April 20, 2011
The Man Who Planted Trees
By Theresa Forte

Canadian students are invited to Japan for a once-in-a-lifetime mosaiculture construction opportunity.

Mosaiculture, a horticultural art form where spectacular, 3-D fantasies are sculpted out of living plants, was introduced to Canada in the mid-1990s through the vision of Montreal landscape architect Lise Cormier. Plants, selected for their colours, textures and growth habits, are used to create designs, motifs, sculptures and reliefs. First used in 1885 to introduce instant topiary to the Rothschild estate, the art form was also developed by Chinese gardeners. In its best form, Mosaiculture uses a palette of plants to illustrate a well-loved story â€" the animated scenes can be truly magical.

In April of 2009, second-year students at the Niagara Parks School of Horticulture were invited to assist in the construction of the $1.8-million 3-D exhibit entitled The Man who Planted Trees at the 2009 International Exposition in Hamamatsu, Japan, A Symphony of People and Nature. The students participated under their instructor Charles Hunter, in partnership with Mosaiculture International of Montreal.

The Man Who Planted Trees tells the story of Elzeard Bouffier, a shepherd who retreated to a windswept mountainside after losing his wife and infant child. Each day, the shepherd meticulously plants carefully selected acorns on the barren hillsides, while his sheep graze. As the trees grow, life is slowly restored to the desolate hillside: birds and bees return, water flows and wild horses graze in the meadows. Elzeard lives a long life and is blessed to see the fruits of labour" the land is lush, green and productive once again. A spirit of hope prevails.

Labour of love
The students had to complete more than 100 hours of additional labour, beyond their standard 40-hour schedule at the Niagara Parks Botanical Garden, before they could leave. Luke Serbina, 22, a second-year student, was one of the participants. "From the get-go we were ecstatic-then, reality set in when we actually had to do all the work and raise funds for the travel part of the trip," he said. "But, none of us would ever complain about the difficulties we had to overcome to make this trip a reality."

While the opportunity to work on this exciting project and then complete a study tour in Japan certainly sounded glamorous, the reality translated into hard work and dedication. Tristan Baxter, 23, also worked on the project. "We put in 11-hour days. The heat and humidity hit us early in the morning," he continued, "but we had really good breaks, with fresh fruit and delicious food-it was really hard work, but very rewarding."

"It took 18 days of slugging it out to get everything planted. We were the muscle™ explained Charles Hunter. There was a palette of several hundred plants to interpret into cloth, hair, shoes, dog fur and horse's manes. On average, the crew planted 18,000 plants in Hamamatsu's hot, humid weather each day.

Horticultural artistry
To translate her vision into a mosaiculture sculpture, Lise Cormier sat down with horticulturists to work out the plant materials. How do you represent a dog? Carex comans, a rust-brown dwarf ornamental grass, translated beautifully into the tousled hair of a sheep dog. "The horses are finely clipped to show fine details like muscle tone and body form. Mexican feather grass (Stippa tenuissima) becomes an upright mane if it's watered and kept green, or let it dry out, and it becomes a fluffy, flowing mane," explained Hunter.

Metal exoskeletons were shipped empty from North America, positioned on the site, fitted with internal irrigation systems, and finally stuffed with soil and fitted with a skin of landscape fabric-all before anything could be planted. This was very labour intensive. "It took a crew of three or four people four or five days to fill one horse with soil. If the skin isn't just right, you'll get sags," said Hunter. "Once we got going, we planted 300-400 plants per hour. We planted 18,000 plants per day when we installed the field of cosmos." "It was a real challenge to move the stones™ Serbino explained. "River rock, no larger than a potato, was ordered for the project. When the 40 tons of rock arrived, most pieces were the size of a football, and the smallest pieces were potato-sized-we had to spread all the rock by hand™

The results were impressive. Imagine a 2,000 sq. m field transformed with five-metre tall sculptures, recounting the heartâ€"warming story of Elzeard Bouffier. The shepherd, crouched on one knee, was carefully planting a seedling in the deserted wasteland; a groundcover of coarse rock represented barren soil. His sheep grazed nearby under the watchful eye of his playful dog. In the middle ground, horses appeared to run through a flowering meadow of cosmos. In the distance, arcs of Japanese maple trees symbolized hope and rebirth. Guests travelled through the display along a 'musical staff' pathway, and became living notes in this joyful composition. While onsite, the students were also invited to work with international teams from the United States and Italy. "It's nice to see what everyone else brings to the table," Hunter explained. "I find it fascinating how so many different cultures came to the site with different interpretations of what the events' theme, A Symphony of People and Nature meant to them."

Memories of Japan
Through this unique opportunity to visit Japan, the students were also able to complete a compulsory element of their training, a 14-day research tour of horticultural facilities throughout the country. Organized by Hunter and students Laura Caddy and Blane Finney, the experience took them from Tokyo to Hiroshima, Kyoto to Kanazawa; through alpine, Zen and castle gardens, to wading through some of the best onsens (hot springs) of Nagano.

So what impressed the students about Japan? "The trains were impressive-fast, smooth, and with good food service on board," said Tristan Baxter. "Japan is a blend of new technology and old, sacred traditions-ancient shrines and palaces stood in the centre of metropolitan areas. There were many significant gardens, each well-tended." Serbino agreed, "The Japanese love plants. They squeeze a potted plant into every spare corner." Both students were impressed with the Japanese tradition of taking great care to support and save a plant. "If a tree becomes a hazard in North America, we cut it down. In Japan, they take great care to support and save an old tree," explained Baxter. "Great care is taken to sculpt and shape trees for ornamental value. Ancient trees are treasured."

The Man Who Planted Trees exhibit won the Grand Honorary Award; members of the international jury added that it was the best exhibit that they had seen for all the editions of Mosaicultures Internationale. "The Montreal exhibit was elected 'Choice no.1' by the visitors," said Lise Cormier, head of Mosaiculture International. Yves Vaillancourt, chief horticulturist at Mosaiculture, was generous in his praise, "The Niagara Parks students are the best that I've ever had the pleasure to work with. Their training and dedication truly shines through."

Theresa M. Forte is a garden consultant, garden columnist and photographer based in the Niagara peninsula.