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Konnichiwa Y’all
by Shannon Pable

Creating a Japanese Tea Garden Using Native Plants


A view of native Piedmont azaleas in bloom provides a delightful treat from the back deck in spring.


Understanding Native Jargon

Just because a garden uses native plants doesn’t mean it is wild, weedy or no-maintenance. (Less maintenance, yes!) It means you are using plants that are better suited for your area because they’ve been living there, naturally, for hundreds (even thousands) of years!

What do we mean by a native plant of North America? This is a plant that was here prior to European settlement. We can get even more particular and say native to your state, your county or even your backyard ... and this could lead into another discussion on eco-types. But what is important here is to utilize plants that grow well in your zone and are more disease and pest resistant than, perhaps, their Asian cousins.

Also, just because you find something growing in the wild doesn’t necessarily mean it’s native. There are many plants that are growing in the wild that are considered exotic invasives such as kudzu, the plant that ate the South. It is non-native and highly invasive, so much so that it chokes out our native plants.


Sample Native Plant List for the Shady “Japanese” Tea Garden That I Created

(Leucothoe axillaries)

3x5 feet, fast growing

Florida anise*
(Illicium floridanum)

8x8 feet, fast growing

Anise tree*
(I. parviflorum)

8x8 feet, fast growing

(R. catawbiense ‘Purpureum Elegans’)

10x10 feet, very slow growing, needs excellent drainage!

Piedmont native azalea
(R. canescens)

15x12 feet, very slow growing

Weeping Carolina hemlock*
(Tsuga caroliniana ‘LaBar Weeping’)

7x15 feet

Heuchera ‘Palace Purple’*
(H. micrantha var. diversifolia ‘Palace Purple’)

1x1 feet

(G. urceolata)

3-6 inches tall, slow spreading rhizomes

Pincushion moss*
(Leucobryum spp.)

  1-2 inches, slow spreader

Southern wood fern*
(Thelypteris kunthii)

  2x2 fee

* evergreen


Cultivating A Contradiction in Terms

This is a tsukubai – an arrangement of stones and a basin (chozubachi) found in the traditional Japanese tea garden. The water basin is used to purify a visitor’s hands and mouth before entering the tearoom.

Imagine your typical suburban landscape and ask yourself, what plants do most of us Americans use? I usually see Asian plants. And, yes, many are very beautiful and do well in our zones. But doesn’t it make sense to use what grows where you are, naturally? Unfortunately, we don’t see natives as frequently in the nursery trade, and many homeowners don’t even know they exist!

This gave my business partner and I an idea for a landscape exhibit at the Southeastern Flower Show one year. We created a Japanese tea garden that featured plants native to the northeastern and southeastern U.S. Our idea was to showcase to the public the versatility of our native plants.

The keys to creating a Japanese-looking garden were maintaining simplicity of color, texture and form. We first selected some shade-loving, lush evergreens and other plants with interesting bark and shape. We then designed the garden to feature rocks and boulders in key locations around the plants.

The Japanese garden entrance in late summer. The fig tree (which existed prior to the Japanese garden) is on the sun’s edge, providing dappled shade for the plants behind it.

An aged statue of Buddha sits amongst a patch of galax along the path, adding to the Asian feeling of the garden.

A welcoming stone bench is nestled amidst rhododendron, doghobble, iris and heuchera along the path.

Some of our plants came from nurseries, but we also obtained others through plant rescues organized by our native plant society. Those members rescue plants from properties slated for development (after getting legal permission from the owners prior to these rescues).

After the show was over, I was attached to the exhibit and decided to buy back the plants and install them in my own backyard in an area where I only plant natives. I chose an area amongst the scattered hardwoods with dappled to dense shade and a slight slope, giving it some added interest.

I then cleared out many of the undesirable, exotic invasives such as Japanese honeysuckle, Chinese privet and Microstegium. I also cleared out some of our native opportunists – those that take advantage of disturbed soil – such as catbrier and blackberry.

With this done, I could see the lay of the land better and sketch out my plan on paper. I first began laying out the paths that already flowed naturally through the space. I then chose sitting areas. Next, I began placing rocks and plants in their approximate locations.

After that, I was ready for the installation process. I dug the rock into place. Some were used as step stones, others for ornamental value. I wanted it to look as natural as possible, so many of the rocks were buried at least halfway into the ground. In some cases, I created “planting pockets” with large rocks and backfilled with well-amended soil on the slope. This not only helped with erosion, but also with tree roots. I was careful not to smother any roots.

I live in the Piedmont area of Georgia, and we have our wonderful red clay soil, so I tilled in about one 40-pound bag of soil amendment per 10 square feet, at a depth of about 8 to 10 inches. After setting in the plants, I then added moss and ferns for the finishing touches. Finally, I had a wonderful Japanese-looking, native garden nestled into my natural area!

Though low in maintenance, this garden still requires some work! I had to water frequently until the plants were well established, for about six to eight months. I also put down a pre-emergent herbicide in mid-February to prevent Microstegium from returning, and again in mid to late March to prevent baby trees from sprouting amongst the garden.

This garden is very soothing and subtle. It offers blooms midspring to early summer from native azaleas and rhododendrons. Moss lends a soft palette of green to the garden, extending all the way through winter.


For more information on invasive and exotic plants, visit

For more information on native plants, visit

Also see: The US Forest Service's PDF for Eastern US nurseries specializing in native plants and seeds.


(From Georgia Gardening Volume I Issue VIII. Photos by Shannon Pable)

Posted May 2011


Shannon Pable is a certified arborist, an award winning garden designer, and owner of Shannon’s Garden Gallery (, specializing in garden design, illustration, and plant identification for natural areas. She is a member for the Georgia Native Plant Society,



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