Best of Phoenix

Ever Green

Ten years ago, architect Neil Kilby fell in love with Ro Ho En, the Japanese Friendship Garden in downtown Phoenix. He began volunteering as a gardener, and when Ro Ho En expanded to include a lush stroll garden and koi pond, the city tapped Kilby's professional expertise as well. After the project was completed, he remained a familiar fixture there, often devoting six days a week to pruning trees and growing plants. Kilby also coordinated the Saturday morning gardening volunteers, who gravitated toward his sense of humor and enthusiasm for teaching. Kilby was 60 when he passed away on August 14, and an outdoor memorial service was held several days later at Ro Ho En, where friends and family gathered to share memories and observe an honorary tea ceremony, conducted as the pond reflected a rose-colored sunset. Just two weeks earlier, Kilby had been delighted to chat about his favorite oasis.

Paradise Found
The thing that really sparked my interest in Japanese gardens was a program called Dream Windows on PBS. Oh, God, the gardens were exquisite. You just walk in there and it's like you're walking into the Garden of Eden.

Beyond Book Learning
We had a gentleman named Mits Murakami who was very involved in the tea garden construction. He has been doing Japanese landscaping in the Valley for probably 50 years. He and I were working almost on a daily basis down there, and he was teaching me how to do Japanese pruning techniques. So I learned from the master — I truly did.

The Zen of Pruning
As you develop your skills, I have found that you can look at a tree and it tells you how it's best to be pruned.

Gardening in the Desert
We've had to adapt. You have a Japanese garden, and people think that you have to have plants that would grow in Japan. That's not true. It's a matter of patterns, and the contrast of the textures, colors, or shades of green.

Even if you're working, [the garden] is still restful. And I think people are attracted to that, even though most of these people have their own yards to take care of. Guys like me, living in an apartment, don't have much of a garden — nothing, actually — so we could spend all the time in the world out there. And it gives me a purpose to get up in the morning.

A Japanese Take on Nature
Shinto, their religion, is animistic, similar to Native Americans. And I think there's something to it, I really do. You know, I don't want to get really spiritual or anything, but when I said that a tree tells you how it wants to be pruned . . . I think there is something in there that's a positive spirit. And it doesn't have to necessarily be an animate object. I mean, every rock in that garden is different.

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig