Landscaping Tips for Creating a Japanese Garden

japanese-style-gardenNothing is more elegant and relaxing than a proper Japanese garden.

You may have visited one at a botanical garden or Japanese cultural center (this one leads to the Hawaii location) and marveled at its architectural ingenuity and harmonious layout.

Japanese garden designers are widely considered to be masters of creating highly stylized, abstract landscapes in compact spaces. If you want to make the most out of your small space, you should definitely consider incorporating a touch of Japanese design philosophy.

Japanese gardens come in many forms; they can be easily adapted to fit the needs of your particular climate and existing landscape.

The typical garden that most Americans have seen is the strolling pond variety (see image above). In this design, the pond is the centerpiece, and can be traversed with an arched moon bridge or simple, uncut slabs of stone. The pond, which is meant to look like a miniature sea, is often partially bordered with large stones that contribute a choppy, natural feeling to the landscape. Ferns, moss, and deciduous trees surround the pond as well.

Though Asian carp are the traditional pond dwellers, you can substitute native species of fish and frogs rather easily.

Tea gardens, or chaniwa, are more rustic variations of the Japanese garden.


Typically, they are small and minimalist. A stone path curves through the landscape; its winding shape mimics a stream bed and enables the viewer to see the garden’s pines, flowers, and shrubs from many different angles. Architectural elements include stone lanterns, a central tea house, and a gate that marks the beginning of the pathway.

Zen gardens, or karesansui, are often called “dry landscape” gardens.


Instead of the lawn space that American gardens typically use, zen gardens use carefully raked gravel or sand as its base. Designers of zen gardens have been mostly inspired by ancient Chinese landscape art; thus, they often look like still life paintings.

The raked lines are meant to look similar to water ripples, and create a very relaxing effect. Large rocks are arranged to look like small mountain ranges, with mossy islands sprinkled throughout.

Small courtyard gardens, or tsuboniwa, are most commonly found in Japan’s densely packed urban areas. Their major design aspect is their size: they are often no bigger than the total area of two tatami mats lying side-by-side (approximately 36 square feet).

The layout and appearance are similar to tea gardens, but at a much smaller scale.

Think of it as a bigger bonsai garden. Since these gardens are mostly geared towards tight urban spaces, they primarily use shade-loving moss, plants, and ferns.

You can mix and match the elements of Japanese garden styles to create a unique design for your home landscape. The key concepts for each of them are:

  • replication
  • scaled-down formations
  • asymmetry
  • flowing movement

More contemporary Western gardens incorporate these concepts, and many upscale landscaping companies are knowledgeable about them as well and can help provide some landscaping tips for you come up with a design that works for you.


Many gardens include formations that mimic landscapes that the owner has sentimental memories about. For instance, several of the gardens of Heian-era nobles included monuments to their hometowns. In your own garden, you can create an abstract replica of a stream from your childhood, or a mountain range that you’ve always wanted to climb.

Scaled-down Formations

As you can already tell, the Japanese-style garden is all about creating miniature worlds. The ideal garden should be a universe unto itself; this sense of completeness makes even the smallest space seem huge. Best of all, you can build those worlds with just a few basic ingredients: large rocks, sand, moss, and water. With just a little bit of intentional arrangement, your garden will be filled with mountains, seas, and forests.


The prevailing idea behind much East Asian art is asymmetry. Instead of faithfully mirroring set patterns, a truly Japanese design will play with diagonal, horizontal, and vertical lines to create a complicated view of its features. When tall trees, slanted gates, and horizontal ponds interact in the same space, they create a variety of interesting displays from all viewing angles.

Flowing Movement

The best way to view such a garden is by walking through it, via short paths or rough bridges. Zig-zag and winding paths can stimulate a meditative mood and calm the soul. If you don’t have room for a path, you can place rocks in strategic positions that will draw the eye and create a distinct visual flow.

Image Credits: sozolandscape, billmcintyre, tanaka_juuyoh

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