St. Francisville, Lousiana
K.T. Cannon-Eger and husband Bill take a cross-country trainride to visit dozens of Japanese gardens across the United States. Along the way they discover the life’s work of Walter Imahara. She shares the story of Walter’s history and inspiration for this new garden.
A Splendid Discovery
“In retirement, some pick up an “encore” career, others volunteer in a field of interest, still others put time and effort into achieving a life long dream. With Imahara’s Botanical Garden on 54 acres in St. Francisville, Louisiana, Walter Imahara is doing all three.
“I first learned of Mr. Imahara from my husband’s first cousin Ruby. She and Walter graduated from Istrouma High School in Baton Rouge in 1955.
“You’ve GOT to come and see what he’s doing,” Ruby insisted when we told her we were coming to New Orleans. So, on Friday June 1, my husband Bill and I drove to Baton Rouge, picked up Ruby and continued on to St. Francisville. Before the story of the botanical garden, however, comes the story of the family.
Imahara family history
Walter’s parents, James and Haruka Imahara were among several “Cajun Nikkei” – Japanese American settlers in the New Orleans area following release from a World War II internment camp in Arkansas. Born in 1903 in Watsonville, California, James was the son of immigrants from Hiroshima. In California the family owned farm land and raised strawberries, grapes, and fruit trees.
In 1941, James was in his Model T when he heard of the attack on Pearl Harbor, an event that altered the lives of every American. “My family lost everything, including the family home and farm we worked so hard for 20 years to improve only to get locked into concentration camps for more than three years,” he said in his later years. As son Walter remembers it, “From May 1942 to 1945, we were relocated to Fresno Assembly Center in California and then to camps in Jerome and Rohwer, Arkansas. After the war, Pop moved his family of 10 to Louisiana to start a new life.”
James began as a in the nursery business in New Orleans propagating houseplants, raising vegetables on the side that were sold at the French Market. Within a few years, he was hired as head gardener to restore the gardens at Afton Villa in St. Francisville, then moved to Baton Rouge and began his own business.
In a book about their family, Family Dreams, Journey of the Sansei, author Diane Koos Gentry recounts the Imahara story from interviews gathered over a 20 year span of time. Many of the quotes that follow are from this book. Copies are available from Imahara’s Botanical Garden.
When working at Afton Villa, “James drove all the way to Mobile to buy Japanese cherry trees for the grounds. ‘When they were in bloom, there is nothing more beautiful,’ James said. ‘But when their time comes, all the blooms drop. It’s symbolic. The Japanese way is to forgive without a grudge. Afton Villa made me start forgetting the days of internment and our losses. It’s all over with now. Bygone. I don’t feel any bitterness at all.'”
“Restoring the gardens of a well-known and much loved historic home in a place like St. Francisville, which is known for its lovely homes and plantations, is a great accomplishment in the South. The Baton Rouge Morning Advocate sent a photographer and reporter to cover the story. A major article with pictures of the whole family and James’ restoration work boosted all their egos and gave the whole family notoriety and respect. The name Imahara became associated with horticulture and landscape design. The Imaharas made friends and important contacts.”
Baton Rouge and the beginning of Imahara’s Landscape
When restoration at Ashton Villa was complete, the family moved back to Baton Rouge where James took a job at Heroman’s nursery and put their children through college. After two years, James’ Gardening Service became a reality.
“For the most part, it was just me and Mama,” said the elder Imahara in the Family Dreams book. “Mama was the backbone of all our business. The kids were in school. We started with a wheelbarrow, a broken-down pickup, a hoe and a shovel and, of course, my pruning shears.”
When it came time for their fifth child, number one son, to go to college, Walter chose a major in horticulture at the University of Southwest Louisiana at Lafayette where he discovered another passion in his life: weightlifting where he is described as being a fierce competitor and national champion. Walter competed for many years due to the Masters Weightlifting Program for competitors 35 and older. At one time he was president of the International World Federation Masters.
As the 1950s drew to a close, James Imahara received a small percentage of his requested claim for compensation on the loss of California property and farm land during World War II. That settlement was sufficient to purchase several acres and a home on Antioch Road in Baton Rouge. Imahara’s Nursery and Landscape Company came into being.
