Japanese Garden Designs & Important Considerations

Build a Japanese Themed Garden With Our Guidance

By Thomas O'Rourke

A Japanese garden is a place of contemplation and mindfulness meditation; nonetheless a great way to decorate your landscape. Whether you have a small backyard or a large plot, transforming it in a natural retreat can give you a private oasis of peace in the middle of the everyday hustle and bustle.

That being said, building a Japanese garden is far from easy. Understanding the ancient foundations of such a space is essential if you want to incorporate it into your home successfully.

Japanese gardens are more than a beautiful outdoor space. They talk to culture and tradition, and nothing must be left to chance when creating your Zen décor. In this guide, we’re going to show you some Japanese garden ideas highlighting the essential elements of this space.

In our guide - creative ideas and innovations for your garden...

Section 1: How You'll Use Your Garden Edging

Building a Japanese garden means stepping out of your comfort zone and taking a look at landscaping from a different perspective. This outdoor space is more than a place to relax in a lazy afternoon; it’s a real work of art designed to bring peace of mind.

Japanese gardens have a strong history and centuries of culture behind them. The purpose of this garden is deeply rooted in tradition and creating one requires a thorough study of what Japanese heritage really means.

The truth is that most Westerners, British included, often confuse Oriental cultures – mixing and matching elements with no connection to one another.

While this might not bother you, the result will certainly not be a Japanese garden but a personal interpretation of an Asiatic cultural mix. If instead you want to stay true to your purpose and build an authentic Japanese garden, there are a few questions to answer before diving into your renovation project:

Japanese gardens are surprisingly rich in elements which vary from small and mid-size rocks to smaller or larger plants, trees, and architectural details including bridges, tea houses and pagodas.

A full garden landscape, therefore, would require a large plot that can incorporate all these essentials without overcrowding them.

But you needn’t despair if all you have is a small backyard or a terrace. Smaller Zen garden designs featuring fewer elements can still bring the desired tranquillity to your home and beautify your outdoor area.

Most Japanese gardens are meant to be seen from the indoors. In fact, traditional houses in the land of the rising sun are built slightly above the garden so that the occupants can admire the landscape during the tea ceremony.

Although modern culture has altered this tradition somewhat, if you want to stay true to the Japanese tradition, you should build the garden where it can be seen from the house.

Alternatively, make sure you can at least see it from a path in your yard.

Traditional Japanese gardens are rustic in nature and require the use of unaltered natural elements. For instance: any wood elements must be unpainted, large river rocks and pebbles must also respect their natural shape and overall, this type of landscape works with only a few engineered components.

If you prefer formal over rustic, perhaps a dry Japanese garden style could be a better fit. The same goes if you want to integrate Zen elements in a modern home.

As mentioned above, Japanese gardens are rich in elements; before deciding to build one, consider if you can include all of the critical features in your landscape. These are:

  • Water – all Japanese gardens have water as the central element, be it a pond, a river, or a small fountain. If you opt for a stream, remember that water must enter the garden from the east and flow towards the west. In a dry or miniature Japanese garden, water is represented by raked white sand.
  • Rocks – and their derivate sand and gravel are essential features of a Japanese garden. Larger stones represent the mountains while flat rocks often represent the earth. In Buddhist culture, rocks and water also complement each other in reference to yin and yang symbolism.
  • Garden Bridges – where there is water, there must be a bridge. This essential element of a Japanese garden can be made of either stones or logs, either arched or flat. Never paint it in red unless you also incorporate a temple in your garden. Japanese garden bridges respect the natural colour of the material they are made from.
  • Lanterns – Japanese stone lanterns are not only essential features of this garden style, but they are also highly aesthetic elements. Traditionally representing one of the five aspects of the Buddhist cosmology, they are now used for purely decorative purposes.
  • Garden Fences and Gates – Japanese gardens must always have a gate to mark the entrance, and they must be fenced. Traditional elements are made from wood and respect the original colour of the material.
  • Plants – the vegetative elements of a Japanese garden have more than an aesthetic purpose. Their function is either to hide unflattering sights or to serve as a backdrop to the other elements to create picturesque landscapes. Furthermore, some of the plants are chosen for their religious symbolism. An important consideration must also be made for the pruning of any trees.

Do you want a purely aesthetic space or a functional one? In a small backyard, constructing an essential Zen garden with few decorative elements and no seating could help you achieve a better end result.

On a larger plot or in a full Japanese garden, incorporating benches into the design is essential.

Stone is perhaps the best material although traditional Japanese benches made of wood could also complement your décor. As tempting as it may seem, stay away from man-made materials like wrought iron or – even worse – plastic. These decorative elements may look great in an English or Italian garden but will be completely out of place in a Japanese landscape.

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Section 2: Japanese Garden Ideas

Section 3: Building Your Garden

With a strong heritage and complex cultural elements, Japanese gardens are perhaps the most challenging to create. Here are some of the most important things to consider before building your oasis of peace.

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Aesthetic considerations

Some may argue Japanese gardens look like Chinese gardens, and to an extent they do. The truth is the early Japanese gardens were inspired by the Chinese model, but they developed different aesthetic principles that follow the model of the sacred Zen Buddhist temple gardens.

Japanese culture also makes a clear distinction between Zen and promenade landscapes. The former must be seen from the indoors while seated and the latter must be gradually discovered while walking.

