Japanese gardens have a feeling of calm and tranquility which is hard to beat. They draw on centuries of tradition and have a stunning, neat and minimalistic natural look which reflects the Japanese culture. It is hard to re-create an authentic Japanese garden, because of how influential the culture is on that look and feel. If you want to have a similar look in your own garden, it often makes more sense to take inspiration from the design principles that are used, rather than trying to copy the whole look – here are a few tips for creating a Japanese-style garden in your own home.
Japanese brush paintings show the essence of the scene they are capturing, with just a few brushstrokes – and Japanese gardens achieve something similar. They take inspiration for the choices of plants, colors and forms from the country’s native fauna. They use dark stones, bright plants, and a mixture of lush greens and muted tones to produce a stunning garden, with accents in vivid hues such as deep reds to put together something that is reminiscent of Japan as a whole. There may even be some subtle changes in the landscape’s topography – with those little mounds and depressions evoking thoughts of hills and valleys.
Bamboo, hardwood, stepping stones, sand and gravel make an appearance in most gardens, with some contemporary landscapes adding concrete or aggregate in addition to the more traditional materials. While European gardeners love symmetry, classical Japanese gardens often lean towards being asymmetrical, and achieve their balance in that way – so, a tree and a boulder might ‘balance each other out’. This is a look that takes practice to perfect.
Traditionally, the garden would be somewhere that the Japanese might use for a tea ceremony. They would have a Teahouse in the garden which would be a place for quiet; a retreat where one would go to enjoy calm and to engage in reflection.
The water basin is something that would be put in a teahouse garden for guests to cleanse themselves before they entered the teahouse itself. The wash basin would be surrounded by some carefully arranged stones that represent the elements. Basins that were not surrounded by stones would be decorative only. If you want to introduce a feeling of calm, then some flowing water is a good way to do that.
Other elements that can offer a touch of Japanese style include:
Water representations: Water is something that is sacred across many cultures – and in Japanese culture even the representation of it has a lot of importance. If you can’t have a true water feature in your garden, dig a shallow depression, and then fill it with dark gravel to represent the water. Add some plants to the sides of the ‘river bed’.
Mountain representations: The Japanese would often use large boulders or stones to anchor their garden designs and represent boulders. These can be made to look more authentic if the base of the stone is buried, and there are plants nestled around the bottom, or very small shrubs standing nearby that set off the scale of the stone compared to the surroundings.
Meandering paths: Even in a small garden, it’s nice to have paths that meander through the area – criss-crossing river beds (even the simulated ones that you created earlier). Guide the visitor through the area, and let them take a meditative stroll. This is in stark contrast to the straight lines that are more common in gardens created by western designers.
Rock gardens: The humble Zen Garden or rock garden is a dry landscape that features rocks, some small trees, and moss. These are often an element of a Japanese garden, and they are covered with fine sand to represent water – the sand is often neatly raked, to create the illusion of ripples. If you can put even a small one of these highly stylized gardens into your design, then you will have something authentically Japanese to enjoy.
Japanese maple: This is a graceful plant that has some lovely, delicate leaves. It is a mainstay of Japanese gardens, and the trees don’t grow all that tall – 15 – 25 ft at most, and easy to prune to keep smaller. This means that even smaller gardens can take advantage of them. There are several varieties, with different colored leaves, to choose from. The Tree Center have a nice selection of these Japanese Maple.
Moss: Blanket the gardens with moss so that they have a vivid tear. If you cannot grow moss, because it requires a moist environment with just the right amount of sunlight, then consider some other, similar looking plants such as Soleiroila Soleirolii – also known as baby’s tears.
Cherry blossom: Spring gardens are representative of birth and renewal, and use flowering cherries to create bright and beautiful environments. They also lean towards plants with vivid green leaves, which create a feeling of hope and optimism for the future, as we wait for the summer flowers to come into bloom.
Ginkgo Biloba: For the autumn, the Japanese Maple looks stunning as it begins to turn crimson, and the Ginkgo Biloba’s golds are stunning too – pick a male ginkgo, if you can, because the females drop fruits, which will need cleaned up.
Japanese gardens are beautiful, but they take some maintenance to keep that way. The minimalistic look is important – it’s easy to fall foul of putting too many plants into the garden, which defeats the goal of tranquility.