The Thomas E. Ricks Gardens are always at their prime during the summer months. Students work hard to create and maintain the botanical gardens on campus by adding to the beautiful landscapes each year. This year, students completed a new Japanese Garden located in the southeast corner.

Skyler Westergard, landscape design and architecture faculty member, said it’s the students that oversee the creation of these spaces.

“Most everything in these gardens are student-built projects,” Westergard said. “So, as you walk around these gardens, all this stuff is student projects from over the years.”

The most recent project, the Japanese Gardens, has been under construction for the last four semesters, with the completion of the tea house taking place during the Spring 2021 Semester.

Westergard explained how his fascination with Japanese Gardens influenced what he designed.

“I have no Japanese heritage,” Westergard said. “I don’t know Japanese. I haven’t even been to Japan, but there’s just something when I go to a Japanese Garden, as a landscape architect and designer of space, it just feels all good inside.

Westergard said that designing and building the garden was a great learning experience for him and his students. They applied many unfamiliar techniques, including carving out a stooping basin from stone and building an arched bridge.

The students in Westergard’s class learned how to use diamond-edged saws and angle grinders to cut out the basin. They were also given the task of finding the right paint color for the bridge.

The red color, also known as vermillion, has great symbolic significance in the Shinto religion, and often plays a part in Japanese gardens. The color symbolizes a shedding of evil influences. Westergard assigned his students to go to all the professional paint stores in the area to find the best outdoor paint and primer and to match the color.

Westergard said that it is the small details—like getting the exact vermillion color for the bridge or carving out a basin from a hand-selected stone—that makes Japanese gardens so distinctive.

“The Japanese, as garden designers, are so unique,” Westergard said. “They are so good; and the details, the subtlety of the experience, is really important.”

He explained that even the placement of the steppingstones on the path was carefully considered. The uneven path is meant to draw the eye toward small aspects that could otherwise be missed.

“Just like a painter can control the way our eye moves on a painting,” Westergard said. “This is all intentional, because I’m creating a picture here. This is art, and it’s tangible; it’s touchable, so we actually move into the painting, and we move through it.”

The Japanese garden is meant to be a journey. At the entrance of the garden, just under the Japanese arch, a sign reads, “Satori no roji,” which means “Path of Enlightenment.” Roji means “a mossy tea garden path.”

The path leads visitors to the stooping basin where they would traditionally wash in silence and wait to be admitted into the inner garden. They would then cross the vermillion bridge, symbolizing a shedding of evil influences, and finally arrive at the tea house, where the ceremony would commence. '

Sarah Hedrick, a junior studying horticulture, took Westergard’s class during the Spring 2020 Semester during which time the tea house was constructed.

“I liked how the class was really hands-on,” Hedrick said. “It was just fun seeing everything come together. It was fun trying and learning new things.”

Hedrick said that using power tools and saws was intimidating at first, but she is glad she has a basic understanding of how they work and feels that it will help her in the future.

“I’m not really interested in going into the construction side of landscaping, but I can use my experiences from this class as I design things in the future,” Hedrick said.

The new Japanese garden is still the focus for the coming fall semester. More plants will be added around the tea house and throughout the garden.

“The big thing to remember is that it’s about the student learning experience,” Westergard said. “We are training them to go out and design and create things. To me, it’s a win-win because I get to continue to sharpen my saw as a designer, and students are learning and are getting a hands-on experience, and we get to learn together.”