James and Haruka began planting grass to sell sod. “Baton Rouge was growing and prospering as the Imaharas were starting their mom and pop business. Growth meant new subdivisions to landscape. They cut the sod they grew 12 inches wide and loaded it into the truck. Haruka prepared the land in new yards by hoeing and raking, then James placed the sod. It was backbreaking work for the older couple, especially in Baton Rouge’s heat and humidity,” Gentry writes.
James was able to purchase a greenhouse from his former employed at Afton Villa. The couple propagated their own stock. The business grew as they waited for Walter with his degree in horticulture to come home.
“My father always told us, ‘Get an education, serve your country and buy land.’ Service in the military was expected of his sons,” Walter said. The year he graduated, 1960, the Army sent him to Germany for three years. Walter enlisted as a private, went to officer candidate school and came out a first lieutenant.
“In Dachau, Germany, 13 miles from Munich, there were two Japanese-Americans on an Army base: Walter Imahara and Sumi Matsumoto, an elementary school teacher from Berkeley, California.” Sumi and her parents were interned in Poston, Arizona, another link between her and Walter. In 1963 they were married in Munich. The day we visited, Walter and Sumi celebrated 49 years of marriage.
When it came time to leave Germany, the couple decided to return to Louisiana.
Pelican State Nursery
“The new partnership with Walter and his parents on the eight and one-half acres they owned was renamed Pelican State Nursery. They still grew several kinds of grasses on the property and sodded new subdivisions that sprang up. Walter bought three more greenhouses and assembled them on the property. Soon there were 10,000 square feet of greenhouses, all connected and working to grow small plants and vegetables, wholesale and retail, a business the Imaharas created in Baron Rouge. James also grew specimen plants one couldn’t find anywhere else like large junipers and topiary trees. They used them for accent plants in their landscaping jobs. Business was growing and diversifying.”By 1968, Imahara’s included a retail garden center and landscape business. “Retail and landscaping are two separate businesses,” Walt explained. “Landscaping is a service. If we could market the plant material correctly, we would charge the landscape customer the cost of the plant plus labor.
“The garden center was family-oriented, like the corner drug store in a small town. This garden center was distinctly Japanese, both in design and operation. James, who was a talented relief woodcarver, carved the name Imahara’s in Japanese characters on a huge cypress board. Walter and [his brother-in-law] Sam hung the sign on a tall wooden archway that marked the front entrance. Behind the entrance, decorative vertical wooden boards lined the front of the building, adding to the simple but beautiful Japanese design. Inside, James placed what he called ‘the biggest bonsai plant in America’ in an eight-foot diameter pot and gave it an honored spot in the garden center. It was a huge sago palm that was a hundred years old. He dedicated the bonsai to his parents and in-laws and other Issei pioneer families who came to America to make the land productive, and placed a commemorative plaque on it.”
“With both the garden center and the landscape business doing phenomenally well in the early 1980s, Walter made a decision to sell the Old Hammond Highway landscaping location to a hardware store in 1984 and build a second more modern garden center on land they had purchased on Perkins Road in Baton Rouge, a busy area near expressways ideal for retail business. The Old Hammond Highway location was 5,000 square feet. The garden center on Perkins Road totaled 17,500 square feet. In addition, there was enough land to build 35,000 square feet of retail space in the future. What they didn’t use, they’d lease to other retailers.
“The new garden center was designed to Walter’s specifications with concrete walkways and an automated sprinkler system. Such innovations reduced labor costs and maximized profit. His leadership extended to nursery and landscape associations such as the Baton Rouge Nursery and Landscape Association, the Louisiana Association of Nurserymen, the State Horticultural Commission, the Southern Nurserymen Association and the National Landscape Association. Walter was named to the National Landscape Hall of Fame in Louisville, Kentucky.
All was not peaches and cream. Shortly after the new center opened, Walter’s sister May was diagnosed with lung cancer. Within three months, the financial stalwart of the company was dead. For the next few years, Walter tried to coax family members into joining the firm. Niece Wanda, Lilly’s daughter, had completed the five-year landscape architecture program at LSU and was working at a high paying job in Washington DC.
Three Generations of Landscaping
“Though it may not have been evident to either of them at first, Walter and Wanda, who had very different personalities in 1987 and clashed frequently, proved to be ideal partners in the landscape company. Each had individual strengths and talents and complemented the other, forging a stronger business.
