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The Evolution of Garden Chi

Como Interpretive Volunteer for the Ordway Gardens


We have a precious gem within Como Park. The Ordway Gardens - a Japanese Collection vibrates with the essence of Feng Shui, namely, harmony with Nature.  This seems obvious when describing any garden; however, there is a subtle yet palpable difference between planting a beautiful garden with Japanese elements and truly tending that delicate balance of yin and yang.

The traditional yang elements of Japanese gardens are lanterns, ornaments, water features, rocks, pathways, bridges, and plantings.

The yin elements are intention and ceremony. The intention is to create a meditative space within Nature as a metaphor for life.

Its more than 110 year history exemplifies how the chi in this place, enhanced by the garden, interacts with a community to weave two cultures together.

The garden’s chi has evolved with the ebb and flow around
- the intention to have a Japanese garden;
- the location changes;
- the financial and staff support;
- the name shifts;
- each renovation.

1905 - The seeds of intention (yin) to have a Japanese garden at Como were planted with four traditional stone lanterns(yang), purchased from the Japanese Pavilion at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. They anchored a Japanese-style garden on Cozy Lake, which periodically flooded, and have graced nearly every garden since.

1930’s Depression - the garden disappeared when the lake was drained to construct the current golf course.  The lanterns rested in storage, awaiting their next placement in the 1970’s up the hill.

1955 - Nagasaki, Japan and St. Paul partnered as the first Asian-American sister city relationship in the US. That program’s intention was to create anetwork that would be a champion for peace and prosperity by fostering bonds between people from different communities around the world.”

With that partnership, the intention for a Japanese garden - this time behind Como’s Conservatory -had its second germination.

1975 -  With funding from the St. Paul-Nagasaki Sister City Committee (SPNSCC), Masami Matsuda, a 9th generation landscape architect from Nagasaki, visited the new site to collaborate with Como Park officials on the design. For Mr. Matsuda, experiencing the energy of the actual land was key to creating an authentic Japanese garden at Como.

While in MN, Mr. Matsuda created a dry landscape or zen garden on the site to let the idea of the garden take root.  After a year, the Zen style garden reverted to Nature while financial momentum was building.

1977 - His traditional design - a combination Mountain & Water and Strolling garden styles - was presented to the City of St. Paul.

There is a significant cultural difference between a Japanese garden design and an American one. The traditional Japanese design takes the form of a watercolor representation of the feeling the garden should evoke, while the US versions are eminently practical, noting dimensions, specific materials, and plants along with exact placements.

1979 -  the Ordway Memorial Japanese Garden blossomed at the current site overseen by a California company, attempting to implement Mr. Matsuda’s design. The result -  a lovely garden with the trademark Japanese elements (yang) without fully manifesting the intended feel (yin).

1980 - Major challenges surfaced.  Hundreds of plants died that winter.  The pond cracked, leaking water. The Conservatory had neither the staff, volunteers nor expertise to maintain the garden.

Between 1984 and 1992 - Mr. Matsuda returned 4 times to identify and oversee critical improvements to fully implement the feeling and intention he had envisioned: “ …that this Japanese garden will be a bridge between our two cities and countries, and a place of cultural exchange, understanding and peace.  I truly feel that each tree, every blade of grass, and each and every stone, is a spiritual link to my heart.”      -Masami Matsuda


To maintain that look and feel, Matsuda-san
1) repaired the pond’s foundation;
2) introduced MN hardy plants to accommodate our winters;
3) re-sited additional boulders to strengthen the “bones” of the garden;
4) constructed a teahouse and yin garden, balancing the yang Mountain-Pond /Strolling garden;
5) trained volunteers and staff in correct pruning techniques.

1992 - The Como Charlotte Partridge Ordway Memorial Japanese Garden re-opened with a stronger balance of yin and yang completed under the guidance of a master of chi.

Mid 2000’s -  The garden was ready for an upgrade, especially to open up the hidden entrance.  Prior to his death, Mr. Matsuda approved the proposed plans.

2011-13 This renovation made improvements that awarded the re-named The Ordway Gardens - A Japanese Collection a top 12 national rank among Japanese gardens in the USA.  The name reflects the addition of a new conservatory wing and plaza, displaying Como’s extensive bonsai collection, increased professional staff, and the open, welcoming entrance to the Charlotte Partridge Ordway Garden.

So come, delight in the chi of this garden and, in the process, enhance your own chi.  The garden has so many more subtle manifestations of yang and yin. We’ll explore them together in the presentation before you enter the garden where you will experience them yourself and find more that speak only to you.


Barbara Bobrowitz, M.Ed., CPFS