Melding heritage and artistry

This article was originally published in the Loomis News

Penryn landscape designer brings joy of gardening to the job

By Gloria Young
Home & Garden
Landscape designer Jennie Nitta walks along a path in the Nissei Garden

Landscape designer Jennie Nitta walks along a path in the Nisei garden at Loomis Methodist Church. The garden combines Japanese artistry with California influences, such as the towering oaks in the background.
Ben Furtado/Home & Garden

Landscape designer Jennie Nitta’s creations are a unique mix of influences.
“My mom is from England and she was an avid gardener,” Nitta said recently. ”My husband’s family is Japanese. They are farmers. My dad’s father, who is also from England, was a vegetable gardener.”
Nitta inherited that love of tilling the soil. “We always had flowers and vegetables at home,” she said. “I remember smelling alyssum as a child and really loving it. I started gardening at about (age) 10, and have loved it ever since.”

Prior to starting her own business 20 years ago, Nitta worked in several retail nurseries and earned her nurseryman’s certification and advanced certification.
That’s in addition to courses at UC Davis and American River College. She’s been designing landscapes for 15 years.

“Each job is different,” she said. “Each client is different — each house style, location. I do what I think is best, but also make sure it is what is right for that person.”

Styles can range from tropical, to formal, Asian and California native.

These days, the trend is for sustainability, drought tolerance and edibles in the landscape. There’s a lot of emphasis on vegetable gardens, she said.

Nitta is also a garden consultant. Working on an hourly basis, she provides expertise on topics such as the best time to plant, dealing with voles and other garden pests and choosing the best time to pick.

At home in Penryn, she works in her own garden

“In our climate, we have three seasons,” she said. “ You can plant (in spring) and again in August and again in February.”

“For spring planting, I get things in as early as possible,” she said. “I try to plant in early April. Sometimes I have to put plastic over the plants (to protect them from the cold). I’ve grown tomatoes in 15-gallon nursery containers (so the soil warms more quickly).”

For winter squash and peppers, she waits until the end of April.

In August, it’s broccoli and cabbage; in September, peas, kale and Brussels sprouts.

“I’ve put in lettuce in August and done really well,” Nitta said. “It’s not a time when you’re thinking about planting. You’re massively picking tomatoes.”

For February plantings, she suggests any of the root crops — turnips, carrots, parsnips — as well as lettuce, cilantro and peas.

One of Nitta’s most recent landscape design projects was for a garden at the Methodist Church in Loomis.

The church was founded many years ago by Japanese-American pioneers, she said.

There was already one garden, dedicated to the Issei — the first-generation of Japanese-Americans. Then parishioner Sumi Ward suggested creating a special garden for the Nisei — the second generation.

“I worked with a committee and got lots of input,” Nitta said.

An important consideration for Nitta when planning the project was melding the two gardens.

“It’s a Japanese garden, but adapted so it can use California plants,” she said. “There are pathways, built-in benches, a stream bed. Church members each brought a plant and dedicated it to a family member.”

Because Japan has wet, coolish summers, some traditional plants wouldn’t work, so Nitta used California-native substitutes such as oak trees.

“It is still that same feeling,” she said. “And oak trees are a lot of what we have here.”

For Ward, the garden celebrates the strong family bond between the generations and it keeps the church’s Japanese heritage alive.

Many of the ideas for the church project came from Ward’s Japanese garden. And she’s very pleased with the results

“I think it’s a beautiful – all the trees and bushes,” she said. “All the church members sponsored and donated money for certain trees. It was the third generation doing it for their parents, but it was all the church members who really appreciated the Japanese heritage. … The best of it is all the labor was done by church members. That is one of the most beautiful things.”

Japanese gardens need a lot of maintenance, but there are ways to ease the workload, Nitta said.

“You can bring an Asian flair without being an expert on bonsai pruning,” she said.

She suggests being more restrained with plantings, so things don’t flow over pathways.

“Go for a more meditative atmosphere with a water feature and specimen plants that have an Asian feel but with a little less pruning involved,” she said.

When planning a garden design, two important aspects are water-efficiency and soil condition.

It’s important to keep the irrigation system in focus.

Make sure you’re using plants that don’t need a lot of water or group plants together that use the same amount of water, so you’re making the most of the sprinkler system, she advised.

Having good soil can make a huge difference.

“If you have some organic material in the soil, it will absorb water better,” Nitta said. “It’s a really intense short season and you have to get the most out of it you can.”