Japanese garden a passionate project for Tarentum doctor | TribLIVE.com
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Everybody Gardens | Doug Oster
Michael Rabkin of Tarentum has created a Japanese garden that adjoins his business, Rabkin Dermatopathology Laboratory. The garden was inspired by his love of Japanese Gardens.

“I’m not a gardener,” insists Dr. Michael Rabkin.

He is standing in the center of his beautiful Japanese-style garden, which adjoins his medical lab in Tarentum.

“I’m trying to become a gardener, but I’m very intimidated by gardening. The only thing I feel comfortable doing is weeding,” he says with a laugh.

Rabkin’s voice gets passionate when describing three giant boulders in the center of the garden, representing heaven, Earth and man.

“This is conglomerate,” he says, gently running his hand across the rough surface of the rock. “The fine grain is dissolving away over time and these little pebbles are appearing, so this rock is actually changing, which I love.”

Anyone who is so emotionally charged about the beauty of stone should be thought of in the same breath as the rest of us who love growing plants.

It began when he bought the 1892 2nd Ward Public School building, which had been used as a recreation center for seniors since the 1970s.

“I had no idea what I was getting into,” he says. Over time, he acquired two adjoining properties next to his Rabkin Dermatopathology Laboratory. After buying the land, Rabkin realized he could make a dream come true by converting the space into a special place for plants.

“I love gardens. Whenever I travel, if there’s a garden around, I visit it,” Rabkin says. “Japanese gardens, to me in particular, seemed like the highest form of gardens.”

He was particularly inspired by the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, where he visits often for business.

Rabkin’s research to build the garden led him to the highly regarded local firm of MTR Landscape Architects. He worried that, because the company built so many huge public garden sites, they wouldn’t be available for his garden. One of the founders, Geoffrey Rausch, came out of retirement in 2008 to design the garden and was allowed complete creative freedom.

“I thought that Geoff Rausch knew a hell of a lot more about Japanese gardens than I did,” Rabkin says of taking a hands-off approach. After the initial design was done, Rabkin offered input on every aspect of the project.

The garden was built in phases as money became available and was completed last year with “an awful big chunk of our life savings,” Rabkin says with a smile.

The centerpiece of the garden is a waterfall and pond built by natural stone expert and landscaper Jim Lampl with some brainstorming by Rabkin. Lampl has been charged with maintaining the garden.

Recently, Lampl and his son, Thomas, were on site digging out dense, packed mats of bamboo roots with a double-bladed axe in a grove in the dry garden. The two were replacing some bamboo that didn’t make it through winter. Although this job is grueling, Lampl enjoys his time helping in the garden.

“It’s an opportunity to be creative; it’s an opportunity to do something very unique for a customer that appreciates and loves his garden,” he says with a smile.

Lampl and Rausch spent many hours discussing with Rabkin the placement of the huge boulders that are throughout the garden. “We spent hours arguing about exactly which angle which rock would be at,” Rabkin says, laughing.

The ponds are surrounded with mature, expertly pruned pines, evergreens and Japanese maples. One has stunning crimson seeds, which are set off by chartreuse leaves (Acer palmatum ‘osakazuki’). The water flows under a bridge into a koi pond in front of the tea house. A rhododendron’s tight buds change from dark-pink to light as they open, creating a striking contrast.

Great gardens are all about the details, and master woodworker Tadao Arimoto, who made all the fences, gates and benches, has added his artistic touch. Reach to open one gate and you’ll be using a whimsical carved wooden fish to open the door.

When contractors were replacing the sidewalks, they saw something unusual out on the street and came inside to tell Rabkin.

“There’s some Japanese garden guy sitting on top of your pile of curb stones,” they said. When he went out to look, it was Arimoto, who decided to turn the curb stones into benches.

The huge rectangular stones are complemented by handmade wooden backs.

Visitors are drawn to the back of the dry garden by a long path interplanted with mosses leading to a free-standing stone Japanese lantern.

The rose garden holds a special place in Rabkin’s heart. As his father, Hy, battled leukemia, he asked that, upon his death, he would be cremated and the ashes put in the rose garden.

“My father loved gardens. Every year, he would plant a rose for my mother. When he would come home from work, he would clip the roses and put them on the table. I can certainly say, my father was where he wanted to be, no question about it.”

Rabkin loves taking visitors through the garden, but you’ll need to catch him on the right day as this is also a business.

“I come to the garden every day, feed the koi and I walk around,” he says. “It makes me feel good. It makes me feel happy, and I can share it.”

When people walk the intricate stone paths next to him, he wants them to get the same feeling he has for this serene space.

“Japanese gardens are spiritual places,” he says, “and I hope that people have a spiritual experience from being here. At absolute minimum, they see something beautiful. Clearly, this is a special place.”

Rabkin is proud to be the force behind this garden, and grateful to the others who were able to perfect his vision. “I didn’t design this garden,” he says. “I didn’t build it; great artists did that. Second only to my son, this is my greatest contribution to the world.”

Doug Oster is the Tribune-Review home and garden editor. Reach him at 412-965-3278 or [email protected]. See other stories, blogs, videos and more at triblive.com/lifestyles/dougoster.

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