How to design a Japanese garden

Japanese garden

As gardeners, we delight in creating a natural place of solitude and tranquility to call our own. It is no surprise then that many gardeners are drawn to the peaceful simplicity of Japanese gardens. Designed as places to escape the chaos of daily life, these Asian creations have a minimalist quality that embodies nature in all its perfection.

Still, for the Western gardener, it can be difficult to grasp the concept of a planned landscape that has so many seemingly unfilled spaces. To help you understand the purpose of a garden designed in this way and implement its qualities in an American garden, I will first cover the basic components of a traditional Japanese garden.

Purpose of Japanese Gardens

Beyond serving as a relaxing retreat, Japanese gardens have several other purposes. First, they attempt to reflect nature in a miniaturized form. Thus, all the elements in the garden will contain parts of the environment in a naturally occurring way. Rocks, water, and various plants and trees are incorporated into the microcosm so that even in major cities, nature is always nearby.

Although they are designed to be strolled in and enjoyed, they require little space because their properties can be scaled down.
This leads to the second element of the Japanese garden: symbolism. Because of the lack of space in most gardens, it is necessary to mimic naturally occurring landmarks on a smaller scale. Thus, smaller elements stand for larger ones. A small pond is a lake, a boulder is a mountain, and raked white sand is a river.

Miniature trees like Japanese maples enforce this miniature world, creating a feeling of unblemished nature even in a humble backyard. The third and final purpose of an Asian garden is to borrow views from the world beyond its borders. Although these gardens are enclosed, they will often allow for a peek outside. This is especially true when mountains or trees are visible in the background that blends well with the inside environment.

Elements of Japanese Gardens

In order to design an authentic Japanese garden, a few key elements should be incorporated into the landscape. The first of these are rocks, which are usually placed before any other details in the garden. Rocks of various sizes, shapes, and textures are carefully laid out around the property. Rather than being scattered randomly, they are mindfully positioned to serves as focal points and to provide balance.

For instance, tall vertical rocks are combined with shorter supporting stones, and large round boulders are flanked by numerous smaller stones. The purpose of this is to give a realistic look to the garden. Imagine walking into the countryside and finding a huge natural pillar of stone without anything to help hold it up. This sort of arrangement almost never occurs in nature, so it is not done in Asian gardens.

Another necessary part of an Asian garden is water, whether in the form of a small pond or a waterfall. When carefully placed, water often serves as the focal point of Japanese gardens and offers added tranquility to the area. Just keep in mind that, like everything else in your garden, this should mimic nature.

Avoid using fountains or other man-made structures if you wish to retain the integrity of the garden as a miniaturized bit of nature. Having said this, not every yard has a stream running through it. Feel free to build a pond of the waterfall using kits that can be purchased at most gardening and home improvement centers. If you decide that you cannot incorporate water, consider creating a patch of raked white sand to symbolize it.

Once you have placed these first two elements in your garden, you can consider choosing plants. A Japanese garden is designed to be enjoyed in all seasons, unlike traditional Western gardens that are abandoned with the first sign of frost. Thus, designing an area that will be inviting in cold weather requires choosing some evergreen plants like pine trees and perennial hedges.

Other commonly used plants include Japanese maples (which are petite and provide stunningly colored leaves into the late fall), Yoshino cherry trees (which are also slow growers), bamboo, and reeds for ponds. Tufted moss — which provides a soft texture that creeps onto rocks and trees beautifully — is an ideal replacement for grass. Feel free to incorporate other untraditional plants into the garden as you see fit; just remember not to overfill the space.

The last necessary part of this type of garden is added detail. To enforce the solitude of the space, it is a good idea to add a privacy fence, possibly with tiny openings to allow others a look into your sanctuary. Consider constructing a miniature moon bridge over a stream or a rustic stone path for strolling. The addition of a traditional teahouse is also a charming and useful touch in a Japanese garden with ample space.

Many Asian gardens contain stone statues (like lions for protection) and stone lanterns. The pagoda is a five-tiered lamp that was once used for lighting the garden, but now it is a decorative ornament symbolic of the five elements. Paper lanterns, fish (koi are often placed in Japanese ponds), and other authentic touches will help complete your garden.

No matter how you choose to design or decorate your Japanese garden, what matters most is that you feel at peace in it. Lay it out subtly, leaving empty spaces on which to meditate. Use minimal decorations to maintain an open area reminiscent of an Asian landscape.

Above all else, enjoy your garden, taking advantage of the tranquility it offers. This is the true purpose of the Japanese garden: to provide a sanctuary from life’s rigors and allow us to be at ease in nature. With each season it will offer unique delights, so take every opportunity to savor them.

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