During his junior year in art school, Sandi Polyakov — the new head gardener at the Shofuso Japanese House and Garden in Fairmount Park — “took an indefinite hiatus” from college to study something even more precarious than painting: foraging.
“I realized I didn’t really know anything about nature and I thought: ‘That’s kind of weird. I think I should put time into learning this stuff,’ ” he said. “I got really interested in wild plants and foraging, and that’s not something you can really do at school.”
While the practice may be more associated with squirrels and bears than with people, foraging is simply the search for edible plants in the wild.
Polyakov, a graduate of Central Bucks High School East who now lives in West Philly, became a self-taught expert in finding food that was grown only by nature, not by man, and he began leading tours and teaching others how to do it as well.
“There’s not too many ways that people can really directly interact with nature, and I think there’s something cool about going out and finding food in the wild that hasn’t specifically been grown by people,” he said.
While foraging does give you something to chew on, it doesn’t bring home the bacon, so around the same time, Polyakov became an ornamental gardener at a company that serviced “high-level, fancy gardens” at homes along the Main Line.
His parents, who immigrated to the United States with him from Ukraine in January 1992, just days after the Soviet Union dissolved, were nervous but supportive of his decisions.
“Coming from the U.S.S.R., there’s this kind of attitude that you just need to take what you can get, things aren’t going to be handed to you. … Find work,” he said. “But they’ve always trusted me, and I didn’t exactly know how it would kind of hobble together, but it did. Now they’re super proud.”
In August, at the age of 27, Polyakov was named the new head gardener at the Shofuso Japanese House and Garden. He is only the second person to ever hold the title.
The Shofuso House is a traditional-style Japanese home built in Japan in 1953 and exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City before it was moved to Fairmount Park in 1958. The surrounding landscape is covered with lush trees and vegetation. A rock waterfall that empties into a large koi pond in front of the house provides a serene soundtrack to the verdant grounds.
Last week, Polyakov stood in front of the Shofuso House overlooking the pond with both hands wrapped around a cup of hot tea. Dressed in a linen shirt and green khaki pants with a knit hat topping his long, black pigtail braids, Polyakov had a soft-spoken but confident demeanor that broke for a moment as he talked about the annual Subaru Cherry Blossom Festival. The event, which starts Saturday and runs through April 15, will be his first cherry blossom festival since becoming head gardener.
“When I took on the job I quickly realized that’d I’d have to become the de facto cherry blossom expert,” he said. “I’m a little nervous because I see everyone else around me with a ‘storm is coming’ attitude. I don’t know what it’s like yet, but I feel like I should be scared a little bit.”
In April, Shofuso averages about 1,000 visitors every Saturday and Sunday, many of whom come to see the more than 100 cherry blossom trees in Fairmount Park, according to Derek Finn, associate director of Shofuso. Throughout Philadelphia, there are about 1,000 cherry blossom trees, Finn said.
Foraging helped Polyakov become precise and specific when it comes to plants — there’s not a lot of room for error for things you put in your mouth. But when it comes to cherry blossoms, predicting when they’ll bloom is like predicting the weather, since the timing of the blooms often depends on Mother Nature.
A couple of weeks ago, Philly’s cherry blossoms were slated to bloom on the early side, but after a late nor’easter that brought snow to the region March 21, peak bloom is now expected to be between April 12 and 16, Polyakov said.
“But that’s just for peak bloom, which means 70 percent of the total buds are blooming, but the trees still look excellent if 40 percent are open,” he said.
Outside of the cherry blossom festival, Polyakov said his goal with Shofuso’s garden is to bring it to the level of specificity and authenticity the house displays. But he is humble about the task. He realizes that, in Japan, many people in his profession are 11th- or 12th-generation gardeners who have experience that’s been passed down over centuries.
“You have to realize that you don’t know anything and you’re really working with a very deep craft and complex art form,” Polyakov said. “It makes me extremely excited because I have a full lifetime to delve into this and I won’t reach a stopping point.”
“I would have to say that Philadelphia is kind of like a really approachable city to me. You can have friends and participate in things and maybe kind of have sway with the people around you and have a lasting effect whereas in some bigger cities like New York or something I think it’s easy to get lost in the crowd. But in Philadelphia it seems like plugging into communities is still possible, so I really like that about the city.”
What’s been a classic Philly moment for you?
“The day after the Super Bowl at Shofuso’s office, our executive director, Kim Andrews, came in and then repeatedly said that ‘Nick Foles has saved this city,’ which in like a Japanese cultural organization you wouldn’t really think the two would go together, but to me that was a very classic Philly moment.”
If you had a wish for the city, what would it be?
“Free Meek Mill.”
Know someone in the Philadelphia area whose story deserves to be told — or someone whose story you’d like to know? Send suggestions for We the People profiles to Stephanie Farr at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 215-854-4225. Send tips via Twitter to @FarFarrAway.
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