JAPANESE GARDEN DESIGN principles and plans for your own site. Step by step..!

Japanese Garden Design - Basics

For your Japanese Garden design the first things to consider are your needs and what do you want from your new garden, what limitations are there based on the site size and location and which elements of Japanese Garden design are you going to use.


People are intrigued by Japanese gardens and the Japanese believe that people are part of nature and need to stay in touch with nature as part of their busy daily lives.

Every art form has its own mixture of elements. When it comes to crafting a typical Japanese garden the various elements that can be used are stone water basins, stones, rocks, gravel, sand, water, gates, fences, ponds, bridges, lanterns, plants, trees, shrubs, a teahouse, dividers, pebbles and enclosures. The combination of the different elements used is what brings a Japanese garden to life.But each item used in the garden has its own set of rules and it is understanding these rules that leads to appeciation of your creation and ultimatly satifaction.

Japanese Garden Design - How to Start - Make a Plan

So where do you start… You could get a copy of the Japanese garden bible ... SAKUTEIKI (The Way of Gardening) written over 900 years ago which preaches that you should plan your garden on scenery that has stuck in your mind and recreate this in miniature.This is by using rocks to create mountains or pebbles to create streams or a rock to symbolise a bridge.To me the idea is to create a garden that is subtle has content and looks like it has been there "forever". No bright red bridges and lots of white sand !!

As an former engineer I suggest using a notebook to make a scaled plan the site … noting the area dimensions;hot spots,where north is, cool spots,viewing points and windy areas. Drainage should also be noted. What is the theme you want? What existing trees, rocks and ponds can be kept and blended into the new garden or even used as focal points. Scenery can be borrowed ..Shakkei “which means landscape that can be captured alive” the use of areas beyond your garden site can enrich your garden and create a balance. Whatever you choose, make sure the way you use the item enhances the gardens balance and sense of enclosure. As we all know the best laid plans come unstuck and when we go in search of materials we have to compromise... some items might be smaller; different colour or shape. Its then you can refine the plan and work out the quantities required for completion of the garden.Another suggestion is to "string out" the proposed layout showing the contours of any streams;ponds or hills.Rather than the old method used by Japanese master gardeners which was the impromtu trial and error method we now have CAD programmes that can show different plans in a matter of minutes.. to scale and in 3D if required!!


“The garden is a world within a world.The Japanese who so skillfully strip the veneer of beauty to find the pure element or the essence of form, delight in the image that is multi-layered.”

Mark Holborn, The Ocean in the Sand – Japan: From Landscape to Garden.


Japanese Garden Design - Ponds

Does your Japanese Garden design require a pond? If you have ever visited KYOTO you will have seen the many ponds present in the local gardens. These are created by nature and are not created by digging holes.If you have a slope on your site scoop soil out in various low areas and join the puddles and link as the water would go via natural gravity.Even better if you have a stream it can be dammed and a pond created.Obviously the size of ponds can vary from a stoll garden to a courtyard garden.One recommendation from THE WAY OF GARDENING is not to make an island after the pond is finished as they will tend to erode quickly .. the exception is if the island was part of the site and the pond was built around it.For referance see the DEJIMA ISLAND in the SENTO Ex Emperor Palace garden and note the erosion protection given to the island by the placement of rocks, stones and walls.

Japanese Garden Design - Rocks

Being a natural material, rocks are often used in Japanese garden design to symbolically represent streams; mountains and hills.The supply of the classic Japanese garden rocks comes from 3 sources, the sea; mountains ;rivers and can be classified into three types, sedimentary which are mostly flat,igneous which include granite and basalts(from magma or lava) and metamophic(changed by pressure or heat).The success of your garden is to use the rocks from their natural area to replicate nature, for example mountain rocks to symbolise a mountain etc. A word of warning, I have a "sentinal" stone in my garden which is granite and only 1.5m high but it weighs a ton .... or is that now "tonne"? Again plan the position of your rocks well in advance so there is less heavy lifting required. There is also a protocol on the number of rocks to use and how they are positioned which we will explain in the relevant "garden style" links. THE WAY OF GARDENING explained it as..."rocks on the foothills/plateaus should look like wild dogs staying low or wild boars running in all directions or calves playing with their mother" and "if you place two rocks in front you always follow them up with several other and they should look like frolicking children". Always be careful not to overdo the use of rocks and refer to what would be the "norm" in nature.

