Seattle's Japanese Garden held its annual first-viewing ceremony Sunday, an event that marks the end of a regular three-month winter closure.

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Seattle’s Japanese Garden launched a new season of serenity Sunday — after a lot of sweat.

As visitors strolled immaculate pathways for the annual “first viewing,” gardener Patty Ward reflected on the work it takes to create an air of effortless beauty.

“It really never stops,” she said.

A Japanese garden is more about shape and texture than flowers, Ward explained, pointing out a lace leaf maple near the entrance that spreads its curlicue arms. Early spring shows off the tree’s bones to advantage — but until a few weeks ago, it was out of harmony, crowding an arrangement of boulders and shore pine meant to draw the visitor’s eye and lead it forward.

So the garden crew unearthed the full-grown maple, spun it 180 degrees, and shifted it four feet to the left.

Don’t bother looking for evidence of the spade work, though. The workers peeled back the moss ground cover, then carefully repositioned it to conceal any hint of disruption.

Usually, the gardeners’ days are governed by the cycle of the seasons, but this winter brought some special challenges during the yearly closure that begins in November and ends with the “first viewing.”

January’s snow and ice storms meant long hours for Ward and senior gardener Sue DeNure. “We knocked ice and snow off the plants with bamboo poles,” DeNure said. Their vigilance kept casualties to a minimum.

Then in mid-February a water main broke in a neighborhood adjoining the Washington Park Arboretum, where the Japanese Garden is. “A torrent of water just tore through the garden,” Ward said. The paths were scoured.

“This is all new gravel,” Ward said, gesturing at the pea-sized rocks that give the walkways a manicured look.

Quick action by staff at Seattle Parks and Recreation, which operates the 3.5-acre garden, saved the koi that live in the pond from suffocation when the flood choked their habitat with sediment. “It was so muddy we had to filter the water,” Ward said.

The deluge postponed the garden’s reopening ceremonies, which included a Shinto blessing and calligraphy lessons.

Designed by renowned Japanese master Juki Iida, the garden features more than 500 granite boulders hauled from the Cascade Mountains near Snoqualmie Pass. The design reflects the interplay of mountainside, waterfall and lowland.

Iida favored plants native to Japan, considering rhododendrons garish, Ward said. But he bowed to Northwest tastes and included several of the large bushes — some of which are already spouting pink clusters.

On Sunday, the pond was still a little murkier than usual, but the fish — some nearly 3 feet long — seemed unperturbed. The koi are just beginning to stir from the metabolic torpor that overtakes them in winter, DeNure said. But they won’t be peppy enough to start feeding again until early May.

While the koi doze, the staffers go into high gear with their pruning shears. The garden may invoke nature’s beauty, but it’s far from natural, Ward said. Every tree is carefully clipped to maintain its shape and size. The pines, as wired and sculpted as supermodels, are particularly labor-intensive.

After hard pruning in November, early spring brings the job of pinching back the “candles,” or growth points, so the trees don’t sprout unsightly tendrils. “We touch every part of every pine in the spring,” Ward said. “You just sort of go into a Zen state — pinch, pinch, pinch, pinch.”

Anne Willott, of Magnolia, took a turn around the grounds with her husband, Dan. They garden on a small scale and appreciate both the behind-the-scenes labor and the finished product.

“I love this garden, Anne said. “Any time of the year it’s so peaceful and beautiful.”

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or