I Always Carry a Knife In My Belt

I should probably elaborate on that title. It would be more accurate to say, I always carry a garden knife in my work belt. When it comes to tools of the trade, my hands down, all time favorite is the hori hori. With great style, form and durability—not to mention a fascinating history—this tool is as valuable as gold in the garden.

Origin story

Let’s get into the weeds on the origins of this wonderful tool (pun intended). Hori (pronounced with a soft “r” that almost sounds like a “d”) is a variation on the Japanese term horu which means “Dig”. Hori hori is an onomatopoeia for the sound made when the tool is plunged into the soil. Try it: the first syllable is very short (ho). The second (ri) gets the emphasis. Now, say it two times fast. Do you hear it? Pretty cool, as far as names go, right?

Back in the Meiji period (late 1800’s), the era of the samurai and katana (sword) was gradually being eliminated. People were no longer permitted to carry their weapon in public. Because of this, two groups faced a big problem. Farmers who normally carried their katana needed an alternative, and the Toko, or sword craftsman, needed a new product to fabricate and sell. Thus, tools such as the hori hori became a perfect match for each.

Today, in modern day Anyplace, we get to reap the benefit of this rich history. I like to imagine myself wielding my mini-katana against a raging clump of Pennisetum or driving it into some hard-packed clay!

What is it? How does it work?

Also referred to as a garden knife the hori hori is typically between 11” – 12” in total length, and although the blade ranges from 6”-7.25” I’ve seen some as long as 8” but I don’t recommend these longer ones as they tend to have less stability and sturdiness. They certainly have their uses but are less versatile than the blades we’re talking about here.

Traditionally, a hori hori has a wooden handle which braces a steel knife-shaped blade with two rivets. Some manufacturers will have a fairly sharp point at the tip, and others will be slightly more blunt. It’s sharp along one side and serrated on the other. Although the blade itself is straight like a knife it’s lightly concave which is great for removing soil. Most of them also have measurements etched on the blade in both inches and millimeters for ease in judging planting depth and spacing. Most come with a leather sheath that can be attached to your belt, although personally I use a multi-tool belt and give my hori hori its own special compartment.

Choosing a Hori Hori

Hori horis have gained popularity over the past few years and now, there are a great many to choose from. The most significant difference is construction, and handle material—wood, composite or plastic. Here is a list of the considerations you should have in mind when choosing your tool:

  • Handle: Wood will provide the best, non-sweaty grip but is harder to clean. Plastic breaks more quickly but rinses off nicely. Watch out for ones with ridges. They will tear up your hands!
  • Blade: Should be a single monolithic piece of stainless steel the full length of the tool and encased in the the wooden (or other material) handle. If not, you’ll find that the blade becomes loose and unstable.
  • Blade: A heavy sturdy blade is best. Thinner, lighter blades will bend. Stainless steel is most common, steel is typically heavier but you must care for it in order to prevent rust.
  • Blade: You want tight sharp serrations which are best for everything from opening compost bags to dividing a Phormium.

My opinion

Personally, I’m a traditionalist, and I happen to be living in Japan so, my preferred brand is Nisaku which has been around for ages and their products are made here in Japan. They can also be found on Amazon or at Home Depot. I’ve had mine for nearly 6 years now and it’s as solid today as the day I first took it out of it’s sheath.

Taking care of a Hori Hori

Some people want low maintenance gardens, some want low maintenance tools. This is one of them. Be sure to wipe it down and dry it after each use. Keep it protected from rain or constant moisture. If you have a wooden handle, a rub down once a year with linseed oil will keep it nice. Having the blade sharpened once a year will also keep you loving it for many many years. That’s pretty much it!

An excellent quality hori hori will last a decade or so. In my 25 year career I’ve only had to replace mine once, and that was because my first one found it’s way into someone else’s tool belt.

What you can do with a Hori Hori

Okay, now you know all about the tool itself let’s look at all the things it can do! Why would I carry one with me at all times in the garden, even above my clippers? Here’s a quick-fire rundown:

  • Weeding
  • Sheering grasses and other strappy plants
  • Removing root vegetables (slides right down the side of a carrot)
  • Transplanting any plants up to a 5 gallon container
  • Lifting up netafim drip irrigation tubing (watch out not to puncture it)
  • Cutting sod
  • Planting seeds (you can measure the depth)
  • Planting anything
  • Adding soil amendments in a targeted and efficient manner such as in pots
  • Cutting roots
  • Cutting small limbs or branches
  • Dividing clumps of plant material
  • Removing succulent pups and replanting them
  • Loosening soil
  • Opening the screw on an irrigation valve when I’ve forgotten my screwdriver
  • Cutting open bags of amendments
  • Digging up or rolling rocks

And that’s just what I used it for last week! If you’re already a hori hori user, I bet you can add to my list. And if not, I really hope that you’ll give one a try. I don’t think you’ll regret it.