Japanese Garden Design - Boulders,Stones and Sand

TAMAISHI boulders are in fact water worn,rounded stones approx 15-20cm in diameter. In fact there is a story of a nobleman sending 3000 of these stones, individually wrapped, as a gift!In Japanese Garden Design they are used to convey/simulate a beach or river scene (stunning when laid at an angle to convey the flow of water) or to line the waters edge of a pond.This can be seen in the KATSURA Detached Palace Garden and there use was very popular with the nobleman of the NARA and HEIAN periods.TAMAISHI boulders can also be seen as fill in between flag stones or stepping stones. As Japan is volcanic there are many fast flowing mountain streams that give an abundance of stones smaller than the TAMAISHI in colours from red, white, purple, blue, white and the rare black. Again these smaller stones or granite "gravel" of about 5mm in diameter (abundant in KYOTO) can be used to give the effect of an inlet or the down stream of a river.The famous Golden Pavilion is said (in the book ASHIKAGA CHIRAN-KI) to have had vast amounts of cherry trees with 5 colours of gravel in between each tree raked into the shape of "waves" to symbolise the sea.There are many "gravel patterns" seen in ZEN gardens including, "Ripples", "Blue Waves", Scalloped Waves","Large Waves","Whirlpool" and "Circular Ripples".For your garden I recommend trying to use the combinations of gravel and colours seen natuarly in your local area. Think of white sand and most people who know Japanese gardens think of the famous "dry" Zen rock garden at the RYOANJI TEMPLE in the ancient Japanese capital of KYOTO. Here 15 rocks rise out of a (also raked to represent waves) sea of white granite sand which is over 20 metres long and 9 metres wide. Only 14 of the moss covered rocks can be seen at one time ... it is said that one has to be "enlightened" in order to see all 15 !!I will cover the use of sand more in the KARESANSUI(dry landscape) rock garden section.

Japanese Garden Design - Plants.

Think of your Japanese garden design as a roofless room.Trees can be the walls, doors or screen in the house with the lawns,moss, ferns and bamboo grasses as the carpet for the floor. Besides "live" plants dried ones like bamboo poles,bush screens and split bamboo fences can be used in the overall architecture. Dependant upon your garden style, pine-trees and Japanese Maples can be used with the leaf colour and the shaping being of serious consideration, whilst with the weeping cherry, Japanese camelias and plum trees the focus is on the flowers.In my courtyard garden I have two Japanese Maples which I train the branches as "pads" to look like clouds and the azaleas as rolling hills blending in with the rocks.Granite cappings inlaid with local moss give the feeling of permancey.Be careful to take into consideration your local weather when choosing plants... we have had summer days of up to 47c in Melbourne so I have had to constructed thin bamboo slats (on a pergola) as a shade for the azaleas, maples and moss. Whatever style and plants you choose make sure when combined that they look natural and the garden is understated.

Japanese Garden Design - Planting Trees - Words of Wisdom

The aim of a Japanese garden design is to represent in miniature mountains, seas and rivers. Below are some words of wisdom from a master gardener written at the end of the EDO period (1603–1867). The Way of Creating Hills and Making Gardens. " Plant big trees near the bridge and let their branches hang over the stream to cast mottled shadows on it. Plant trees in front of a waterfall or pond to make a screen.This creates a sense of remoteness and profundity. Make the trees evergreen so they will not go naked in the winter. Plant trees near the arbors so that the former will cast refreshing shadows over the latter. Pine trees are first choice followed by chestnuts and persimmon". "Trees to serve as a background to the garden should be conifers of dark foilage such as pine trees and firs.The sole exception to the rule is oaks. Plant trees near to the pond so they will cast cool shadows on the water in summer. Trees near to a pond will also add to the atmosphere on moon-viewing nights". "Avoid planting trees at random.Plan everything in accordance with the rock combinations in your garden. When the trees are of gigantic size, howeveer, reverse the operation and plan the arrangement of rocks as demanded by the location of the trees. If you "borrow" scenery from outside your garden plan your own trees in harmony with the outside trees. The standard way is to plant the tallest trees in the farthest corner and reduce the heights of the trees as they come nearer to the front part of the garden". Words of experience that are still valid today.

Japanese Garden Design - Bridges

Because of the wet and rainy enviroment in Japan good garden design included a bridge (HASHI) over a pond or stream.Bridges can be used as link between different garden scenery but like a pathway they denote a journey and are symbolic of the transition from one world to another.Caution must be used in the type and location of the bridge. Again think what would be used by nature, a rock bridge over a ravine but the use of wood and soil in a village stream bridge.A brightly (red) coloured wooden bridge would only be used in a garden pond in a palacial shrine or temple garden. In my courtyard garden I have used oblong large granite cappings over a dry stream of white gravel. The supporting stones have been filled in with local moss to hide the joins and give the idea that they have been inplace for ever.