Dr. Bruner designs residential landscapes in the Dallas area in addition to writing and speaking to horticulture groups. She formerly taught landscape design in Auburn University’s Department of Horticulture. Her landscape design business, Two Trees Designs, designed residential landscape in East Alabama and West Georgia before relocating to the Dallas area. You can contact her with comments and questions about this article at laurabruner@tx.rr.com.

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Japanese Style in the Garden
by Laura L. Bruner, Ph.D.       #Design   #Themed Gardens   #Unusual

The raked sand in this dry garden suggests water rippling around stone islands. Bloedel Reserve, Japanese Garden on Bainbridge Island, Washington.

Japanese gardens have weathered the test of time.

Principles originating centuries ago still guide and inspire garden designers in search of harmony and beauty. Japanese gardens are often described as beautiful, simple, serene and harmonious. For the aspiring designer, intimidating also comes to mind. Some design principles are consistent across all design disciplines, while others seem new and challenging to a Western-minded gardener. Let’s explore the Japanese garden and discuss a few concepts that make this approach so enduring.

Motomi Oguchi writes in Creating Your Own Japanese Garden: A Practical Guide that Japanese designers create according to the following principles:

1.) Each part of the garden should evoke how nature would present itself.
2.) The garden should be a new, creative design that is mindful of past masters’ works.
3.) Create gardens of harmony that recall beautiful scenes in nature.
4.) Be flexible with site conditions, current needs, desires and self-expression. From a Japanese perspective, the human role in the garden is one of participation rather than conquest.

This stroll garden located in Kyoto, Japan, demonstrates shakkei or “borrowed scenery” by allowing views of mountains in the distance.

Formal design principles such as order, unity and rhythm are utilized in Japanese garden design as they are in any other form of design in any culture. The difference is where the Japanese place emphasis.

Plant materials in Japanese gardens are mostly evergreen. Deciduous trees, such as this weeping cherry tree, provide dramatic accents.


A slab bridge in the Hagiwara Tea Garden in California extends a pathway across a stream.

One emphasis is on combining objects in groups of three, often in triangular form for trees and stones. In such a grouping, the larger object is placed in the middle with the smaller ones to the left and right. The grouping forms a triangle and is asymmetrically balanced by varying the distance of the left and right objects depending on their visual weight. The composition is also staggered, attempting to achieve visual balance from multiple perspectives. Another point of emphasis in Japanese garden design is asymmetry. Asymmetrical visual balance suggests a natural setting and contrasts with the design symmetry found in Western formal gardens.

Other design principles in Japanese gardens are more familiar, but with distinct cultural application. Gardens are typically enclosed with a neutral background that interrupts the line of sight. Traditionally, the interior of a Japanese garden was considered sacred and the outside profane. The enclosure sets the garden space apart visually. In the ancient Shinto religion, gods were nature spirits. Therefore, the Japanese perception of the garden as a place to worship nature is not surprising according to Alvin Horton in Creating Japanese Gardens. Japanese gardens are designed for viewing from verandas or inside the residence, not recreation like Western landscapes. The landscape is often composed like a painting with roof eaves, columns and lower tree limbs framing the views. The sky is minimized by deep overhanging roof eaves and screening. The emphasis is on the horizontal plane, low and wide, rather than the vertical.

Shakkei or “borrowed scenery” is a universal design principle found in Japanese gardens in which distant shapes are echoed in the garden design, trees inside the garden blend with those outside the garden and overall garden design harmonizes with its surroundings.

Miekakure or “hide and reveal” is another common principle in which the garden is revealed to visitors gradually and can’t be seen entirely from one vantage point. The principle of fuzei or “wind feeling” is unique to Japanese design. It is the visual perception conveyed when garden features suggest the effect of natural forces, like wind, on the landscape over time. A shaped pine suggests years of strong coastal winds. A moss-covered stone conveys the patina of age.


Top: A stepping stone pathway leads the garden visitor through a traditional entry gate.

Far Left: Bamboo is a natural choice for enclosing a Japanese garden.

Left: Shaped, rugged pines suggest the effect of wind over time.

Certain elements occur consistently in Japanese garden design. The combination of these, along with guiding design principles, can infuse your landscape with a Japanese feeling. Consider enclosure materials such as stone, wood, evergreen hedges and bamboo. Water, either actual or abstract, is an important component. Constructed waterfalls, streams and ponds echo the surrounding Japanese landscape within the garden walls. Raked sand is used to suggest water in other situations. Decomposed granite particles are used because their angular shape holds the precise raked patterns. The patterns suggest ripples around miniature islands of set stones. Functional bridges extend pathways over water or dry streams in the Japanese garden. Bridges are usually constructed of single slab stones or planks.

Water basins and stone lanterns are common elements found in Japanese gardens. They contrast subtly with the natural surroundings.

Utilitarian and decorative stonework is typically granite and schists in shades of gray and soft colors. No pure white or decorative colors are used in stonework. Water basins made of granite in both natural and cut shapes are found in many Japanese garden styles. Ishi-doro (stone pedestal lanterns) are utilized along pathways or in courtyards. Lanterns were popularized by Zen priests and traditionally incorporated into Japanese tea gardens. Stone lanterns are the most common feature found in Japanese gardens today. Their primary use is to subtly contrast with the surrounding natural elements.

Traditionally, plant material has been flowering and non-flowering broadleaf evergreens, conifers, shaped pines and mounding shrubs. Deciduous trees and moss are also important components, though mostly as accents.

Japanese design requires restraint and simplicity; by adhering to these rules your landscape could honor these ancient traditions and provide a respite from the outside world.



A version of this article appeared in a March 2012 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Loren Madsen.  


Posted: 04/19/18   RSS | Print


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