Home & Garden

Retired barber stays fit tending backyard Japanese garden

For 53 years, Ruben Rincon cut hair at his barbershop. To relax after his job, he took out a different set of clippers and went to work on his bonsai.

In shaping his Tahoe Park garden, Rincon didn’t stop with junipers and Japanese maples. He moved his own miniature mountains, lugging large boulders into place and molding concrete into paths.

“This is my exercise,” Rincon said with a chuckle. “Everybody needs a hobby. I made this project so I could get something out of it physically. Other people play golf; I built a garden.”

And what a garden: Surrounded by baby tears, a rock-lined waterfall splashes into a large pond stocked with 14 colorful and attentive koi. Cobbled paths wind around a sculpted grove of pines and red-leafed maples. Mondo grass softens the edges around decorative rocks, covered with moss and lichen. In shady spots, hostas and hydrangeas add splashes of color.

Trained to grow horizontally instead of up, a manicured silver atlas cedar stretches more than 50 feet along the top edge of the white-shingled fence. Trimmed into ball shapes, other conifers peek around statuary and stone lanterns. Amid a bed of daylilies, a laughing Buddha reaches for the stars.

“It’s like living art,” Rincon noted. “It’s always changing. If I don’t like something, I can do it over.”

Rincon, who turned 80 last week, has been tweaking his garden for more than 35 years. As the original owners, Rincon and his wife, Leonor, have lived in their home since it was built in 1961.

The backyard started with a typical landscape: Lawn and flower beds. But Rincon was drawn to Japanese-style gardens.

“I’ve always like them,” he said. “I was stationed in Japan (while in the Army after the Korean War). I took some pictures of rock gardens and other beautiful gardens. I let that go by for years before I started thinking about this project.”

Rincon also had other inspiration. Brothers Fred and Joe Rincon also have Asian gardens. (The Bee featured Joe Rincon’s garden in 2012.) Joe lives just a few doors down from Ruben on the same street near Hiram Johnson High School in Sacramento.

“We weren’t competing against each other or anything like that,” Ruben said. “We all just like gardening.

“What I really like about these gardens, no two are alike,” he added. “They start changing. You can see how they develop.”

Such gardens also have practical advantages, particularly now during drought.

“My garden uses hardly any water; there’s no grass,” Rincon said. “They’re all very hardy plants. I can leave on vacation for three weeks, and the garden will be just fine.

“And in bonsai, everything is kept low,” he added. “I can do all the pruning myself. In other gardens, these shrubs and trees would be 10 or 12 feet tall or bigger. When I started, I thought, ‘I’ll be getting older.’ I want to keep everything at eye level. That way when I prune, I don’t need a ladder. I can keep two feet on the ground.”

To remove fallen leaves from rock-covered beds, Rincon uses an old-style hand broom to whisk away the debris. “I keep everything pretty simple,” he said. “I don’t need a blower. Maintenance is easy; just a little trimming here and there.”

That all fits the style and philosophy of Japanese gardens. They are never finished, but evolving, like nature itself. Everything, from plant choice to rock placement, is very controlled and deliberate yet feels and looks natural.

“I didn’t learn this from books, but from doing,” Rincon said. “This was all me.”

Rincon also added his own improvisations. An example lines the paths.

“Instead of redwood posts, I made these,” he said of hundreds of concrete cylinders. “I figured the redwood would eventually rot and I would be replacing them over and over. I wanted something that would last.”

So he came up with a creative solution. Rincon cut off the top of 2-liter plastic soda bottles and filled them with concrete. Once the cement hardened, he trimmed off the bottle. To make the little posts blend with the cobbled paths, he exposed pebbles on the top of each concrete post with a wire brush.

“I made hundreds of them,” he said. “At one point, I went around to the park and collected plastic bottles out of the trash – I needed them for my project. But (the concrete posts) worked, and they really do last.”

His advice for others interested in creating their own Japanese-style garden: Be ready to get your hands dirty.

“You could hire somebody to do something like this, but it’s not the same satisfaction as doing it with your own two hands,” he said. “Know you’re in for a lot of work, a lot of hard labor when you first start out. But it’s a lot of good exercise.”

Rincon finally hung up his barber’s gear in April and retired to spend more time with his wife. Most days, he’s in his garden.

“It’s so peaceful,” he said. “I spend a lot of time back here, just enjoying it. And there’s plenty to keep me busy. I still get my exercise.”