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Cutting Back: My Apprenticeship in the Gardens of Kyoto

By Leslie Buck

An unusual and entertaining memoir.

New York Times

At thirty-five, Leslie Buck made an impulsive decision to put her personal life on hold to pursue her passion. Leaving behind a full life of friends, love, and professional security, she became the first American woman to learn pruning from one of the most storied landscaping companies in Kyoto. Cutting Back recounts Buck’s bold journey and the revelations she has along the way. During her apprenticeship in Japan, she learns that the best Kyoto gardens look so natural they appear untouched by human hands, even though her crew spends hours meticulously cleaning every pebble in the streams. She is taught how to bring nature’s essence into a garden scene, how to design with native plants, and how to subtly direct a visitor through a landscape. But she learns the most important lessons from her fellow gardeners: how to balance strength with grace, seriousness with humor, and technique with heart.

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Media reviews

"Her writings, inevitably, are a reflection on the contrasts between the roles of the gardener in two very different cultures."

Washington Post

"[Starred review] Buck has as good an eye for cultural dissonance as she does for pines that need pruning.…​This is an absorbing read about the formative interplay of humans, cultures, and gardens."

Publishers Weekly

"Read Cutting Back for insight into Japanese gardening culture, for descriptions of naturalistic Japanese gardens, or if you enjoy travel memoirs."

NYBG Plant Talk

"Informative and inspiring.…​the book will appeal to both gardeners and non-gardeners. As much as Buck’s story is about Japanese garden aesthetics, it is also about stepping out of your comfort zone and taking a chance."

American Gardener

"If you love losing yourself in natural settings, this memoir is definitely for you.…​The life lessons Buck learns away from her pruning shears will appeal to any reader."


"An unusual and entertaining memoir.…She learns—about durability and resilience. She learns to prune trees exquisitely. Most of all, she learns that ‘an apprentice must…be the good student.’ Not a bad lesson for any gardener."

New York Times Book Review

"The descriptions of the gardens the author tends while in Japan will transport readers; it is an armchair tourist’s treat to wander the temple gardens as she describes them."

Library Journal

"As much a story of bravery and the challenge of adapting to an unfamiliar culture as it is of horticulture. Anyone contemplating a brave career gamble will learn from it."

San Francisco Chronicle

"Told with beautiful, carefully crafted language and a perceptively candid voice ... The book’s core is its intuitive appreciation for nature."

Forward Magazine​

About the author

Leslie Buck

Leslie Buck is a garden designer and aesthetic pruner who specializes in natural design in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has over two decades of gardening experience, and a fine art degree from U.C. Berkeley and the Bordeaux School of Fine Arts in France. In 2000, Leslie studied with Uetoh Zoen, one of the oldest and most highly acclaimed landscape companies in Japan. Leslie has worked, taught, and volunteered in hundreds of private landscapes and as well as dozens of public gardens including the Portland Japanese Garden, Hakone Japanese Garden, Tassajara Zen Center, and Merritt College.

Read more about Leslie Buck

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