A day course at The Raymond Blanc Gardening School will unlock the ancient art of Japanese design.
A winding path leads through flowerbeds and venerable trees to an exotic realm that seems far distant from the surrounding Oxfordshire countryside.
Here, in a shaded corner of the gardens of Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, a vision of traditional Japan unfurls. Shrubs have been shaped like mythical cranes and turtles while lazy carp drift through a silent pool. Peace, calm and an air of mystery prevail.
There couldn’t be a more inspiring person to introduce the scene than Robert Ketchell, its designer. The hotel’s authentic Japanese Tea Garden is one of many he has created worldwide since working as an apprentice under one of Kyoto’s leading masters.
Every feature has a story
Today Ketchell is sharing his lifelong expertise by hosting day courses at The Raymond Blanc Gardening School. As he leads guests among clipped bushes and artfully positioned boulders, he explains how miniaturisation is at the heart of Japanese garden design. Raked pebbles represent the ocean waves and rocks become mountains in diminutive landscapes of supreme balance and detailed delight.
As the day unfolds Ketchell brings to life the philosophy, symbolism and history behind the garden features. Then comes a pause for a bountiful lunch served in the sun-filled glasshouse. Beyond the windows giant vegetables destined for Belmond Le Manoir’s kitchens sprout in the potager just outside.
What makes a great garden?
Come afternoon and guests are invited to roll up their sleeves and set to work. First, they create their own small Japanese trayscapes, arranging sand and stones while Ketchell advises on perspective and energy flow. As he explains: ‘A gardener can be judged by their skill in arranging rocks. What may look random is in fact carefully considered, following years of practice.’
Now everyone is handed secateurs and they return to the Japanese garden outside. In a show of confidence in what they have learned, they are invited to cloud prune the trees. Ketchell advises on which branches to cut: those that grow downwards, back towards the stem or across one another. Soon the wayward twigs are gone and a form emerges that is evocatively Zen.
Ideas to take home
Guests imbibe a wealth of knowledge and ideas, starting with an overview of the Japanese garden’s sacred origins as a sanctuary to attract deities down to earth. With the increasing influence of Buddhist philosophy, it evolved into a retreat designed to enhance mindfulness and wellbeing. But most of all they learn how to bring elements of Japan – plants, textures, sounds, perspectives – into their own green spaces when they return home.
The Japanese Garden course with Robert Ketchell is one of many classes at The Raymond Blanc Gardening School.