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Natural Splendor

In Conversation with Ulla Johnson and Niwaki Founder Jake Hobson

I am obsessed with flowers. Inside, outside, in the garden, on the street, the nascent buds on the tree, the opulent blooms of the high spring, the last roses clinging to life amidst their hips at the end of autumn. My life is inextricably linked with flowers. They adorn every space I occupy. We have a long shared history. Growing up in New York City my mother grew a garden on our fire escape, hung plants from every sill, festooned our house with lilacs in the spring, and tulips throughout the year. Before I had my gardens in Montauk and Brooklyn I planted successive waves of bulbs and annuals in the small tree pit outside my first post college rental apartment. I would clip bits and bobs from native trees and shrubs that grew around our Long Island rentals creating baroque cascading arrangements. I learned through trial and error how to compose that which I bought and gathered to create space for each element to sing, to allow moments for the eye to linger, to be loose and free and unbound. 

A room never feels complete to me without blooms. Even a single stem by one’s bedside lifts the spirits immeasurably. I gather everywhere I go. I adore the cultivated and the wild alike. In cities far and wide my first stop is often the flower shop discovering what is in season, what local varietals available, where tastes and color palettes converge and diverge. I am an urban dweller with a deep and abiding love of the outdoors. On the trail with my family we discover tiny hidden wildflowers, fine gestural branches, a dried thistle, verdant moss and colorful lichen. We feel the pulsing life of the trees, of the varied canopy above. I chase blooms the world over and have visited and occupied gardens both grand and humble and been seduced by both in equal measure. I keep Japanese rattan wrapped secateurs everywhere - upstairs and down, in my car, at my desk. Gathering and arranging need not be complicated nor intimidating. It can spring from anywhere, and from very little. Treat each stem with care and love. Cut your flowers again when they come home whether it be from the field, the garden, or the deli. Enjoy all the phases of what a blossom unfurling reveals itself to be. The returns are boundless. xxU


Niwaki celebrates Japan's renowned gardening traditions. The name, meaning 'garden tree,' reflects the revered role of trees in Japanese gardens, where they form miniature landscapes mirroring nature itself. This poetic ethos is embodied by Niwaki's founder, Jake Hobson, whose expertise lies in the art of cloud pruning, transforming shrubs into sculptural, cloud-like formations.

Hobson's passion took root during a visit to Japan, where he became enamored with the country’s horticultural heritage. After meeting his wife Keiko in England, he returned to Japan and spent a year at a traditional plant nursery in rural Osaka, learning time-honored pruning techniques among other skills. Back home in England, he was outfitted with premium Japanese gardening gear, earning envy from peers. Hobson's brother-in-law, Haruyasu, shipped over tripod ladders from Japan, and thus, Niwaki was founded. 

Today, Niwaki’s horizons have expanded beyond ladders, specializing in the finest Japanese craftsmanship using durable materials. From traditional kenzan for ikebana to the most exquisite secateurs on the market, Niwaki curates the best of Japan's gardening heritage, offering a glimpse into a world of refined beauty and meticulous artistry.

In a conversation with Hobson, the founder shares insight into the ancient art of ikebana, his passion for nature, why the tools in the set are so unique, and the best approach to make your arrangement blossom.

Do you have a favorite memory in the garden, or a moment that crystallized your passion for gardening and ultimately starting this brand?

Childhood memories are all about nature, the woods, the smells, campfires, stinging nettles... Gardening came later, following my first trip to Japan when I started exploring Kyoto. At that time, straight out of art school, I was interested in the relationship Japanese people seemed to have with nature, the way life is built around the geography, climate, and seasons of Japan, and how they celebrate the cherry blossom season (Hanami), etc. That led me to my main interest, which is pruning, topiary, and in particular, Japanese cloud pruning.

What insights can you share about the art of ikebana and what draws you to it?

I studied ikebana for a short time in Japan, and found it quite frustrating! Like a lot of traditional arts in Japan, it’s very structured, with lots of ‘rules,’ and I didn’t really give myself time, but what I did learn was the basics of Japanese aesthetics, common in gardening, landscape painting, and almost everywhere, which is the understanding of the subtleness of natural balance. I also appreciated that branches and foliage are as important —more so, sometimes—than flowers, and of course the seasonal, transient nature of cut plants, which is always very strong in the Japanese mind. Flowering plum blossom, for example, makes such an impact because of the contrast of fresh blossoms against the hard, dark bark of its branches.

What’s the best way to approach learning ikebana?

To learn ikebana, one needs some basic grounding in the philosophy and a few technical skills, and luckily there are countless good books, and teachers all over the world—but I think that observation, seeing and feeling what happens in nature, is equally important. I’d also recommend harvesting and foraging your own material, at least some of the time, rather than visiting the flower shop for stems, for a more personal approach.

Can you tell us more about the special tools in the gift set as well as the skilled artisans who crafted them?

Just like flower arranging, Ikebana needn’t be complicated. How it does differ, perhaps, is the approach and pace of the process. There tends to be much less doing, and a lot more looking and thinking. So each individual cut becomes more important, and for that reason, we favour the resonance of simple, but well-made tools. Our hand-forged Tsubo Secateurs, made in Yamagata, deep in the mountains of northern Japan, are the perfect size and strength—not too big or clumsy, but strong enough to deal with woody branches, in the garden or the home. The wisteria rattan handles look and feel lovely—I find natural materials soften the cold steel and move you one step closer to the plant you’re working on. Our hand-sewn holster, by craftsman and gardener Mr. Murata, fits the Tsubo Secateurs perfectly, protecting them while in storage. It starts off clean and fresh, but soon mellows with use, forming and shaping itself around the secateurs. Our Kenzan are made in Niigata, by a very small family business, the oldest and most respected in Japan. They come in various shapes and sizes, and we love the mini set as a great introduction, especially when paired with Yo Thom’s beautiful dishes. Yo is a Japanese potter living in England, and her work is similar in some ways to the Niwaki brand, fusing Japanese and English cultures in a unique and very personal way.

How can you best take care of the tools to preserve their function and beauty?

Caring for tools is essential—you’ve invested in a pair of secateurs that should last a lifetime, so please, please look after them! Keep them safely in their holster, don’t overuse or abuse them—we recommend a maximum cut diameter of about 1/3” but remember that some woods are harder than others, and the fibres in wood are tougher when cutting perpendicular, so always cut at a slight angle when you can. Keep them clean, removing any leaf sap or resin, and oil them after use with Camellia Oil. Most good pruning tools are carbon steel, so will start to rust a little if left outside. Don’t worry! Scrub them down, dry them and oil them, and they’ll be fine. Sharpen your tools with a whetstone—little and often is best, and it’s good to remember that sharp blades make clean, tidy cuts, which is better for your plants, and easier for you.