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Japanese garden design: designing the perfect Japanese-themed garden

Ladybrook Nursery has over 80 years’ combined experience in sourcing and supplying wholesale plant supplies for landscape garden designs. In our time we have supplied architects, garden designers, landscape contractors, landscape designers, local authorities, house builders and landowners with plants for major projects. One of the most popular garden designs we have been asked to supply plants for is the Japanese-themed, or Zen garden. So what advice do we give to those clients who are looking to create a Japanese garden, and what sort of plants would we recommend?

What type of Japanese garden best suits your plot?

Traditional Japanese gardens are calming and considered. They are peaceful meditative and always beautifully conceived and executed. The key to designing a Japanese flower garden is to focus on the key principles of reflection and restraint: in other words, keep it simple and try to imitate nature in the layout.

The most popular Japanese- influence garden design is undoubtedly the Japanese ‘Hill-and-Pond garden’. More relaxed than traditional European-styled gardens, this type of Asian garden planting scheme is laid out with distinct areas of smaller flowering trees and shrubs in the foreground, and a small pond and forest-like trees in the background. Foreground plants are carefully pruned into rounded shapes to add to the sense of natural garden depth and perspective.

The other traditional Japanese garden design is the Stroll garden. In this type of garden, a path is placed in the garden to allow the visitor to “stroll” through the garden, experiencing and interacting with the various focal points within the garden.

The crucial thing to remember with any Japanese-themed garden is not to try and cram as many plants as possible into a limited space. Japanese gardens tend to be minimal, so empty space is just as important as the quality of planting. Less, in Japanese-themed gardens, is generally more.

Features of a traditional Japanese garden

Japanese gardens traditionally feature certain key elements: borrowed landscape, water, bridges, stone lanterns, paths, stones and sand. However, if space is at a premium then you will probably not be able to incorporate all of these.

  • Borrowed landscape

Japanese gardens often use the landscape surrounding the garden as a feature of the garden itself. If you have a hillside view in the distance, you might consider framing this through an archway in the garden.

  • Water

Water is a very important aspect of Japanese garden design. You’ll usually see ponds, streams or waterfalls in traditional Japanese gardens. Waterfalls in particular are a popular feature, but the look of a waterfall without water can be created with rocks.

  • Stones

Strategically placed rocks and stones are used as design features in the garden. Stones are often positioned so they are jutting out of the water or in a raked sand garden.

  • Paths

A typical Japanese garden is designed for strolling. The paths are meandering, but that does not mean they are haphazard. Paths are seldom straight and often curve around otherfeatures in the garden and direct the visitor to take time and view the surroundings with care.

  • Sand

The raked sand garden is probably what most people think of when they think of a Japanese Zen garden. These structures are popular in Shinto shrines, where they are said to make a place more hospitable for spirits. Depending on how the sand is raked, it can look like flowing water or simple straight lines.

  • Plants

The final element of the Japanese garden is trees, shrubs and flowers. If you are starting from a completely new landscape with no established plants, you can easily choose plants that have meaning and are traditional to a Japanese garden. Otherwise you can work with what you have and add in elements of the Japanese style to bring more authenticity to your space.

Plants for a Japanese Garden

Traditional Japanese planting is sparse and strategically placed. By limiting planting, specimen plants become more of a focal point.

  • Trees

Most people think of the Japanese maple when they think of Japanese gardens. While these trees are both popular and lovely, they are not the only choice. Gnarled old pine trees are appreciated in both Chinese and Japanese cultures as a representation of long life. Other evergreen trees can also be too – evergreens like Canadian hemlock, cedar, coastal redwood, Himalayan white pine and Japanese black pine. When these alternatives are used they are often pruned or shaped to give an old and gnarled appearance. The flowering plum is another popular choice because it blooms in winter when little else is looking good.

  • Hedges

Hedges are also wonderful Japanese garden plants, especially when trimmed in the traditional patterns. Traditional plants commonly used in a Japanese garden include: Japanese barberry, flowering quince, weigela, Japanese pittosporum and yew.

  • Shrubs

Shade-loving shrubs are perfect for the Japanese garden because they can live happily under the taller trees. Azaleas, rhododendrons, hydrangeas, tree peonies and wisteria are all popular choices for Japanese gardens.

Bamboo, which is actually a grass but spreads so that it looks almost like a shrub wall, is another popular choice. It can be used for ornamentation as well as isolating views to other parts of the garden.

  • Flowers

Traditional Japanese gardens relied a lot on reeds and grasses, as well as flowering plants, trees and vines. Water-loving flowers such as the iris, lotus and water lily are popular choices. Choose flowers that you like and that will blend well with the other plants in your garden. It’s a good idea to go with plants that are native to your area. They will be more successful than exotic plants that may not be able to withstand extreme winter or summers temperatures.

Ground cover for Japanese gardens

Ground cover plants are a nice way to add more texture and colour to the garden. These most popular plants for a Japanese garden include: moss, Japanese sweet flag, Japanese ardisia, Soleirolia soleirolii (Baby’s tears) and spurge.

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