GARDEN ART: Found Items

Do you find that there are some things in your life that you just can’t let go of? I’m not being esoteric here. I mean “things”. Like “stuff”. Maybe it’s an old chair with busted springs or a jewelry box you’ve had as long as you can remember. Maybe it’s even jewelry. We all have treasures that aren’t so much treasures as much as they are objects that have inspired and created memories for us.

For me it was some of my grandmother’s old teacups. She was a bold, brassy British woman that stood at a towering 4’9”. She was bossy, and silly, and would break out into a song and dance, whenever the mood struck her—an ‘old ditty’ always at the ready. In her twilight years, as she became more subdued, it seemed that the only thing that brought her comfort was a nice, hot cup of tea. I inherited several of her cups and although I never became much of a tea drinker myself, I simply couldn’t let them go.

One day I was trying in earnest to cull our overflowing boxes of “things”. So many tea cups and not a cupboard to put them in. I noticed that I had a few small succulents that hadn’t been planted yet when it dawned on me. They were just the perfect size! I didn’t need to throw out the memories. I simply needed to redefine them to fit into my world. Now they’re not just Nanna’s old things, they’re a wonderful memory of a great lady, brightening my kitchen window.

And we can do so much more!

THE INSPIRATION

We often think of the garden as a serious place. A proper place. It is a place for well curated plants, clipped just so. There is nice furniture, that belongs on a patio. It is to be enjoyed in the proper way (you can add a stuffy British accent there for effect if you like).

As a professional landscape designer, I will say “Yes, but…” This may all true but if you want to really transform a garden, make it into not only a beautiful horticultural experience, but a deeply personal space to be enjoyed, I’d like to give you permission—no, I’d like to strongly encourage you—to color outside of the lines a little.

Years ago when my son was very small, we used to go to the newly opened Kidspace Children’s Museum in Pasadena, a lively and creative space for children to learn and play. I had started my own landscape design business about 3 or 4 years prior, and was still looking for my voice in the field of design.

One day at the museum, my son and I were playing around in the amphitheater—he was working on climbing from one tier to another as I sat on a curved concrete bench watching. Suddenly and simultaneously, both of our attention became hyper-focused on the concrete itself. He began grasping and prying at what turned out to be little Hot Wheels cars embedded in the concrete.

I was intrigued. I had heard of people using different types of rocks and pebbles in concrete but this was entirely different. And what a great idea! Why not add something unique into the concrete to make it personal? Records, Leggos. How about the favorite dish set that was ruined when a couple were broken? Or, throw in some nails and wood screws. Suddenly, what was plain, dull concrete becomes an element of focus and a personal reflection of the owner. So many possibilities.

Courtesy of Kidspace Children’s Museum

APPLICATION

Even if you’re not working on a project that includes concrete, you can still insert a little something unique—a little “you”—into the garden. A good friend has bowling balls in his garden! When he and his wife bought their house there were a few in the garden, not so much a design choice. Perhaps an, “I don’t know what to do with these things” situation. Rolling forward a few years, they added one or two more, and soon a friend, children’s singer-songwriter Dave Kinnoin became smitten with the idea of it. Soon he was a bowling ball benefactor, even penning a short poem about his contribution and taping it to the ball. They now have 25 in the garden. How great is that?! Bowling balls can be plain or exotic and beautiful, but the story and the memories attached to them add untold depth and enjoyment to their whole garden.

