Few garden styles can inspire a feeling of transcendency and serenity as a Japanese garden. But how do you get that effect? What plants should you use? And how do you design it?
Japanese garden design is an art form to create a feeling of peace and serenity in a romanticized ideal of nature, much like a landscape painting. While they look effortless, they require technique, planning, and ongoing maintenance.
However, it’s important to remember that Japanese garden design is an art form, not a set of rules. When learning watercolor, for example, you’d learn how to move the brush, combine colors, and create perspective. You’d then use these techniques to express your vision.
Like watercolor, you’ll learn how to combine basic elements to express a theme and create a specific tone. You need to learn the principles, to know when to use them and when to break them, but overall, the most important part is you, the artist.
Learning to use these principles and elements can take a lifetime of study and practice. That’s far more than one blog post can help you with. When you’re planning your garden, refer to books on Japanese gardens and, if possible, visit Japanese gardens in person. While Japan is the best place to find them, you can also find Japanese gardens throughout North America, Europe, and across the world. The North American Japanese Garden Association hosts webinars, courses, and reference books.
But while planning and studying are important, you’ll learn best by doing. Nothing replaces getting your hands in your dirt.
Ready? Let’s begin.
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Japanese Garden Ideas
There are two main types of Japanese gardens – dry gardens (like rock gardens with fewer plants), and hill or tea gardens (using lots of plants). What type you go with depends on what appeals to you most. If you’re in a dry region, a rock garden may be easier to maintain.
While many of the finest historical gardens take up an acre or more, you don’t need a large space. In fact, many traditional Japanese houses contain a small garden that’s the size of a small balcony that’s only meant to be seen through a window.
Principles To Make Your Garden Look Japanese (Japanese Garden Features)
Consider viewing points and hide and reveal (miekakure)
Viewing points are essential. Japanese gardens are essentially 3D landscape paintings. Winding paths and bridges guide visitors where to stroll. Verandas offer places for people to sit and view the garden. Windows act like the frame around a painting.
Hide and reveal, or miekakure in Japanese, helps you control what people see. Unless it’s a tiny garden seen only from one position, you never see the entire garden from one spot. Instead, you walk through the paths while being continuously greeted with new views. Stones, plants, trees, and buildings can be used to hide parts of your garden.
Miekakure is also used to create depth in an otherwise shallow space. This is especially handy if you have a small garden to work with. If you were drawing rolling hills, for example, you’d give the illusion of depth by adding smaller hills half-hidden behind bigger hills. You can use the same effect to create rolling hills in a short space.
Create depth and borrow scenery (shakkei)
Japanese gardens are meant to feel secluded, like you’re a world away from the city life around you. You can use walls and fences to block off a city street, eliminating the passing cars and passersby. But you won’t be able to completely block off the surrounding treetops and buildings. The good news is that you don’t need to!
Shakkei means borrowed scenery. You use the surrounding treetops and buildings as the backdrop of your garden, and incorporate it into the design. You can replicate the shapes in the distance with trees, plants, and stones, or match the surrounding treetops with shorter trees against the wall.
Design with asymmetry and odd numbers
Japanese gardens are meant to romanticize natural scenery, and nature isn’t symmetrical. No element should dominate the rest of the garden (as you’d want more viewing points), and if you do have a focal point, it should be off center.
Japanese gardens also group elements in odd numbers, 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9. Part of this is for asymmetry, and part is that odd numbers are important in Japanese culture.
One asymmetrical design you’ll find in most gardens is using 3 stones of different heights clustered in a triangle. These stones could represent a mountain, or it can represent the Buddha accompanied by two disciples (trinity stones).
Incorporate water (or use its doppelgangers – gravel and sand)
Water is hugely important to Japan. The Japanese islands are surrounded by the ocean, while rivers snake through the mountains across the land. Fish and seaweed have fed Japan for millennia. Water is used in Shinto ceremonies for purification, and guests ritually wash their hands before entering a tea house.
If you have the space, incorporate a pond or stream into your garden. Build a waterfall where the water enters the pond or stream.
If you don’t have the space, then use a water basin. In tea gardens, water basins let guests wash (purify) their hands before the tea ceremony. They’re most often set low to the ground and sometimes use a bamboo pipe (kakei) to fill it.
But if water isn’t possible, then use gravel. Gravel and sand to give the impression of flowing water. You can rake the gravel into patterns that suggest waves or whirlpools. These sand rivers are what most people think of when they think of Zen garden, since raking is meditative (you have to be present) and the designs blow away (impermanence).
Design for seasonality
Japanese culture prizes the passing of the seasons. Millions gather to see the short-lived cherry blossoms or irises, or travel to the landscapes with brilliant fall foliage.
