After more than 1,300 years, Japanese gardens continue to provide peace and tranquility. They are studies in balance and harmony, gracefully combining natural beauty with serenity.
They can be spacious with large waterfalls, huge boulders, elegant red bridges and stone paths or small, soothing gardens in backyards, patios or courtyards. The key to designing your own Japanese garden is to keep it simple.
“The design is the first thing to consider,” says Robin Tanner, landscape architect and installation artist, who was one of the designers of New Orleans City Park’s Japanese Garden. “Focus on the relationship of all the elements in space and their relationship to the space and finally their relationship to one another.”
Natural stone is an important aspect of most Japanese-inspired gardens. Rocks can be used as sculptural works of art or small pebbles for paths. Even simply using unplanted beds of sand and rock will suffice in creating a small relaxing retreat.
Most gardens will include the element of water. But do not install a noisy fountain. Instead, a simple ornamental basin at ground level will do. Use a tiny pump to keep the water fresh, but set it up to avoid the sound of splashing.
When it comes to plants, consider species that are well adapted to our summer heat. Plants can include such things as bamboo, Japanese maples, rhododendrons, pine trees, azaleas, wisteria, liriope and camellias. Also, it’s important to choose small, delicate, pale-colored flowers to avoid a riot of color.
Tanner cautions that plant life in a Japanese patio garden should be minimal and restrained. The spaces around the plants are as important as the plants themselves.
“The main thing is to put together plants that create an expression that leads to an experience for the beholder,” he says.
A commonly used ornament is a stone lantern. Known as a toro, they’ve been a feature of Japanese gardens for centuries but remember simplicity. Man-made elements of Japanese gardens should always be made from natural materials or appear to be natural. But don’t use an object just because you think it needs to be there.
Tanner believes you shouldn’t telegraph tranquility and recounts an experience from a garden he designed in Colorado.
“After the garden was done, the owner’s wife bought a concrete Buddha to put in the garden and the owner said, ‘Why did you get a Buddha, he was already here.’”
Hint: Tanner believes that there is no set formula for a Japanese-inspired garden because it’s not a paint-by-number kind of project.
“It’s critical not to think about objects but focus on proportion and scale,” he says.
For inspiration, he suggests looking at tea gardens and the temple gardens of Kyoto.