Mark Vasquez's garden design ideas arose from an unconventional source - the film "The Karate Kid."

While the film character Mr. Miyagi was teaching young Daniel how to block punches, Vasquez was eyeballing the Japanese garden in the background.

"Mr. Miyagi's back yard is where I got my inspiration" says Vasquez. "That's what really sparked my interest in Japanese gardens."

During the next 15 years, Vasquez would create two fabulous Japanese-style gardens - the first at his former home in Citrus Heights, Calif., and an even more spectacular one at his new Fair Oaks, Calif., home.

Vasquez spent about $12,000 in materials for the new garden, but not a penny for labor. He and lifelong friend Randy Freeman did all the work, including hand-digging the pond and spa, excavating for the waterfall, laying outdoor wiring and plumbing, adding lighting and installing extensive drainage and irrigation systems.

Vasquez and Freeman, who has a background in landscaping and pool construction, worked nearly every weekend for 31/2 years.

Many of the main concepts of the traditional Japanese garden have been incorporated into Vasquez's garden _ odd numbers of plants, curving lines, water and the impressions of water, a sense of serenity and calm, and the use of rock, space and plants.

"In the Japanese garden, almost every plant is a specimen plant," he says. "The hardest part is you do it almost without color. Nearly everything is green."

Vasquez says he's long had an interest in Asian culture and gardening. After watching "The Karate Kid," he began researching Japanese gardens to create his own.

Vasquez and Freeman began with a blank canvas. The back yard consisted of a steep slope better suited to mountain goats, a developer-built retaining wall, weeds and an oak tree growing on the spacious side yard. Once Vasquez envisioned the landscape, a blueprint was drawn up.

Vasquez used the slope to his advantage by building a stunning 11-tier waterfall that begins its descent high on the hill and ultimately splashes into a 2,000-gallon koi pond.

The two men excavated the waterfall by filling 5-gallon buckets with soil and carrying them down the hill. "We dug it out by hand," says Vasquez. "Anything to do with that hill was tough work."

Vasquez purchased 15,000 pounds of rock for the waterfall and other areas of the garden. Stone also was used in the custom two-person spa next to the koi pond. Unless you look closely, the spa appears to be an extension of the pond. Formed around the sitting shapes of Vasquez and his wife, Oulai, the unique spa emphasizes personalized comfort in minimal space.

The slope was planted with coast redwoods (Aptos Blue), ceanothus (Carmel Creeper), rosemary, Blue Pacific juniper (groundcover variety) and creeping lantana.

To complement his design, Vasquez planted black pine, dwarf spruce and Japanese maples. He intentionally staggered the trees, avoiding straight-line planting, and choosing an odd number (seven) for a sense of natural asymmetry.

A Buddhist monk who blessed the garden told the Vasquezes that the trees, rock placements and water charged it with an abundance of positive energy. The monk also declared that the hill added safety and security.

Vasquez especially relishes the low-maintenance aspects of his Japanese garden. Other than minimal mowing and edging, there's not much to do in the back yard.

"I've got it down to 45 minutes of yard work a week," he says.

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