Japanese gardens should ideally change and look beautiful for each season. However, in practice, making your garden look amazing during every season is incredibly difficult. Many of the finest gardens in Japan aim for a garden that looks good for 2 or 3 seasons of the year, while some are best viewed in only a single season.
To get started, pick the seasons you most want to feature. Do you need a pick-me-up in the summer or winter? Are you in love with fall? Then pick plants for those seasons.
What Plants Are In A Japanese Garden?
The following are a selection of plants that are iconic of a Japanese garden. But this is just a jumping off point. Japanese gardens can contain hundreds of different species and varieties of those species.
You also don’t need to only include plants found in historical Japanese gardens, either. Japanese gardens should reflect the landscape around them. This is great news if you don’t live in an area that matches Japan’s climate. You can swap out traditional plants for those with a similar aesthetic that do well in your region.
The Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden is a great example of this. Located in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, the climate couldn’t be more different with dry, short summers and long, bitterly cold winters. But its gardeners carefully substituted Amur maples for Japanese maples, and lichen for moss (among others). Now, visitors can’t believe they’re still in Alberta when they visit.
A note about bamboo: few plants evoke Japan like bamboo does, so you may think this is a no-brainer plant to include. However, because bamboo spreads so aggressively, it’s rarely used in Japanese gardens. It’s also extremely flammable.
Likewise, cherry blossom trees (sakura) are another iconic and much beloved Japanese ornamental tree, but they’re rarely found in Japanese gardens. However, unlike bamboo, there’s no downsides to including them if that’s what you want.
One plant you’ll find in most Japanese gardens, even rock gardens, is moss. Moss adds a magical lushness and tranquility to a space. It symbolizes landforms and forests, but is also too fragile to step on, representing strength and frailty.
If you’ve got the right conditions for moss (moist), then they make an excellent lawn alternative as well. If you live in a dry area, try lichen instead.
Don’t harvest moss from wild areas – moss grows too slowly that any loss could take years to recover.
While moss milkshakes promise a quick way to add moss to your landscape, they’re often finicky and end in disappointment.
The best way to get moss from your garden (if it doesn’t already grow there) is from a reputable moss nursery. It’s pricey (since moss takes so long to grow), but they grow their own moss flats and rescue moss from demolition sites. They can also help you choose which species to use and teach you how to take care of it.
Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum)
Japanese Maples are another plant iconic to Japanese gardens. Native to Japan, it’s a lot like other maples, with that unique shaped leaf that’s green in the summer and turns a bold yellow or purplish-red in the fall. But unlike species native to North America, the Japanese maple’s leaves are thinner and look more delicate. They’re best used for fall beauty.
They’re a great understory tree, preferring some shade against the hot summer sun. You will also need to mulch them to keep in the moisture.
The Seattle Japanese Garden shows a variety of Japanese Maple cultivars.
Black (Pinus thunbergii) and Red Pine (Pinus densiflora)
Both black and red pines have been prized in Japanese gardens for centuries. Both are pruned in spring and fall, using candling in the spring to restrict the growth of the tree and maintain the tree’s distinctive shape. Pines are particularly great trees for a Japanese garden, as they’re easier to shape and train.
Black pine has a stronger, more rugged form, and are often used for hedges and windbreaks, especially along shorelines. They’re pruned to represent trees battered by coastal winds, their forms stunted but strong. They can also handle harsher conditions than red pine.
Red pine has softer, more delicate-looking needles. In the garden, their sprays of needles look soft and light, almost like clouds.
Japan has over 600 species of fern, and many have found their way into Japanese gardens. Like moss, they add a delicate, lush greenness and sense that you’re in a woodland paradise. They’re great to use as groundcover under trees or along shorelines. You will also find them used in rock gardens.
But you don’t need to stick to Japanese ferns. Japanese gardens are supposed to reflect the surrounding environment, so look for ferns native to your area. This provides a lot more options, especially if you’re not in a temperate, moist area.
Iris ensata, Hanashobu (Iris ensata)
While much of a Japanese garden’s floral focus is on trees and shrubs, that doesn’t mean you won’t find flowers. The Japanese Iris has been revered and used in Japanese gardens since the 12th century. Japanese gardeners have since developed more than 2000 cultivars.
Iris ensata is used in mass plantings along ponds or along streams. The more irises, the more stunning the effect. They bloom in late spring or early summer. In Japan, people still organize iris viewings to see the irises in full bloom. During the winter, the irises will die back to the ground.
Designing a Japanese garden can seem really intimidating. There’s so many principles to learn. But you can do it. Read some books. Visit some gardens. Start creating your garden, make mistakes, and let your garden develop.
The Art of Japanese Garden by David and Michiko Young
Inside Your Japanese Garden by Sadao Yasumoro and Joseph Cali
Niwaki: Pruning, Training, and Shaping Trees the Japanese Way by Jake Hobson
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