Since ancient times, the Japanese have had a tradition of creating gardens that capture the natural landscape. They combine the basic elements of plants, water and rocks with simple, clean lines to create a spiritual haven, which in times of war and conflict was the only place they found peace.

Gardening expert and author of The Japanese Garden (Phaidon), Sophie Walker explains that “the Japanese garden in its many forms is truly a space of contemplation”, but that “there is always a purpose and a meaning”.

When creating a Japanese-style garden, therefore, the goal should be to create an atmosphere of mystery, calm and tranquility and to capture something of the essence of nature where you can restore your inner harmony.

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Below, we explain how to make your own garden at home with Japanese garden ideas and helpful tips from pro Sophie Walker.

But don’t worry if you don’t have a lot of outdoor space, Japanese gardens can be any size as long as you keep the main concepts in mind.

Sophie explains that she saw a Japanese garden just “two feet deep along the window sill on the first floor of a building in central Kyoto.

“In other words, with the principles of Japanese garden creation in mind, anything is possible.”

How to start designing your Japanese garden

Before rushing straight into your garden design, do some research and think about what you want out of your space.

“Think about what you’re looking for: a through-the-garden experience, which would involve a carefully leading path, or a garden to look at, perhaps through a framed view? »Advises Sophie Walker, gardening expert.

To add authenticity to a more visual garden, you might imagine that it will be seen in its entirety from the wooden house or tea room, which is raised slightly above the ground. The idea would be to look directly at the garden and enjoy the sights, scents and sounds.

Green switch garden
The Green Switch Garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2019 designed by Ishihara Kazuyuki.

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If you are looking for a garden that you can discover as you walk through it, you should consider winding stone paths. These paths represent the journey through life and the anticipation of what is to come.

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In a small garden, you can meander paths so that they disappear into a border of shrubs to create the illusion that it takes you into a wooded glade.

“My practical advice as a landscaper would be to forget about pen and paper,” explains Sophie. “Physically lay out your plans with objects, then play around until you feel like it’s the right layout. “

Japanese garden plants

Japanese gardens are based on subtle differences in color and texture.

Bamboo and Conifers in soothing shades of green are planted for year-round interest and the trees are pruned into shapes that reveal their architectural form.

A typical feature is to have arching branches that extend over cushions of moss and ground covers, which are reflected in a pool of calm water.

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For the Japanese, bonsai also represents a fusion of strong ancient beliefs with Eastern philosophies of harmony between man, soul and nature.

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These miniature trees are grown in ceramic containers, then pruned and erected to mimic the tall, older, mature trees in nature.

Azaleas, camellias and maples are used with restraint for the sole purpose of marking the change of seasons.

“Camellias and azaleas thrive in acidic soils and flower in winter. They have beautiful dark green waxy foliage that serves as a generous background shrub all year round, ”explains Sophie.

When space is at a premium, use a single cherry tree to herald spring, a blaze of potted azaleas for the start of summer, and the fiery foliage of a maple tree to mark the start of fall.

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Water is a key element and the pools are crossed by a zigzag bridge, which according to legend will protect you from evil spirits as they can only travel in a straight line, so the bridge will trap them and allow you to escape safely.

japanese garden ornaments

“No tree or stone, no object or placement is in vain in the Japanese garden. Everything is deliberately orchestrated with a purpose,” explains Sophie Walker, gardening expert.

Stone, pagoda-shaped lanterns and rain chains are staple items in Japanese gardens, but are used sparingly throughout the garden.

“Ornaments like the stone sink and the stone lantern are often used and there is a wide variety,” explains Sophie.

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To add a pleasant musical note to a quiet space, add a deer scarer – a bamboo pipe on a swivel, which snaps when it falls when filled with water – the tone of the note depends on the size of the pipe.

Of course, another way to incorporate the calming effects of water in your garden is to use a pond.

“A garden pond is often at the heart of a [Japanese] garden and usually contains coi carp, of which there is a lot for sale in the UK, ”adds Sophie.

How to maintain a Japanese garden

“The maintenance of the gardens is considered part of the daily practice of Buddhist monks, in particular Zen monks, for whom raking of gravel is important,” explains expert Sophie Walker. “The care with which you maintain the garden is a training of the mind and a practice in humility.”

Regular cutting and storage is a must, and you may want to consider taking the Zen Buddhist approach.

here ferns and evergreen plants in various shades of green are essential, along with the silvery-gray sand raked to appear as ripples of waves in puddles. You can also achieve a similar effect with gravel and Sophie recommends a rough gray granite aggregate because it “reflects the light beautifully”.

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Standing stones are used to represent islands and mountains and the overall effect is a monochrome garden, suitable for meditation.

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japanese garden tools

When it comes to maintaining your Japanese garden, you can put away power tools.

“Good modest tools, all hand tools are used, not machines,” explains Sophie. “Niwaki is the UK’s top importer of Japanese tools.”


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