Bowling balls and teacups are a great start and here are more examples to consider:

  • Motorcycle helmets (clear out the foam padding first)
  • An old tube t.v. (convert into a planter by removing the glass screen and innards)
  • A chair where the seat has been replaced with plants
  • An old tool box turned planter
  • A converted vanity
  • A wheelbarrow
  • Empty wine bottles, different colors
  • An old guitar, piano or other hallow musical instrument

Pro-design tips and cautions

Before you start putting stuff out in the garden, willy nilly, let’s go over a few pointers in design and logistics:

DESIGN

  • Place small items in areas along a walking path with very low growing plants so they will be discovered.
  • Larger items have a little more flexibility and can be placed in and amid plants that have varying sizes.
  • If the item is tall or angular it will work nicely with weepy and flowing types of plants.
  • Be judicious on the quantity of items you use. One, odd item in the garden will seem like an accident. Two items, well, I’m sort of opposed to even numbers (too matchy-matchy). Three or five is great when you triangulate them through the garden.
  • Don’t add too many pieces (“too many” will depend on the size of your garden, so use your best judgement). The idea is to have a garden which expresses a playfulness and whimsy, not one that looks like an outside junk yard.

LOGISTICS

  • Plastic will degrade, fade, and turn into powder. Don’t use it!
  • Wood, if you want the object to stay in it’s present condition, should be treated and protected first. Sometimes, however, the process of decay and weathering over time, is part of it’s unique beauty. Just know that wood directly on soil or directly exposed to water, snow or sun will decay more rapidly. You can place wooden objects on some kind of paver to keep it off the soil, just be sure to level and compact the soil first to avoid uneven and unwanted settling.
  • Metal is great but know its properties. Copper looks better and better over time as it patinas (green staining). Steel will rust. Stainless steel will remain unchanged.
  • Ceramic and glass is fine.

Wrapping up

Keep in mind once these found and unique treasures are incorporated into the garden space, they become part of the cacophony of the garden. That is to say they must be cared for, just as you would care for the plants. Make sure to occasionally go out and check in on these items. Look for things like mud splatter, bird droppings or plants that have grown over and obscured them from view. To reiterate, we want them to look intentional, not discarded.

I believe that a garden is an expression of who you are as a person. Whether I’m playing around in my own garden or designing for someone else, part of my “process” is to really get into the head of who’s garden I’m working on and to bring their unique personality and perspective into their outdoor living room. In this way, the garden is a place to feel at home, and a place to share with others a small piece of who you are.

ABOUT THIS BLOG & ABOUT ME

Natalie Cousins-Robledo

FIRST, ABOUT MY BEGINNINGS

Hi there! My name is Natalie Cousins-Robledo and I’m the owner of successful landscape design firm, Minanda Landscape Design. We’ve been creating spectacular gardens for 16 years now but, my personal journey to this point was hardly a straight shot. It’s been more like a circuitous, meandering one through multiple careers and life changes on my way to doing something that I truly love.

Like many of you, I didn’t graduate from college, jump into my dream job, and BAM! Successful career! I changed my major a few times first, got a degree in Peace Studies, worked for a while and then went back to school to study landscape design. I’ve been a mediator, a voice and piano teacher, a bank teller, a case manager for pregnant and parenting teenagers, a fundraiser for a major cultural institution, and more along the way.

The 1998 memory of my first inkling to explore landscape design is as salient today as ever. Grumbling over a bowl of noodles, I was again, miserable at my current job and pondering if I’d ever land on a career that fulfilled me. “Well, what do you like doing?” my husband prodded.

That was easy. We had recently rented a house with a huge back yard and I was taking it over. Vegetables in the sunniest spots, a compost bin in the back and even a home made worm bin which I’m particularly proud of considering this was before Google and YouTube. I delighted in spending every minute of unscheduled time in my first garden since childhood when my dad used to tell me I had to work in the “Weed Patch” before I was allowed to go out and play. Now, the nostalgia of that sweet memory drew me into the garden day after day. How could I turn this love of gardening into a career? Design was my answer.

I didn’t immediately leave my job, or jump into a classroom though. I started by devouring everything I could get my hands on. I bought books, subscribed to magazines and took classes at our local nursery. I bought plants (promptly killing most of them before buying more and learning what I did wrong). I even designed friends’ gardens for free just for the practice. Only then, after really proving to myself that this was not another phase, did I begin studying landscape design in a small and short lived but exciting program at Cal State Northridge. Licensed Landscape Architects taught us everything from design theory, and construction materials to irrigation design and plant ID. It was heaven!

I made it my goal to dive in 100%. I wasn’t taking a traditional approach with a degree from a 4 year program so I needed to make myself as knowledgeable and professional as my future counterparts who had. I won’t kid you. It was a lot of work. But here’s the thing, it never actually felt like work!

