If you’re planning to design a new landscape layout for your garden it can be useful to have an idea of a theme decided to make it easier for you and also less complicated and consistent. Japanese style garden landscape design is a popular choice with many because or the serenity the designs give, they can create your own Japanese retreat in your own garden.

Western garden design takes elements of water, stone and plant life from nature and makes them into something uncommonly found in the real world. Japanese gardens on the other hand, seek to arrange the elements as a reflection of reality. Nature, in Japanese thought, is to be revered and not manipulated; while Western designs tend to strive to create as unique and eccentric arrangements as possible by man-made means, so that the original natural object is now far removed from its initial form.

As well as plants and trees, the Japanese garden introduces artistic features of rocks and sand arranged in homage to nature. For example, mounds of earth and ponds are designed to evoke a proportional representation of mountains and lakes or oceans.

There are three main Japanese garden designs that you can replicate in your own garden:

Hill and pond gardens: The pond fronts a hill or hills. The pond can be actual water or it is represented by raked gravel. The hills can be small earth mounds designed to represent mountains, but each must be in proportion to the other. Plants by the mountain must be those native to the mountain regions. Stroll gardens with paths to follow are always hill and pond. For additional pond ideas click here.

Flat garden: This is a garden for contemplation. It is a Zen Buddhist influence that uses sand and various rocks to denote the seashore. Again, plants used must be common to seashore areas. Flat gardens are found in courtyards.

Tea garden: Only in the tea garden is function more significant than form. There is a path leading to the water basin before you enter the tea house. There may be stone lanterns, but otherwise features are sparse. The tea garden as an approach to the tea house is meant to be quiet and calming like the countryside.

In all designs however, Japanese gardens never try to create something that nature itself cannot. The treatment and interplay of garden elements is a very different approach to our Western methods.

Garden Water Features

When water focal points are installed in a Japenese garden they are done so in a manner that makes them look as natural as possible, and the water will be made to move in a natural way so you will rarely see a fountain for example in a Japenese garden. It is common for water to be used as a trickling stream, to imitate a lake or as a waterfall, if being used as a waterfall however, an effort should be made to conseal the water pump so it looks as natural as possible.

Commonly used in Japanese water basins are what are known as “deer chasers”, this is a hollow bamboo stick that fills with water then tips and hits the basin making a slight tapping noise. This was to discourage deer from drinking from the basin, this is because in Japanese gardens its thought to be important that the water is kept clean and pure.

Traditional Japanese Plants

Japanese landscape gardening only uses plants that are native, and seeks to put them in proportion to the rest of the garden’s layout. Where a lake is represented, the plants used nearby will be those found by lakes in nature, and their size will be relative to that of the pond which signifies the lake. Western gardens collate many species of plants in a variety of shapes, colours and sizes, and plant them wherever looks pleasing to the eye. Though it is innovative, the result is unnatural. It is considered bad taste for a Japanese garden to display overt exotic plants.

Due to its realistic aesthetic, evergreens are common in Japanese designs. Trees, perennials, and shrubs help to show the garden’s passage of seasons and of time. Conversely, Western gardeners have no qualms about planting colourful, elaborate flowers that would not occur without this bit of assistance. The Japanese tend to focus on the whole appearance of the garden, so dramatic floral statements are not required. Instead, deciduous plants that bloom or colour seasonally are implanted. They use common plants as it is a truer representation of the natural world, and because the garden is to serve a purpose of tranquillity and reflection as a whole picture, not as the sum of its parts.

Garden Ornaments and Sculpture

The Western garden celebrates the use of sculpture as a focal point of the garden. Carefully positioned sculptures are used to draw your eye to one object above all else and guide your path. Ornaments are used as design accents, or simply as quirky additions that reflect our personalities. Western gardeners like to demonstrate man’s design and highlight their manipulation of the garden, whereas Japanese landscaping tries to look like a natural occurrence, and every object in the garden is to compliment its surroundings and the feel of the garden as a whole. In a Japanese garden, the journey is just as important as the destination; therefore large focal sculptures at the end of a path would only be a distraction.

Ornamentation can be created through the use of stone and rock formations. The basic stones types that are artistically used are the tall vertical stone, the low vertical, the reclining stone and the arched stone. Often these are arranged asymmetrically in groups of three, five or seven. To create a stepping stone path, the stones should rise around 1 – 3 inches up from the ground, but must feel firm as if they belonged to the ground.

Gardens of the West tend to introduce a lot of furniture, including seating and plant containers as well as many forms of sculpture, particularly by ponds. Japanese ornaments by comparison tend to be kept to a minimum. Objects that are used have significance to the form of the garden and help to convey a feeling. They are not a primary focus, but again contribute to the overarching impression of the landscape.

Particularly in tea gardens, (aside from the tea house), you will find stone water basins and stone lanterns. The water basin is kept low so one must kneel in reverence to wash. The basin, like the lantern, is made of stone to blend into its natural surroundings.

The complexity of the features increases to provide a greater point of contemplation. Japanese gardens are peaceful, reflective places where one can consider one’s position in relation to nature. Features are designed to make you pause for thought. Bridges especially make time for you to contemplate your journey through the garden, and so through life. Bridges, like paths, represent your spiritual journey. A complicated path or bridge signifies an important journey, and they often pass across water. It must also be noted the more formal the garden: the more formal the objects.

Use of Space in Gardens

Japanese gardening takes a holistic approach; the landscape is designed for its effect and appearance as a whole, aiming to create a distinctly natural, meditative, ambience. The Western perspective on the garden is often to divide it into segments. Large spaces have a tendency to be divided by gateways or hedges, and different sections of the garden may be arranged according to a slightly different theme or geometry.

In Western gardens it is common for empty garden space to be used simply for either a childrens play area or for animals to use but in Japanese gardens space is left intentionally to create the final look of the garden as a whole rather. This can be seen in the way that features in a Japanese garden may be placed throughout the whole garden where as in typical Western garden the features are placed around the edge of the garden to give maximum free space in the garden.

Garden Presentation

The presentation of Japanese gardens is such that a visitor to the garden may only view it from one angle. The viewer is led round the garden following a path or set of paths, so all the aspects of the garden can be only seen from one direction. All the plants and ponds therefore are meticulously arranged so that they create the desired effect toward a single standpoint.

This differs greatly to the Western attitude, whereby visitors to the garden can move freely in any direction and view most planting schemes from a number of angles. When a plant arrangement or feature is installed, the gardener considers it from all angles so that it makes general attractive impression rather than conveying a set principle.

Where possible; Japanese landscaping can involve the notion of borrowed scenery (Shakkei). If the garden is flanked externally by natural features such as mountains or lakes, it is auspicious to incorporate these into your garden design. They can be framed by plants or stones to highlight their external presence, and can then be interpreted by your own means into your garden. It therefore truly echoes the belief that gardens should be a harmonised part of the natural world.

Learn more about creating a Feng-Shui garden here.