The Gardens Kenny Built

Santa Clara photography professor Takeshi Moro pays tribute to the owner of an East Bay Japanese-American nursery by photographing the gardens of longtime clients.

The Gardens Kenny Built
In the afterword of his book, Takeshi Moro writes Kenny Murakami: “I visited a tiny fraction of the people that you interacted with over the years. Each visit included the owner of the garden sharing their story about a flower, a tree, sometimes the whole garden. It’s not often that one revisits the footsteps of someone’s lifetime of work.” All photography by Moro.

For associate professor of photography Takeshi Moro, what began as a honey-do search for a rare Japanese plum tree during the pandemic blossomed into something much sweeter.

Moraga Garden Center is Moro’s limited edition labor of love celebrating the cherished East Bay Japanese-American-owned nursery where he finally located that fragrant ume tree for his wife, only to watch the 50-year-old horticultural haven close for good in fall 2021.

Conceived as a tribute to longtime owner Kenny Murakami, and to document the variety of uncommon plants he’d nurtured over the decades, the book has a twist: Most of the dozens of lush photos are not of the center itself but of the many gardens Murakami helped landscape.

Maraga Garden Center Cover 3
For 50 years, the Murakami family helped landscape countless homes across the East Bay Area. Associate professor of photography Takeshi Moro’s book pays tribute to them by photographing some of the clients in their yards made beautiful by Moraga Garden Center.

“My work has always been about connecting with a community,” says Moro, whose photographs often explore how history weighs on us individually. “This book is for Kenny and his family. But I also think it’s healing a community wound.”

Since its founding in 1971 by Kenny’s father, Nadao “Bob” Murakami, the center was a mecca for green thumbs who not only sought out its varieties of camellias, daylilies, and Japanese maples, but a wide selection of unique plants, from Indian curry leaf to Chinese date trees.

But the gardeners, amateurs and professionals alike, really came for the botanical expertise of its owners, particularly Kenny, who was handed the reins in 1981.

For the fellow Japanese-American Moro, the Moraga Garden Center became a kind of cultural touchstone to California’s bygone era of Japanese-American owned nurseries and farms, most of them now long gone.

Arriving in California near the turn of the 20th century, many Japanese immigrants to the Bay Area became pioneers in the burgeoning plant nursery industry, and for decades, their businesses thrived.

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Elizabeth Kirkpatrick with her pig, Banksy, in Orinda.

Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 halted their success when the United States government forcibly relocated 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry—two-thirds of them U.S. citizens—to internment camps. Bob Murakami and his family were among them.

Following the war, Bob Murakami enrolled at UC Berkeley, where he hoped to major in architecture. When an academic advisor told him he’d have a tough time getting hired, he got a degree in landscape architecture instead. Murakami graduated just as post-war urban sprawl meant homeowners needed landscapers. To bolster his business, he opened the Moraga Garden Center in 1971, helped by his wife and their three children.

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From left, Dan and Coleen Hirano on their porch in Moraga; Dennis Makishima with his bonsai in El Cerrito; Susan and John Banister in their backyard in Moraga. Click on photos to expand.

By the time Kenny was running the business, home prices in California had risen 80 percent higher than the rest of the country. As land grew more expensive, particularly in the Bay Area, many nursery owners either moved their operations to the Central Coast or sold their land to housing developers. For others, a new U.S. trade law in 1991 that made cut flowers cheaper to import from South America was the coup de grace.

But for four decades, the quiet, hardworking Kenny Murakami kept the Moraga Garden Center in business. By 2021, age, family health issues, and other factors had taken their toll, and he decided he would shutter the business in October. Moro knew the closure would leave a huge hole in the local community.

Moro recalls wondering what he could do last summer as a tribute to Murakami. “And I said to my wife, ‘I’ve got this idea: Maybe I could make a book of photographs.” It was already July, which meant Moro had to be finished taking pictures by September.

Over the next 30 days, 60 clients—a tiny fraction of the people who visited the nursery over the decades—quickly and happily volunteered to participate in the project. They’d stand or sit in a favorite spot in their garden, often sharing stories about a flower or tree they had purchased from Murakami.

“I told them, ‘You have to be in there (the picture), or else Kenny won’t know who the garden belongs to,’” says Moro, who also asked each of his photo subjects to write a letter or note to Murakami about their memories of working with him. Their sentiments are re-printed throughout the book.

Moro’s rush job was a success—the first run of 200 copies has already sold out, and more have been ordered. Murakami, he says, seemed humbled by the book and its reception.

“People say this was so nice of me to do this,” says Moro. “I go and see 60 beautiful gardens, and in all 60 of them, they tell me how much they love Kenny. It was an honor to be a part of Kenny’s community.”

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In addition to photographing longtime clients of Moraga Garden Center, Moro also included notes of thanks and praise for Murakami in his book.
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