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Shinzen Japanese Garden’s Spring Festival kicks off the start of big changes

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Festival and bonsai show has cultural demonstrations — even a traditional tea ceremony.

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The Clark Bonsai Collection will open in Shinzen in October.

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Garden volunteers look to raise its profile in the community.


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Judy Shehadey and Dwayne Barrett stroll along a lakeside path that winds through Shinzen Japanese Garden.

Across the water, through the trees, there is a glimpse of the cars streaming down Friant Road. Here in the garden, tucked inside Woodward Park, things are quiet and serene.

Shinzen Japanese Garden was created in 1981 and dedicated to Kochi, Fresno’s sister city in Japan, “as a symbol of friendship and international brotherhood.” It’s designed in traditional Japanese style, with stream beds with waterfalls, wooden bridges and a koi pond. The plants and trees reflect each of the four seasons.

“Come November, that’s going to be orange and coral and red,” says Shehadey, who, along with Barrett, serves on the nonprofit board that operates the garden.

Right now, Shinzen is heavy with the pink and white pastels of spring. Azaleas, camellias, crabapples and irises bloom throughout the garden, along with flowering cherries and plums.

To celebrate the season, the garden hosts its annual Spring Festival, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, April 18, and Sunday, April 19.

Guests can explore the five-acre garden while viewing work from local artists, watching martial-arts demonstrations or witnessing a traditional tea ceremony in the garden’s signature tea house.

The Fresno Bonsai Society will host its Spring Show with more than 50 of the miniature potted trees on display. Members will demonstrate the art of bonsai and answers questions from the public.

“It will be a wonderful way to spend a lovely spring day,” Shehadey says.

A garden in bloom

The festival comes at a time of particular activity for the garden.

“Big things are happening,” Shehadey says.

At the top of that list is the Clark Bonsai Collection.

In September, Hanford’s Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture announced it would donate its collection of bonsai trees to Shinzen when the center closes in June. The collection of 100 trees will be relocated to the garden under an arrangement with the Golden State Bonsai Federation. It will be one of three such collections in California. The federation operates similar collections at Oakland’s Lake Merritt and San Marino’s Huntington Botanical Gardens.

“This is such an ideal venue,” says Barrett, who serves as the director for the Clark collection.

The Shinzen exhibit, which is currently under construction, will borrow its design from Clark Center. It will be “hide and reveal,” Barrett says. There will be peaks and winding paths. The trees will be strategically displayed throughout.

Seventy-five of the trees are museum quality and will be used in a display that rotates seasonally. The remaining 25 trees will be kept on site and continue to be trained.

These are trees with history.

The collection’s Damoto tree is at least 75 years old and was planted just before the start of World War II.

“There are several California Junipers in the collection that we estimate to be between 300 to 500 years old,” Barrett says.

Currently, a wood fence, taken directly from the Clark Center, is all that guests will see of the exhibit. Workers began moving trees just this week and will spend the summer wiring, pruning and feeding the trees to make sure they are ready to display. The collection’s grand opening will be Oct. 17-18.

Higher profile

The garden’s board is acting accordingly and using the opportunity to boost Shinzen’s profile in the community.

That means dealing with some of the garden’s longstanding issues, like vandalism, Shehadey says.

She points out one the garden’s stone lanterns, which sits toppled in the dirt just beyond its pedestal. It was pulled out of the lake that morning. Part of the funding for the Clark collection will be used to install cameras and motion sensors to keep people out of the park after hours.

The dozens of peacocks that roam freely in the garden commit another kind of vandalism. While the colorful birds (and their cries) have become part of the identity of the garden, the population has grown too large and is causing damage to the tea house’s thatched roof. Replacing the roof will cost $35,000-$50,000, Shehadey says. To protect that kind of investment, the board will try to relocate some of the birds.

The garden’s maintenance is also an issue. A typical Japanese garden has two full-time gardeners per acre, Barrett says. Shinzen gets some help from city workers, but it mostly relies on volunteers, like Shehadey, who visits the garden at least once a week. A group of gardeners from the Bay Area comes in two times a year to work on a Scott’s pine tree that sits in the middle of the garden.

The board is also drafting a new design plan for the garden and is looking at ways to improve the revenue stream. Shinzen is funded through donations, grants and rental fees.

“Our biggest asset is the garden itself,” she says. “Getting the word out is key.”

The original story has been updated to correct the spelling of Dwayne Barrett’s name.

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