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Wilder Institute/Calgary Zoo Internship with the Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden

​When staff at the Wilder Institute/Calgary Zoo wanted to learn about the Japanese-style pruning for their Exploration Asia exhibit, they reached out to Cody Fong, Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden (NYJG) Foreman with the City of Lethbridge. Soon after, the opportunity to set up an internship on Japanese-style pruning was created.

Mutual respect was fostered between the Wilder Institute/Calgary Zoo and NYJG Horticulturalists many years ago when the NYJG hosted the regional conference for the North America Japanese Garden Association.  When Katherine Varze, Wilder Institute/Calgary Zoo Ornamental Arborist, expressed interest in learning more about Japanese pruning, her manager reached out to Fong.

Japanese pruning is an ancient method of training and cutting back new growth to achieve a mature and open branch structure that creates visually stunning trees and shrubs. The centuries-old technique done using hand trimmers is taught by pruning masters, who taught Fong the art.

"It is important to learn the knowledge and skills to prune respectively and take customs and traditions that Japanese gardening has passed down from generation to generation," says Varze. "You don't want to place stones or prune in a way that may disrespect the culture."

Fong has worked at the Japanese Garden since 2004, and tried to instill in Varze as much knowledge as possible in the two days they worked together. Fong outlined that when building a regional Japanese Garden, you use local plants and use the Japanese pruning technique on those materials. You do not want to try to create a garden that would mimic another garden from another country, as those are reflective of their region.

"You take inspiration from your ideal landscape and scenery from your area," explains Fong. "If you're building a mountain scene you would want to draw inspiration locally from places such as Waterton or Banff, whereas if you are building a river scene you would use a local riverbed to see how stones and plant material interact with the river to bring a natural and calming feeling to your space."

Fong explained the utilization of local evergreen trees and how to prune them to promote growth. To maintain the proper scale of all the pines in the garden, Japanese pruning techniques are used to constantly promote new growth. With constant thinning and pruning of the leader growth, new buds are achieved on older growth. Since evergreen needles fall off on average every 3-5 years, new growth needs to replace the older needles in order to maintain new needles where the pads are wanted.

"I felt comfortable asking (Fong) questions, and felt that I could continue to ask questions and reach out in the future," says Varze. "I am very appreciative for the opportunity and hope it is something that can happen again."

"I would like to continue to collaborate and have the ability to work together on future pruning, and winter light ideas," says Fong. 

The partnership focused on sharing the knowledge, interest, skill and art to the Japanese pruning style. Varze expressed that she was leaving with more confidence in her Japanese pruning and she was excited to put her new skill set to the test.  

Next time you head up to the Wilder Institute/Calgary Zoo to see the animals and scenery, remember that Lethbridge's Japanese Garden and its Foreman Cody Fong helped contribute to the Exploration Asia Exhibit's authenticity.