TOAST Magazine

The Philosophy Behind Niwaki Tools

LAND & GARDEN

Niwaki make small runs of hand forged tools and practical objects for the garden. Their founder, Jake Hobson, first travelled to Osaka as a trained sculptor, and was quickly influenced by Japanese gardens and the way their trees seemed so effortlessly shaped. Soon after, Niwaki was born. We find a quiet moment to talk to Jake about his journey, his favourite tool and some simple tips for keeping ahead in the garden.

Where does the name Niwaki come from?

Niwaki first began in the UK while I was living in Chichester. In Japanese, the word Niwaki means 'garden tree', and is a term that refers to the way trees are grown, trained and pruned to fit in to the scale of a Japanese garden. Over here, the term refers to a small, attractive tree that would fit safely into a back garden. I liked the word because it implies the human factor, and it hints at the craft and skills needed.

Can you tell us a little bit about traditional Japanese pruning and some of the philosophies that come into it?

I could tell you a lot about these things! Japanese gardens tend to be microcosms of nature - a sort of ideal, an essence of nature. The trees tend to be reduced in scale, pruned to retain their ‘essence’. Rather like bonsai (meaning, potted tree) each is pruned in effect to look like a fully grown tree, even though the style and size will always vary.

Gardeners, and all craftspeople in Japan, tend to work calmly and quietly. Nothing appears rushed, energy is never wasted, and there’s no unnecessary chat. There is great respect for the client, the boss and colleagues, and still a strong sense of apprenticeship and respect for elders and knowledge.

What does nature mean to you – both growing up and today?

I grew up in Hampshire, making dens in the beech hangers. Five years of art school in London made me appreciate the beauty of the countryside, and made me question what we see as nature and ‘natural’.

My artworks and sculptures always explored our relationship with nature, and it was this intrigue that first took me to Osaka, Japan. But it wasn’t long before I discovered the natural beauty that Japan had to offer. Now, I gaze out at my garden that is full of plants, but it’s 100% manmade. I love the relationship, the balance, between man and nature. As a pruner, it’s always a decision about how far to go, how much to assert myself and what I want from the plant.

Do you find that there is a link between pruning and gardening, and the mind and wellbeing?

Absolutely! Everyone who gardens knows how good it is for you, physically and mentally. Personally, and apart from being outside, I take great pleasure in the simple, repetitive jobs where you can turn off, as well as the more demanding jobs which require focus and concentration. Just being around plants is relaxing. Do they talk to you? Not to me, but I’m always listening...

Can you tell us a little bit about the Moku Cultivator and Trowel?

These beautiful trowels are forged by a father and son team in a town called Sanjo in the north of Japan. The area is famous for its blacksmiths. The family have made garden hoes for three generations, and collaborated with a designer to produce the Moku range. We love the slightly unusual, Japanese approach to such a common tool. The ergonomics are a little bit different, and the quality and finish are extraordinary.

Do you have some simple tips the the garden?

Weeding is just one of those jobs that is so easy to put off. I find that I ignore it in favour of more creative and fun jobs, but I always regret it when the whole garden has been taken over by dandelions, or creeping buttercup. The solution, and my tip, needless to say, is little and often. Blitz it once, to get ahead, and then stay ahead!

What are the best areas of the garden to be focussing on at this time of the year?

There’s stacks to be done in the garden at this time of the year - it really depends what you managed to do last autumn! The lawn will start to grow and will benefit from a feed and a first cut. Roses, which you should have pruned by now, can be fed. Herbaceous perennials can be lifted and divided - Crocosmia, for example. And you can be sewing veg seed, some straight in to the ground, some under cover, to ensure a continual supply throughout the year.

What is the one tool that you couldn’t live without?

The obvious choice is a pair of Niwaki secateurs. I have a large collection of secateurs but there is one pair I keep coming back to. I keep my secaterus close by me at all times - in a leather holster along with a folding pruning saw.

The one tool that I probably use the most is a pocket knife. To be specific, a Japanese higo knife made my a blacksmith called Koto San, in Kyushu. Most of the time I keep it on my belt, but I left it with a friend recently and have been lost without it.

Are there any particular outdoor spaces you visit for calm and inspiration?

I have a couple. Beech woodlands in May, walking through long grass early in the morning soaked in dew, or on a warm evening, with the grass seed heads knocking against my legs. And almost any Shinto Shrine in Japan. They are all such beautiful quiet spaces, with the cry of the karasu (ravens) in the old trees.

Do you have a favourite tree or plant – for its specific shape, look or sentimental significance?

For me, it is the cedar Cryptomeria Japonica that grow in the Kyoto area. It’s a large conifer, but can be coppiced back and grown as a multistemmed tree with tall, thin trunks. It’s an unusual choice, but I’m drawn to it. I like the contrast of thick old trunk at the bottom and the fresh new growth at the top, and the physical process of pruning is simple and satisfying.

What is the best advice you have been given and could pass on?

A young nurseryman called Futoshi Yoshioka in Japan once said to me, ‘you must love your trees with all your heart, but you must love your family more’.

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