship is evident, all hinting at what you can expect to experience inside the garden proper.

Inside the garden, a tea House and a zig-zag bridge are sure to excite the Japanese garden enthusiast. As with most of the constructed elements in the garden, they were created in Japan, disassembled, shipped here, and permanently reassembled on site by those same craftsmen who made them in Japan.

Teahouse gate

Zig-zag bridge

Those familiar with (Hoichi) Kurisu’s other works will know that he is a master of creating environments that heighten guest’s awareness of space. For the Richard and Helen DeVos Japanese Garden, Kurisu has thoughtfully transformed an expansive marsh and wooded valley into a space that now offers dramatic changes in elevation and includes both densely planted areas and broad open spaces.


Zen-style gardenThe Zen Style Garden and the Natural Style Moss Garden will be two areas that really appeal to experienced Japanese garden viewers. On the surface, these areas look very different, yet both highlight Hoichi Kurisu’s power to create a space that engages the viewer and has an almost palatable tranquility. In the Zen Style Garden this tranquility is created by a stripped down palette of raked gravel and boulders, whereas the Natural Style Moss Garden uses a blanket of moss, a meandering stream, and a variety of trees and shrubs responding to the local topography.

NAJGA:  What are some of the major design and horticultural challenges faced in creating this garden, especially in your area in horticulture?

GA: One challenge we faced with having all the structures built in Japan is making sure everything meets local building requirements and codes. With regards to horticultural challenges, the soil make-up of the area that the Japanese garden occupies is mostly composed of clay. To deal with this challenge when planting, we tend to plant trees a little higher out of the ground than normal and also amend the soil in areas that call for it.

NAJGA:  Can you tell us more about the design and construction collaborations behind the garden? 

Anish KapoorGA:  Kurisu International has been involved in almost all aspects of the garden’s design and construction. One of these design elements is the the incorporation of modern sculpture. The presence of sculpture is an innovative approach to Japanese garden design. Ours incorporate seven contemporary works by internationally acclaimed artists— Zhang Huan, David Nash, and Anish Kapoor to mention a few.

Kurisu International’s crew is highly trained and skilled and includes some Japanese nationals staying in America to help with this project. The horticulturists here at Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park have had the great pleasure of working beside them for the last two years.

NAJGA: What are some of the milestones/ activities to look forward to during the first few months of the garden’s opening? 

During the first few months, we will have tours of the tea house, a chance for guests to observe a tea ceremony, and we will also be holding one-day camps as a way for children to explore and discover the Japanese garden.

NAJGA: How will this garden complement the rest of the Meijer Gardens, in terms of aesthetics and public engagement?

GA: Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park promotes the enjoyment, understanding and appreciation of gardens, sculpture, the natural environment and the arts. The 8.5 acre Richard Helen DeVos Japanese Garden fits in seamlessly with our existing gardens. In blending horticulture with sculpture, we deepen alignment with the duality of our mission.

Q. and A.: Greg Afman on the Richard and Helen DeVos Japanese Garden