How to Create a Japanese Garden

Japanese gardens are designed with the intention of creating a simple, peaceful space that promotes contemplation and serenity. They can be included in both small and large spaces, are focused on including and symbolizing natural elements, and provide a relaxing, private retreat right in your backyard.

If you would like to create a tranquil oasis for you, your family, and your guests to enjoy, consider including elements of Japanese garden design or creating a full landscape based on this inspiration. There are many elements you can incorporate in your own Japanese garden or in a non-Japanese garden that simply pays homage to these beautiful, serene settings.

To get you started, here are the basics of how to create a Japanese garden or to include Japanese garden elements in your existing garden.

Basic Principles of Japanese Garden Design

Simplicity is at the center of Japanese garden design. This type of design is about creating a contemplative space, so less really is more in this situation. Clutter is distracting and should be avoided. Not every inch of your garden needs to be planted, and the parts that are do not need to be in symmetrical, formal planters or contain an array of bright colors. While these gardens may be well-manicured, they are not intended as formal gardens, and symmetry should actually be avoided.

Balance is also a key component when designing a Japanese garden. Include open space with more intimate areas, combine low and high elements, incorporate both curving features and clean lines, and remember that each piece of your garden is part of a whole. This means all of the elements should harmonize to achieve the look and feel you want.

You can also help maintain balance in your garden by including appropriately sized features. For example, if you are working with a small space, it is better to focus on including only smaller elements in your design.

Symbolism is a mainstay in Japanese garden design. Each element is carefully chosen both for cohesion and for its capacity to symbolize natural elements. For example, a Zen garden may contain a sand or gravel area that is raked in curved lines to symbolize the movement of water.

Overall, keep it natural, keep it simple, and keep it uncluttered.

How to Create a Japanese Garden: Step-by-Step Guide

Create a Japanese Garden

1. Find Inspiration for Your Design

Take the time to research Japanese gardens and garden designs. You can start by looking at photos online and perhaps reading relevant design books or blogs. This will help you get at least a basic understanding of Japanese garden design principles and elements and will help you appreciate the history and culture behind them.

2. Consider Your Space

Determine how much space you are working with so that you can create a clean, uncluttered design that uses all of the space without crowding it.

How to Create a Japanese Garden Ideas

3. Choose Features

Now is the time to choose the features that you want to include in your garden. Do you want a more traditional garden and have space for a teahouse? Do you want to create a Zen meditation garden? Is a pagoda a meaningful addition to the design – or would you simply be adding it to try to define the garden as Japanese?

Choose features that make sense for the design, that pay homage to Japanese gardens, and that function for you and your family.

Dry gardens or Zen gardens are common in Japanese design and are a good choice for Southern California gardeners who should always have an eye towards water conservation. This feature could include a sand or gravel area that can be raked. It could also include a rock garden that may have sand or gravel around the rocks. When these features are included, they are not meant for walking on, so be sure to add a walking path around them. These are meant for viewing and for inspiring peaceful meditation.

Consider boulders or large stones as focal points in your garden. Stone is at the core of Japanese garden design and should be used throughout. You may also want to include a pagoda or other statuary as long as it does not clutter the space.

Traditional tea gardens have a water feature where visitors can freshen up before they step into the tea room. If you choose to include a tea room in your garden, a small water feature is a good addition as well. Even if you do not have a tea room, a water feature that pays homage to this tradition is a beautiful, peaceful addition to your garden.

Remember that you want your garden to have balance and to represent the elements of nature. To help achieve this, include stones, gravel or sand, greenery, and a water feature. Keep in mind that a sand area can be raked into a pattern to represent a body of water.

Bridges and stairs represent the journey of life and can be incorporated into your design by placing a small bridge between foliage groupings or adding steps leading up to the garden.

Create a Japanese Garden Ideas

4. Frame the Views

If the garden is visible from inside your home or from a balcony, lay it out in a way that creates a framed view through the window from which it is seen or from the porch or balcony. If there are good views around the garden, use garden features to frame and accentuate these views.

How to Create a Japanese Garden Tips

5. Add Walkways

When creating walkways in a Japanese garden, it is most common to use natural stepping stones in similar – but not uniform – shapes. These are often surrounded by gravel or a living ground cover. However, if you stay true to other elements of Japanese garden design, you can, instead, use paving stones to create slip-resistant, visually appealing walking paths. You may choose to surround them with a low-growing ground cover or small gravel to mimic gardens in Japan.

A curving path leading to a hidden feature or meditation area goes well with the element of mystery commonly found in this style of garden and is a good addition to your design.

Create a Japanese Garden Tips

6. Choose Plants

Unlike colorful western gardens that often use annuals to add pops of color in borders and flowerbeds, Japanese garden design focuses on simple color schemes. For plants in a Japanese garden, green is the most common color. You can create this in your garden by focusing on green as a foundation color, and then strategically adding in small amounts of seasonal color. This might be a plum tree that blooms in early spring near a pond filled with lotuses that bloom in summer. This allows each color to be a focal point one at a time.

Like clutter, too many colors can be distracting and take away from a reflective, contemplative space. Instead, consider layering different shades of green with varied but harmonious textures.

Japanese maples, which are mainstays in Japanese garden design, provide changing colors throughout the year as their leaves change colors with the seasons. You might also consider juniper, pine, yew, or Japanese barberry.

Boxwoods are a good option that provides a green foundation for your garden and can be pruned to create the clean lines often found in Japanese gardens. If you choose boxwoods and low-growing ground covers for most of your garden, consider adding clusters of bamboo or ornamental grasses to add height for balance.

Like the other elements of your garden, your plant selection should be based on simplicity and balance. This type of garden does not have to have a lot of living components, so take advantage of the opportunity to save water while creating a beautiful, calming design.

7. Find a Landscape Architect or Landscaping Contractor

Once you have some basic ideas of the design you want, you will either need to enlist the help of a landscape architect to bring your ideas to fruition, or you will need to draw up your own design and hire a contractor to implement it. Of course, you can also install a new garden or remodel your current one as a do-it-yourself project if you are comfortable with doing the work yourself.

For more tips on how to create a tranquil Japanese garden in your backyard, contact Install-It-Direct to talk to one of our design consultants.