How to: Japanese gardens

Pictures and tips for creating your own Japanese garden.

By Lee Ann Bramwell

I haven’t been to Japan yet, so I’ve never seen an authentic Japanese garden. But I have seen Japanese-style gardens in other parts of the world – including New Zealand – and I seriously covet one. I wouldn’t want to turn my entire property into a Japanese garden, but there are areas which would lend themselves to the creation of a piece of “nature in miniature”.

Happily, the beauty of this garden style is that you can achieve the look in a 10m² space – possibly even less.

I recently watched a YouTube video of someone purporting to turn his tiny roof terrace into a Japanese garden in three minutes – and while the end result was completely awful, it did demonstrate how simple some of the elements of these types of gardens are.


The Japanese garden is all about trying to create a perfect piece of nature in a miniature version, so lines are curving and organic, stone and wood is left to weather, and objects are placed in odd numbers.

And because everything in the garden should be appropriate to the location, eco-sourcing of both hard landscaping materials and plants is important.

Simplicity is revered, so Japanese gardens are never fussy, which no doubt is one of the reasons they’re so tranquil.

And because there is no symmetry in nature, they are asymmetric. Having spirit levels in my eyes and a built-in symmetry detector, I’d normally have a problem with that, but in this instance it doesn’t seem to matter.

There’s always a balance in a Japanese garden design – between hard and soft, vertical and horizontal, wet and dry, objects and emptiness, high and low. There should also be a balance in terms of size – in small gardens the elements within must be small and in big spaces, items must be larger.

Perhaps the most challenging concept in Japanese garden design is that empty space is as much a feature as a stone or a plant. Just one stone too many can ruin the whole thing.

Finally, there’s “miegakure”. Google this term and you’ll be told it’s a platform video game, but it also describes a style of Japanese garden where you never see the whole garden at once. Different areas are revealed as you walk, giving the garden a sense of space, nature and mystery. I don’t imagine the video game is anywhere as enlightening, but I may not be the best judge of that!

In a rustic tea garden there is a gate to provide a transition from one world to another
In a rustic tea garden there is a gate to provide a transition from one world to another


As in most landscape design, good bones count, and these are the heart of the garden. For the Japanese, the bones are rocks or stones. The first job in creating the garden is to choose the stones and then place them in odd numbers, with a pleasing balance of flat, vertical and leaning. As anyone who has ever worked with stones will tell you, this is a pursuit that can take days, weeks or months.

But when it’s right, you’ll know.

There’s always water in these garden – if not literally, then figuratively. If you don’t have a pond or stream, or the means to make a water feature, you can represent the sea, a lake or a river with stone and gravel.

The plants are used almost architecturally, and shape and texture are very important. Balance and contrast are key, as in the contrast between soft plants and hard rocks, or vertical stones and creeping ground cover. Choose the plants as you do the stones, with a mix of vertical, flat, and sloping, and low and high.

Common species in Japanese gardens include cherries, plums, pines, maples, bamboo, wisteria, hydrangea, camellia, box, irises, mosses and grasses. But if any of these won’t grow in your conditions, use substitutes – the whole idea is, after all, to recreate a piece of nature.

Raked gravel and stones represent water and islands, and show an appreciation of empty space
Raked gravel and stones represent water and islands, and show an appreciation of empty space


If you’re panicking because you don’t like the combed pebbles and bonsai look, there are several other styles.I’m attracted to the blend of a hill-and-pond and stroll-garden designed to be seen from different perspectives as you walk around. Sometimes these gardens represent a particular landscape, a favourite region or birthplace.

The tea ceremony is about being absorbed in the moment, appreciating the tea and the guests so tea gardens are designed to put guests in the right state of mind with tranquillity and simplicity.

These gardens are rustic in style. They are gated to provide a transition from one world to another, and guests often follow a path to a bench or seat where they await the host.

Probably the best known style is the sand and stone garden, which is made up of a few carefully placed stones surrounded by raked sand or gravel. The gravel usually represents water and the stones stand in for islands.

They are ideal places for contemplation or meditation, which is why they’re often found in temple grounds.

A development of sand and stone gardens, flat gardens are found in front of pavilions and temples. They usually have an area of sand and stone to represent a lake, with a rim of raised earth around it to represent the shore. These gardens do have trees and plants, often clipped to suggest hills or mountains.

If you want to incorporate a Japanese garden at your place, you need to choose how formal you want it to be. There are three levels – Shin (formal), Gyo (medium) and So (informal/rustic) and the level you choose will affect every decision about the garden. You can’t mix and match, or your creation probably won’t provide the serenity and beauty for which Japanese gardens are prized.

Moss is a major player in these gardens, adding age and serenity to the landscape
Moss is a major player in these gardens, adding age and serenity to the landscape


Moss is often considered a menace when its through your lawn, but it’s a thing of beauty when deliberately grown. It adds a sense of calm, age and stillness, and no Japanese garden would be complete without it.

Elsewhere it’s not often seen as a major feature, although a passing trend for moss collecting in the late 19th century led to the establishment of mosseries in many British and US gardens.

For Japanese-style gardens, scleranthus biflorus is probably the best bet. Technically it’s a compact, mounding ground-cover that’ll grow up to 75cm wide. It has to be planted in the sun or will lose the tight habit that makes it look like moss.

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