Artists’ garden is a soothing island of Zen

There’s a Schenectady garden that proves a garden doesn’t need an abundance of bloom to be beautiful

There’s a Schenectady garden that proves a garden doesn’t need an abundance of bloom to be beautiful, it needn’t cost a lot of money to be accomplished, and that sometimes looking at common plants with a creative eye produces extraordinary results.

Angela Calabria is a petite 80-year-old artist who has slowly, over time created an Asian garden with Zen-like simplicity inspired by the famous 15th century Japanese rock garden, Ryoanji in Kyoto. When Calabria first saw a replica of this garden at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, she vowed that one day she would have something like this for herself.

“My mouth opened. I was inspired,” she remembered. That was in 1955. She visited the actual garden in Japan in 1988.

And, for the past 21 years, she has continuously pruned, cultivated and designed her Wendell Avenue garden with the principles of Ryoanji in mind. The famous garden consists of raked gravel — symbolizing the sea — and 15 moss-covered boulders — representing islands. The legend is that you cannot see all 15 stones at once unless you have attained enlightenment.

At the Calabria home, the grass area takes the place of gravel. There are five islands with boulders — some mossy — and trees dwarfed by a pruning method called bonsai. There are dozens of other elements of Asian design including sculpted cranes by Calabria, who is both a painter and sculptor.

This isn’t the kind of garden you can scan quickly and fully appreciate. This sort of garden is a practice in subtlety and it is only by taking time to meander, observing the interplay of textures and noticing seemingly small elements that you understand that this, too, is another example of Calabria’s art. And a joyful pursuit.

Moss surrounds a pathway and accentuates a shady restful area to the side of the property. Ferns contrast and complement the leaf structures of hosta and iris. Large trees provide a backdrop for carefully pruned and maintained greenery.

Calabria learned bonsai in order to trim common shrubs — such as yew and burning bush — into living sculptures, adhering to strict Japanese criteria.

“This was a globe yew. I didn’t know what to do with it. But before I took it out I decided to try to create clouds,” she said. Over the course of a few years, the shrub was pruned so just the tips had foliage, clipped into rounded cloud-like shapes. In time the shapes became more distinct and the reddish tones in the bark of the yew picked up other reds in the garden, such as the burgundy of the Japanese maple trees or the veining in Japanese painted fern.

“The Japanese love asymmetry and a monochromatic theme,” she said. The number of islands and the varying textures and shades of greens — from the bristly blue-greens of junipers to the yellow green of some hostas, from the fan-like form of Hinoki cypress to the long frost-induced variegated leaves of Sasa Veitchii bamboo — were conscious decisions, planned and planted to “evoke serenity and timelessness.”

Calabria and her husband hand-picked stones for the garden and then purchased boulders in the Helderbergs. Angela went with the contractor to select each rock and had them placed in the garden exactly as she wanted. “The boulders are the most expensive part of the garden,” she joked. Almost all the plants were there when they bought the house and have been clipped and cultivated to fit this garden.

Other elements of the design were hired out. But what Calabria couldn’t afford to hire out, she did herself. Part of the fence was constructed by a professional using bamboo poles as Calabria specified.

She loved the look, but couldn’t afford to do as much as she wanted. Undeterred and determined, Calabria decided to shop for bamboo poles and make the remainder of the fence herself. She did.

“I’m an artist,” she said as an explanation. And also a carpenter, evidently. The garden remains a work in progress. There are stones cradled in wire and tied to tree branches to weigh them down to the desired height.

“If the tree is not shaped in the right way, you force it. In time, the branches will stay without the stone,” she said. Each year, once a year, the bonsai trees get a pruning. “Otherwise they would be very large,” she said.

Calabria’s husband, Frank, professor emeritus for Union College and an accomplished ballroom dancer, pointed to a chair on the deck that overlooks the garden and said, “This is my favorite place to be in the world.”

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