Choosing one style over the other is a matter of preference, but both models follow common aesthetic principles you must incorporate in your design. These are:

  • Asymmetry: You must never lay your garden on perpendicular axes nor create a central element that will dominate your view. Garden features must be seen from a diagonal perspective and must be composed into scenes integrating vertical and horizontal elements including rocks, trees, sand and water.
  • Concealment: An important element above all in promenade gardens, in which aspects of the garden must be discovered one landscape at a time. You must look to hide features behind plants, hills or architectural structures. On the contrary, Zen gardens are meant to reveal themselves all at once and feature no hidden details.
  • Integration: A prominent characteristic of smaller Japanese gardens is their integration into the existing landscape, which makes them seem larger.
  • Miniaturisation: Everything in a Japanese garden is a miniature perspective of nature, and each element represents a bigger natural element. Rocks define mountains, and rivers, waterfalls, ponds, and sand recall the Japanese coastal landscape. Most of these elements also have religious interpretations.

Japanese garden style

Japanese gardens come in a variety of styles. We have selected three considering both building ease and their capability to withstand climatic conditions in the UK.

1. Dry rock gardenjapanese rock garden with raked sand

The easiest style to build is the dry rock garden. This garden consists of rocks, sand and vegetation. Water is not involved but is represented by white sand raked into a particular pattern to symbolise either a river or the sea.

The rocks symbolise mountains and their integration with the “water” element has religious considerations.

2. Moss garden

Another particular type of Zen garden is the moss garden. Moss thrives in Japan and is often spotted in their traditional landscapes. This vegetative element establishes a balance between the landscape elements bringing comfort to a burdened mind.

This type of Zen landscape inspires an unusual tranquillity and provides the perfect place for a more thoughtful soul to rest or meditate.

Top tip: Moss is very easy to grow in any area, but if you lack it in your garden, you can use the moss graffiti technique to promote its development.

pond garden with small waterfall3. Pond garden

Perhaps no other element can encapsulate the spirit of a Japanese garden like a pond garden. Whether it’s Zen or promenade style, this landscape must include all of the key elements mentioned in the first section of this guide.

In a miniature garden, replace the pond with a small water basin; a small outdoor fountain can also create an attractive decorative element as long as you keep it simple and make it from natural materials.

In a larger garden, bring life to your pond garden with colourful koi fish.

Japanese garden culture

If you want to create a true Japanese garden and not a meaningless imitation, you must learn the basics of this type of creation.

Not only will you need to pay attention to the decoration, but the colour palette also plays an important role.

When it comes to aesthetic garden elements, avoid adding too many statues and decorations. Fewer elements integrated with vegetal and architectural detail is all it takes to achieve an appealing effect. Red hanging flowers are also rarely used in a Japanese garden.

Traditional designs only feature red elements in the gardens of the Buddhist temples. Otherwise, these elements belong more to a Chinese landscape.

The dominant colour in a traditional Japanese garden is green – complemented by the natural shades of wood and stone. Flowers also have a well-established role in this garden style. They must beautify the landscape but not distract; in other words, brightly coloured flowers are never used in this type of landscape.

Chosen shades are often much more neutral in nature, and Zen gardens often feature pale pink, lilac, light blue and white flowers. All these shades are believed to highlight and balance the intensity of the green.

Garden arrangements

raked gravel with trees in background

The purpose of a Japanese garden is to incorporate elements that together can create Zen. Simplicity is key to building your outdoor space, from the choice of materials to the actual arrangement of decorative elements.

The simplest way to achieve a traditional design without studying Japanese culture in detail is by building a stylish rock garden.

White gravel constitutes the base of your landscape and must be decorated with large river rocks and pebbles. Opt for a bamboo fence to define your garden’s perimeter and place a bamboo fountain in the corner of your landscape.

small water featureFlat stone paths, a flat stone bridge transitioning from one section of your garden to another, and a small traditional lantern, can all help to introduce stand-out architectural elements to a restricted space.

When it comes to plants, avoid overcrowding. Stick to evergreens, moss and crawling plants. Two or three trees and perhaps a lotus flower placed in your fountain can complement with simplicity your Japanese garden design.

Section 4: Garden Plant Selection

Plants are crucial elements of any garden. Following the advice above, you should focus on evergreens, delicate flowers and trees. We have selected some plants that thrive in the temperamental British climate and which will work wonders in a Zen landscape:

Evergreens and grasses

  • Japanese forest grass
  • Black mondo grass
  • Siebold’s wood fern
  • Japanese catmint

Trees

  • Japanese maple
  • Cherry tree
  • Azalea tree

Flowers

  • Kirengeshoma palmate
  • Japanese woodland primrose
  • Lilies

Section 5: Mistakes To Avoid When Building Your Garden

It’s easy to go wrong with a Japanese garden. One misplaced element or wrong colour can spoil all your hard work. If you want your Zen garden to shine, check out these five common mistakes to avoid:

1. Don’t paint wood

Japanese gardens feature multiple wood elements, from gates and fences to decorations. Your first impulse could be to paint the material to protect it from adverse weather and rain, but limit yourself to applying a protective layer of transparent wood stain.

2. Don’t use painted stones

The purpose of the Japanese garden is to recreate a natural landscape. You won’t find coloured stones anywhere in nature, so you shouldn’t use them in your garden. Opt for natural river stones, pebbles, and natural gravel to decorate your landscape.

3. Avoid topiaries

While you do have to pay attention to pruning your plants, avoid creating topiaries. Keep your plants as natural as possible and follow the bonsai pruning rules when caring for your small trees and shrubs.

4. Don’t use synthetic materials

Anything that isn’t natural stone, sand, or wood – plants excepted – should be kept away from your Japanese garden. Although popular, plastic or resin fountains and decorations will make your Zen garden look cheap.

5. Avoid any Western accessories

The only architectural elements acceptable in a Japanese garden are traditional lanterns, tea houses, pagodas, bridges and temples. If you don’t want to overspend or lack the funds to build these, avoid adding Western garden accessories like pergolas, gazebos, trellises and sheds.