Seasonal splendor

SUNDAY, MAY 11, 2014

Lars Erpenbach clips the new growth off a Scotch pine, a technique called “candling,” in Manito Park’s Japanese garden. (Jesse Tinsley)
Lars Erpenbach clips the new growth off a Scotch pine, a technique called “candling,” in Manito Park’s Japanese garden. (Jesse Tinsley)

Gardeners bring out the best in Manito Park’s hidden gem

Forty years ago this Saturday, a mile south of Spokane’s main attraction – Expo ’74 – the city’s newly finished Japanese garden was dedicated.

Although “finished” may be the wrong word, since gardens never are.

“Gardens evolve as plants grow, change shape or die,” observed city horticulture supervisor Steve Nittolo. And with Japanese-style gardens, different consultants bring their own philosophies to the drawing board.

For instance, Manito’s Japanese garden originally had three public entrances. Now it has one.

This year’s tweaks will include new, safer steppingstones to eliminate a traffic bottleneck at the base of the waterfall. The city is working with Portland consultant Toru Tanaka to enhance other design elements, as well.

The garden was conceived in 1965 by the Spokane-Nishinomiya Sister City Society as a symbol or friendship between the two municipalities.

Two years later, renowned Japanese landscape architect Nagao Sakurai, the former overseer of Tokyo’s Imperial Palace grounds, was invited to draft a design.

The Parks Department accepted Sakurai’s plan in 1969, and the following year the National Guard hauled in 300 tons of granite and basalt for a waterfall and pond.

Soon afterward, though, Sakurai suffered a stroke and work on the garden stalled.

Another Japanese landscape architect took the reins in 1973, and with the help of volunteers and county jail inmates, completed the garden’s major features.

In 2007 the landmark was renamed Nishinomiya Tsutakawa Japanese Garden in recognition of civic leader Ed Tsutakawa’s advocacy for both the garden and the sister city program.

The Journal of Japanese Gardening has ranked Spokane’s garden among the 25 best in North America.

For many years, Japanese consultants have visited Spokane annually to offer advice on cultivating harmony among the garden’s trees, shrubs and plants.

But day-to-day maintenance has always been the responsibility of one full-time and one or two seasonal Parks & Recreation Department employees.

Full-time city gardeners earn $16 to $25 an hour, depending on experience, while seasonal gardeners start at $10 an hour.

This marks Lars Erpenbach’s seventh year as a seasonal gardener with the department. Recently he discussed his job’s appeal.

S-R: Where did you grow up?

Erpenbach: In Spokane.

S-R: What did you enjoy as a kid?

Erpenbach: I rode bikes a lot – road and mountain bikes – and played music. I had a band called Lord Kelvin because my friend and I were into science, and Kelvin was a famous physicist back in the day.

S-R: Did you go to college?

Erpenbach: A little. I studied news writing, art and music at SFCC, but never got serious about anything.

S-R: What career did you envision for yourself?

Erpenbach: Something outdoors.

S-R: Where did you learn gardening skills?

Erpenbach: All during high school, I worked for a guy up on Five Mile who was into permaculture. He had fruit trees and nut trees, and lived off his garden.

S-R: What other jobs have you held?

Erpenbach: I worked at Tomato Street Restaurant on the North Side, and at Huckleberry’s Market just before I got this job in 2008. I was 18 when I started here.

S-R: What’s your job title?

Erpenbach: Assistant Japanese gardener. I work under Nick Simchuck, a full-time gardener who has been with the city 45 years.

S-R: Did the Parks Department train you?

Erpenbach: Nick has taught me a lot about pruning and candling – cutting the new growth off conifers. He’s also taught me patience.

S-R: What months do you spend in the Japanese garden?

Erpenbach: We open April 1 and close Oct. 31. Seasonal workers are laid off in the fall and have to reapply in the spring, but they’ll invite you back if you do a good job.

S-R: What do you do in the off-season?

Erpenbach: I worked as a lift operator at Mount Spokane for three years, and did a lot of skiing. Last winter I worked for a Seattle company called Earth Dance Design, building gardens and pruning trees.

S-R: How has your job at the Japanese garden evolved?

Erpenbach: When I first started, my job was to pick up the pine cones. Every year I’ve gotten more responsibility as Nick’s gained confidence in me. I’ve gone from candling and thinning the pines to pruning and shaping the maples.

S-R: What’s your typical schedule?

Erpenbach: I get here at 9 a.m. and stay until 6:30 p.m. Thursday through Monday.

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

Erpenbach: Working outside and being in this beautiful garden all day.

S-R: Do you have a favorite part of the garden?

Erpenbach: The little bench in the southwest corner, because that’s where my fiancée hangs out when she comes to watch me work.

S-R: How many visitors do you get on a summer weekend?

Erpenbach: We average 100 an hour.

S-R: When is the garden showiest?

Erpenbach: Definitely May, when all the cherry trees and rhododendrons bloom. But fall is gorgeous, too, when the maple leaves turn colors.

S-R: Can visitors be hard on the garden?

Erpenbach: Absolutely, if they don’t follow the rules. We ask that people not bring dogs or food into the garden, but they do. And we ask that they stay on the pathways, but they don’t.

S-R: Any other rules?

Erpenbach: We don’t allow commercial photography in the garden, because it’s meant for tranquility and peacefulness. But people come in with tripods and reflectors and set up whole photo shoots for weddings and family portraits.

S-R: Are the koi much work?

Erpenbach: No. We feed them every day once the water temperature reaches 55 degrees. About four years ago, we lost them all after someone put a diseased goldfish in the pond. The Koi Society donated replacements.

S-R: When you tell people where you work, what’s their reaction?

Erpenbach: If I say I’m a park worker, they think I just pick up trash all day. If I tell them I work at the Japanese garden, they’ll sometimes say, “What restaurant is that?” Some people still don’t know this is here. It’s a hidden gem.

S-R: Do you garden at home?

Erpenbach: I don’t have a house yet. We’re working on that. But I do a lot of pruning for my parents, because they think their garden should look like this.

Spokane freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached via email at


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