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Growing serenity: Franklin students shape Japanese garden

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About a quarter-mile from Franklin Community High School, a small slice of Japanese culture is being cultivated.

A flagstone pathway leads through a wooden torii gate, traditionally used in Japan to mark the entrance into a holy shrine.

Weeping cherry trees, cool-bark maples and bamboo dot the property. Lanterns and flags decorate the curved plant beds. A mock pond, created using polished blue glass instead of water, adds to the serene scene.

A group of Franklin students have transplanted the serenity and peace of the traditional Japanese garden onto their school’s campus. For the past five years, students in the Japanese language program have planted trees, shrubs and flowers found in Japan, planned out beds, built seating and kept the garden alive.

The small natural sanctuary provides students with a unique place to study, an area to reflect or meditate, and highlights the city’s close connection with Japanese culture.

“It’s something we left behind, like a landmark,” senior Will Endris said. “It’s not like something in sports, where it’s stats in a book. This is something we did, that will be here for years and years that you can always come back to see.”

On a warm April afternoon, Endris and fellow senior Alex Stucker jabbed their shovels in the section of garden reserved for the Class of 2013. Each senior would have the chance to plant a pink weeping cherry tree, but they had to do the work themselves.

This year’s graduating class were freshmen one year after the garden was first planted. They’ve been the first class to help with it for all four years of schooling, which has given them a sense of ownership of it.

“We started it our freshman year, so it’s kind of our baby,” Stucker said. “It started when we started.”

The garden was started by Kathy Streit, who at the time was the Japanese teacher at Franklin. She learned of a $400 grant opportunity through the state that provided funds to schools for projects that benefited the community.

Working with her advanced Japanese language students, they came up with a plan to plot a traditional Japanese garden in an unused portion of the school campus.

“Kids don’t have such a connection to the earth, and growing things. They’re into the more technical. If you get them out there with all of this nature, they’re exposed to all kinds of new things,” Streit said.

Since the early 1900s, Franklin has had a connection to Japanese culture. One of its most famous citizens, Thomasine Allen, left the city to work as a missionary in Kuji, Japan.

That relationship led Franklin and Kuji to become sister cities. The two celebrated the 50th anniversary of their relationship in 2010.

Japanese companies such as NSK Corp., KYB and Premium Composite Technology North America have built facilities in Franklin, strengthening the bond.

The garden was a way to reflect that, Streit said.

Streit worked with school officials to gain approval, and once they were awarded the grant, her class went to work planning the garden.

Each student chose a tree that would be found in a garden in Japan. Those cherry trees, maples and honey locust became the basis for the plot.

“When I was still teaching at the high school, I used it as a place to teach Japanese,” she said. “I used it to teach about the elements of the Japanese garden, and then we’d practice grammar patterns using words we’d use in the garden, such as dig, plant, ground.”

Subsequent years brought additions and improvements to the garden.

The Franklin version deviates slightly from the traditional Japanese garden. In Japan, gardens are mostly comprised of green plants and tend to avoid flowers and bright colors.

But the classes have tried to keep many of the ideals of Japanese landscaping alive. Odd numbers of items are considered lucky, so Streit tried to keep the garden with an odd number of plants.

Imperfection is also an idea the Japanese consider important.

“In art it highlights the imperfections of life. It’s not all the same and smoothed out. So we haven’t tried to have a perfectly round garden or a perfect square,” Streit said. “We let the kids decide most of what we do.”

The garden has never used school funds or taxpayer money, Streit said. Instead, she and the other Japanese teachers have taken advantage of grants and donations to expand and improve it.

Lowe’s provided a $4,000 grant, which helped pay for a pergola that provided seating and shelter for classes that used it. The high school’s construction class helped build it.

The Johnson County Garden Club provided money that was used to make a ramp, so that the garden would be handicapped-accessible.

“We wanted to get it available for all of the classes in the high school to use it for instruction, or just to get out of the classroom and have a different place to learn,” Streit said.

Though Streit is retired, she still works with Japanese teacher Geoffrey Dean to care for it. She does much of the maintenance and upkeep, while Dean’s students spend time clearing it.

Senior Gage Gregory started taking a Japanese class four years ago. He didn’t want to do the common languages such as Spanish or French and thought the Japanese option was unique.

Since then, he’s been helping with the garden, learning to appreciate the culture of Japan as well as its language.

The fact that the garden will be a permanent part of Franklin’s campus in the future is important to him.

“I’m definitely going to want to come here and show my kids this. I’ll visit after I graduate,” Gregory said.

Japanese gardens

Common plants include the morning glory, pampas grass, white chrysanthemum, spider lily and bamboo

Common trees include the ginko, pine, Japanese maple, flowering cherry, spruce, willow and crabapple trees.

Incorporate extended views into their design, with vistas from every direction looking off into the distance.

Contain elements of harmony, order, simplicity, unity, and variety that appeal to the intellect as well as the senses.

Typical elements besides plants include ponds, stones, bridges, lanterns, water basins and fences.

Water is found in many Japanese gardens as it is a fundamental element in human existence. They are asymmetrical, as they would be in nature. Sounds of water splashing from a waterfall or the trickling of a stream provides extra sensory interests.

Water can also be symbolized by an area of fine sand or polished stones.

Bridges, lanterns and fences are all architectural features constructed of natural materials to symbolize an intrinsic connection between architecture and the landscape.

Stones are another fundamental element within the Japanese Garden. Some stones are used as stepping stones while others may be just to look at. These often symbolize mountains.

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