Step out David Boteach’s front door and a gentle world beckons — one filled with wondrous plants, waterfalls and whimsical bronze busts of fauna peeking over the leafy flora. Here sit two frogs shyly holding hands beside a lily pond; there stands a blue heron looking past a cinnamon-skinned paperbark maple toward a pool of pot-bellied koi. Peppered throughout the pebble-strewn paths, beneath graceful hinoki cypress and a stunning weeping Atlas cedar are a half-dozen stone Buddhas, their benign smiles affirming what is clear to all:
Life is good in a Japanese garden.
“I could spend a whole day here,” Boteach, 66, says of the seductive landscape fronting his suburban Reisterstown home. “It nourishes your soul. You sit, turn off the external dialogue and shut everything down. The mind goes to rest; you rejuvenate.”
More than 35 years in the making, the garden remains “a work in progress,” says Boteach. He’s constantly tweaking it, shifting some plants, removing tired ones and scouring both garden centers and the internet in search of rare trees and shrubs that would fit his Zen-like theme park.
“It’s my therapy canvas and a labor of love,” he says.
Each morning during the growing season, he’s outside at dawn, pruning and training his slow-growing brood, from the 50 hinoki cypress trees to the 100 Japanese maples whose colors fire up the yard each fall. A plaque nearby reads, “I may sleep in the house but I live in the garden.”
Boteach, who owns a dental laboratory in Owings Mills, had no early ties to Japan or to horticulture. A native of Israel, he grew up poor and immigrated to the United States at age 21. He married and settled in a quiet neighborhood with a spacious front yard — of grass.
Soon enough, turf gave way to tranquility.
“I studied Japanese culture, read books on the gardens at their temples and it drew me in,” Boteach says. “What’s important in life is serenity and the principles and values that cultivate it.”
He dug in near the house and slowly expanded — first the front yard, and then much of the back of his two-acre lot. Most of the perennials and trees he purchased at area nurseries; likewise, the statues, stones and lava rocks that help unify the garden. The hand-carved pagodas came from Bangkok.
Container plants dot the landscape amid a medley of delicate waterfall maples, nandinas (sacred bamboo) with their flaming red berries in winter, and a striking Compressa, an upright juniper that resembles a big green pencil.
“You can’t let any one thing overpower the rest,” he says, though the weeping Atlas cedar comes close. What began as “a stick that I put in the ground” has grown into a sprawling curtain of twisting, drooping limbs, 10 feet tall and 55 feet wide, with blue-green needles. Trained for years to cascade, it gives an other-worldly presence as a striking evergreen.
Boteach’s garden is “imaginative, unusual and artistic. It’s amazing,” says Ira Bloom of Pikesville. An assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry, Bloom, 71, says Boteach is his mentor as he cobbles together a Japanese garden of his own.
“I thought I was doing OK, but the first time David saw my backyard he said, ‘This looks like a jungle; it’s all out of scale. You’ve got to get rid of this and this and that.’ It was brutal but, oh my gosh, he got me on the correct path. David keeps me out of trouble in my garden.”
Not everything here boasts Asian roots. Witness the English boxwood, Alberta spruce and conical Italian cypress, which appear in sync with all the rest.
“Not all plants must have a Japanese name attached to fit here,” Boteach says.
As kids, his three daughters embraced the garden, as do his six grandchildren. They feed the fish, play hide-and-seek around the footbridge and give names to the frogs that live among the metal ones. In the crook of one paperbark maple sits a lifelike owl, 18 inches tall. Its wide-eyed stare captivates youngsters who look back in wonder.
The quiet is contagious.
“When our daughters were in college at Maryland, they brought their friends here to study in the garden,” Boteach says.
It’s a magnet for wildlife as well. A family of yellow finches bathes in a trickling stream, and cardinals and blue jays nest in bird houses set in the trees.
“They live here; there is no rent,” Boteach says.
Hidden pumps circulate water to five ponds, the biggest of which — about 12 by 15 feet — is fed by a gushing waterfall and filled with koi. A metal net blankets the pond to keep birds of prey at bay.
“Blue herons used to come and clean me out. They had a picnic,” he says. “I’ve seen them spear the fish with their beaks and eat them.”
The herons are still allowed to feast on the goldfish that swim in a backyard pond, which Boteach allows because “goldfish multiply rapidly.”
Life’s cycle plays out in the garden. Two years ago, he watched a hawk swoop down, grasp a squirrel and fly off.
“I couldn’t believe it happened in my garden,” he says. “Then I thought, ‘This is nature.’ Impermanence is one of the laws of Buddha.”
Frogs don’t bother Boteach, even in spring when their mating calls could wake the dead, much less folks sleeping a few yards away. Hungry deer are something else.
“I fenced the whole yard to keep them out. I was tired of losing my plants,” he says. But deer still creep up the driveway to munch on hydrangeas and the like. To discourage them, he grows mahonia, an eastern Asian shrub with prickly leaves, and the shade-loving but poisonous hellebores.
“It’s hard to grow something and then come home and see it gone,” Boteach says. “But, you know what? There’s enough food here for everyone.”
The garden is a respite for friends and neighbors, who’ll stop by just to stroll through this slice of serenity. Often, they leave with cuttings or seedlings of a favorite plant — and a cautionary word.
“Patience, that’s what I’ve learned,” Boteach says. “These are slow-growing plants; there’s no immediate gratification. See this hinoki? It’s 30 years old and just three feet tall. You must wait for things to grow. Then you share your knowledge and pass it on to the next person. That’s what makes life beautiful.”