The view from my office window

Six months after completing my design certificate program, I interviewed at 4 landscape architectural firms and got 2 job offers. I began working for a firm where I learned the ropes of project management for both commercial and residential projects. I’d take a project from the earliest iterations of a concept and to the grand opening. I took on side jobs for homeowners in my neighborhood and cut my teeth on going it alone. I networked with other professionals and joined associations which led me to getting a job working on a successful landscape makeover television show called The Outdoor Room with Jamie Durie for 3 seasons. I’ve won a couple of awards for my work and have designed and installed gardens for countless fabulous clients. When, after 4 years in the field, I became pregnant, and the phone calls began coming in at a regular pace, I knew that I was ready for my own firm.

It was the best move I’ve ever made!

NOW, ABOUT THE BLOG

Natalie Cousins Robledo
Sakura (Cherry Blossoms) Tokyo, Japan

Now that you know all about my landscape beginnings let me tell you about this brand new beginning and why I’m here, in the blogosphere.

Recently, I had a huge life-change! My family and I relocated from Pasadena California to Tokyo for 18 months, and what an amazing experience it has been so far! With so much to see and learn my expertise as a designer has deepened greatly and every garden and green space that I explore fills me with wonder. I am thrilled at just being here in this place of rich historical significance, and witnessing the remarkable achievement of living art everywhere you look, as one season unfolds into the next.

Fall color in the gardens of Tokyo Teien Metropolitan Museum of Art

Since arriving here in August 2018, I’ve continued to design and manage the maintenance division of my company from here. The physical distance that separates me from running the hectic day-to-day aspect of business, however, has brought into focus an exciting, new opportunity that I’m eager to explore.

It was not too long ago that someone asked me how I got into designing landscapes. It was a new friend who was picking my brain about her own garden. She had good ideas but was frustrated because she was having trouble tying them together and executing them. She felt great about the plants she selected but wanted to include a stone patio. This is where things started to get tricky. She tried doing it herself but had some trouble with the pavers staying put. Her regular gardener offered to help and although the pavers didn’t sink this time, he arranged them in a way that just looked all wrong.

I realized in that moment that I’d heard this story before. Not exactly this story, but versions of it. Many times. People who at the heart of it, are just like me: lovers of gardens and design, who want to take their skills to the next level. Maybe they want to transform their own garden or begin branching out to transform the gardens of others. But how?

I had an employee a few years ago who was a landscape designer in her own right—great skills and a degree in the field. After we got through a particularly tricky project, she offhandedly remarked, “They really don’t teach this stuff in school!” It’s so true, I thought! When I finished my certificate program, I thought I really knew my stuff. Years later, when I left my job working for a Landscape Architectural firm, I felt even more empowered. Once I was face to face with a homeowner, on the other hand, someone who had just paid me real money to solve their landscape quandaries, I felt very differently.

None of my classes taught me which plants are poisonous to dogs, for example. They also didn’t prepare me for how many plants in the Sunset Garden book, really aren’t available to purchase. Learning about gardens in different regions of the world and through history—that I studied that on my own. The first time I had to deal with the City’s permitting process, I was stymied. And then there’s the biggy: budget! Not one minute of my two years of classes was spent on how to understand and convey the complexities of project scope in relation to the money available. Zero!

So here I am, 20 years into my career, and I assure you that every new project I take on delivers me the opportunity to learn something new, spread my wings a little further, and to deliver newer, more conscientious and creative gardens to my clients. It is this accumulation of experiences and knowledge beyond what the classrooms offer that I want to share with you! I am here to fill your tool kit with real life, get your hands dirty (literally and figuratively) information about all things garden design.

Plants? Sure, we’ll talk about plants, but we’ll also talk about how to space them, what size to buy, and how much you can expect to pay. We’ll talk about how much patio you need to fit six chairs. There will be secrets on how you can make the farthest corner of your garden as interesting as the space right outside your back door. We, of course, can’t forget that the materials you choose when you create a border, walkway or fence can mean the difference between a nice garden and an amazing garden. We’ll therefore, look at some really sensational and unexpected choices! Also, particularly because I’m in Japan, we’ll look at existing gardens designed in a far gone era to find inspiration for our tomorrows. I have a list of topics a mile long and I simply can’t wait to dig in and share them with you!

This blog is an exciting new addition to Minanda Landscape Design and the services that we provide. It is a place I intend for you to come back to over and over to find inspiration, learn new skills, and grow in the garden as I have. Join me! Let’s make the world a more beautiful place, one garden at a time.