“The first big commercial landscaping project Wanda tackled was the new Blue Cross/Blue Shield headquarters in Baton Rouge in the fall of 1987. ‘I saw the building nearing completion and talked to Uncle Walt,’ Wanda remembered. ‘Imahara’s had not put in a bid. I called and asked for the opportunity to bid on landscaping the building inside and out.
‘Uncle Walt and I stayed in the office until 7 or 8 p.m. working together until I could draw the plan and put prices to it. The secret to securing the job you design is using plant material that is readily available to you, the best looking plants that will continue to look good as they grow and mature. Uncle Walt and Grandpa both told me to work hard and be honest, and that would make me successful. Part of being honest is not to put in plant material that will cost a client an arm and a leg or material that will freeze and die in the winter. We believe in spending [a client’s] money wisely by using plants that are native to this area’.”
Wanda’s enthusiasm, drive and creativity added maintenance contracts on the larger commercial projects they installed to provide a more steady income stream and to provide service to those customers.
Imahara’s Botanical Garden
“An active man like Walter Imahara never retires; he just stops coming in to work every day.”
Walt handed over the reins of the landscape enterprises to Wanda and kept busy with real estate ventures. A long-time dream to own property in St. Francisville came true with the purchase of their second home on 15 acres in 2001, which he landscaped with camellias, azaleas, cherry trees, crepe myrtle, many varieties of magnolia and holly, weeping yupon and yew, palms, crabapples and weeping mulberries, among others. The entire residential property is served by irrigation and every plant is labeled. Another dream is three years along the path to realization. Walter bought 54 acres on Mahoney Road in St. Francisville and spent a great deal of time clearing wilderness, rutted by Mississippi River floods and erosion.
Three days a week, Walter and two workers planted a hundred or more plants a day. To minimize erosion, centipede grass sod was installed plus tree logs and treated poles are used to edge beds and create a terraced effect. Three year old camellias are starting to fill in along the edges of the forest. Two and a half year old ginkgo trees, three-gallon pots when planted, are now taller than I am. The years of landscape experience are bearing fruit in this infant garden – all the beds are prepared to receive and nourish plants.
Garden materials were planted in groups of threes and fives. “The landscape was designed by sight so that a great view can be seen from anywhere in the garden. A 225-foor deep well, with a four-inch pipe installed, provides substantial volume and pressure to allow as many as 10 sprinklers to run at once,” according to a garden flyer. In the camellia garden, varieties include Funny Face Betty, Gunsmoke, Purple Dawn, Royal Velvet, and more than 90 other cultivars. More than 3,000 azaleas are planted, some to eventually develop into a huge karikomi on one hillside. Varieties include Judge Solomon, G.G. Gerbing, George Tabor and the Encore series.
Collections of magnolias, weeping trees, hollies, maples, purple leaf plums, crape myrtle and a stand of Cryptomeria japonica (Sugi pine) are among other major plantings. Nine connecting ponds have been installed, one for each child born to James and Haruka Imahara. The Japanese garden “is still in the thought stage,” Walter said. He’s collecting stone and is pulling together ideas from his and his wife Sumi’s travels.
Already the area includes a conference center, snack shop and gift store along with equipment storage buildings. The conference center holds a collection of James Masaru Imahara’s poetry carved on cypress boards. “For a long time, we were curious about dad’s hobby,” said Lily. “Now we realize this is his legacy. We know who we are and where we came from.”
For more information on Imahara’s Botanical Garden, visit their blog site imaharasbotanicalgarden.blogspot.com or to schedule a tour or special event, contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org or (225) 635-6001. The mailing address is P. O. Box 605 St. Francisville, LA 70775.
A life-long gardener, K.T. Cannon-Eger began her study of Japanese gardens with a subscription to Sukiya Living more than 10 years ago. In 2007 she traveled to Japan concentrating on gardens in Kyoto and in 2008 became a Master Gardener in Hawaii. She and her husband are enthusiastic horticulturists with a desire to assist in forming a “Friends of” organization for a local garden. Unless otherwise credited, all photos are by K.T. Cannon-Eger. For more on their journey to Japanese Gardens of the U.S., see http://us-japanesegardens.com.