Japanese garden ideas: 8 ways to add zen

Your starting point with Japanese garden ideas is to think of everything soothing, serene, and orderly. They are used as a place for contemplation, so this is the perfect opportunity to keep the style simple. It’s all about attention to detail. For inspiration, think of Japanese tea gardens or take a look at Kyoto Temple Gardens.

“Japanese gardens are based on love and respect for nature and especially trees of all kinds,” says Monty Don, who is a huge fan and has written a book called Japanese gardens. “But no tree in a Japanese garden of any style is left to grow without pruning or training in an attempt to capture the perfect essence of nature.” With Japanese garden design, the range of styles and ideas is controlled, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t many ways to express your personality in this setting.

When it comes to modern garden ideas that create a calming oasis that cradles a peaceful Zen aesthetic, the key is to keep planting minimal too. It really is a case of less is more. Stick to a few types of plants such as bamboo and grasses with a pop of color here and there from the blossoms, blossoms, or foliage. Think of the cherry blossom in spring, the vibrant blossoms of a camellia or azalea, or the fiery leaves of maple trees in fall.

Since Japanese gardens tend to be sparsely planted, the spaces around the plants are as important as the plants themselves. It can also help manipulate perspective to create the illusion of a larger garden. The space is organized and connected, whether with a vertical carefully positioned like a tree or the placement of a series of smooth stones. Hard landscaping materials include gravel, rocks, and stepping stones. The balance of space between things (known as “ma”) is just as vital as the objects themselves in the overall scheme.

Read on for more Japanese garden ideas to help you create your own shrine.

1. Plant an elegant acer

Japanese acer tree garden ideas

(Image credit: Avenir)

Maple trees have always been revered when considering Japanese garden ideas and especially varieties of Acer palmatum. Grown for their finely etched leaves, elegant shape, and the garish brilliance of their fall colors, they are also an easy-to-care choice.

They come in burnished tones of crimson, bronze and gold, as well as bright tones of lemon sherbet and fuchsia pink. In addition to large ornamental trees, there are also many small and compact varieties that are suitable for container planting and are the answer if you love the look of acers but feel you don’t have enough space.

Are you wondering how to choose plants for your modern garden? With an elegant shape that requires little pruning, acers will flourish and take on an eye-catching shape if you let them grow naturally. In late fall, all you’ll need to do is tidy it up quickly, snipping off any dead stems.

2. Add color with a camellia

Japanese Garden Ideas Thompson and Morgan Camellia 'Summer Nights Jasmine'

Camellia Thompson and Morgan ‘Summer Nights Jasmine’

(Image credit: Thompson and Morgan)

The dramatic and exotic camellia is much admired for the beauty of its dark, shiny flowers and leaves. There is a wide variety of cultivars to choose from, but Japanese style purists opt for C. japonica and C. sasanqua. Camellia sinensis has indescribable small white flowers, but the leaves are important in Japanese culture as they are used to make tea.

The large buds of camellias bloom at the darkest time of the year, making them one of the most beloved Japanese garden ideas. The flamboyant flowers are predominantly red, pink and white. Their exquisite, delicately ruffled flowers add a splash of bright color in late winter and early spring and bring joy as there is not much else around.

Cut a single flower and bring it back inside to try your hand at Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement. Use simple materials like living branches, leaves, herbs, and flowers to create an asymmetrical display of natural shapes and graceful lines.

3. Choose bamboo for simplicity

Japanese bamboo planting garden ideas

(Image credit: Alamy)

Ubiquitous in Japanese garden ideas, bamboo adds an exotic note to planting and looks strikingly grown in blocks to add an ornamental note to minimal contemporary designs and Japanese-inspired gardens. It adds a touch of modern design, the canes forming an airy green screen that moves and waves in the breeze to add movement to your planting.

It’s practical besides being beautiful, as it can be used to enhance boundaries and add privacy – most will grow up to around 4 yards, but some varieties will grow up to 6 yards. The rustling of the foliage can also help mask traffic noise to enhance the tranquility of your garden sanctuary.

One of the most popular varieties, the black bamboo Phyllostachys nigra is cultivated for its distinctive stems, which start out green and then turn glossy black, contrasting well with the bright green leaves. It has a tall, erect habit which adds impact, especially if the lower leaves are torn off to expose more stems.

4. Improve serenity with water

Japanese garden ideas feature stone

(Image credit: Alamy)

Water is another central element of Japanese gardens, especially if it is a flow or a fall. This can be achieved with a small pool (perfect for koi carp), a waterfall, or a stream with water rippling over moss covered stones. Large pebbles can be used to reflect the movement of flowing water and to create shimmering highlights.

An easy way to drum water in is to use a water feature such as a series of smooth ceramic bowls that fit together. In addition to adding a sculptural detail, you can enjoy the sensory experience of the sound of flowing water. It will bring a feeling of peace and calm to your outdoor oasis.

Many Japanese gardens contain stone water basins, which were traditionally used for ritual cleansing before tea ceremonies, and usually have a bamboo ladle for drawing water. Now they are more often used as a purely decorative element that fits into the harmonious aesthetic.

5. Use Japanese pruning techniques

Japanese garden ideas feature water

(Image credit: Alamy)

In Japanese gardens, the dominant hue is green with a burst of color here and there. In addition to bamboo, bright green Hakonechloa grass, and Siebold’s wood fern, the plantation features neat evergreen hedges and trees trimmed into slightly domed shapes that resemble rippling clouds. This technique is known as “niwaki”.

Influenced by his time in Japan, expert pruner Jake Hobson founded Niwaki Ltd. He is interested in combining Japanese cloud pruning with a more European style which he calls organic topiary. “For me, it involves natural forms. I am fascinated by how pruning can structure the garden, how volume and mass can unite the garden as a whole, combining softer planting and harsh landscaping.

Japanese garden ideas favor an asymmetrical approach, with low-level rounded topiaries appearing to flow and create movement to bond with the view beyond.

6. Create a feeling of isolation

japanese garden ideas

(Image credit: Getty)

Work with the simple and clean lines that are already present in the structure of your garden. Hide the perimeter and protect the boundaries of your garden with planting to provide a feeling of privacy. Bamboo is perfect for this job, and the speckled light filtering through the leaves will help with the magic.

Japanese garden ideas often relate to the creation of shrines and this partly reflects the importance of the enclosure. Your space will already be framed with buildings and fences, so you just need to dress them up the right way. For an instant makeover, rolled bamboo screens provide the right feel as well.

In your garden, create a pavilion to enjoy moments of calm. One easy way is to decorate a raised patio or pergola with traditional natural tatami mat for an oriental feel perfect for rest and relaxation.

7. Make a springboard

japanese garden ideas

(Image credit: Alamy)

Stones are another fundamental element in Japanese garden ideas. They are rarely used alone. Instead, they’re usually found in repeating patterns, with each stone placed in a particular position. It’s all about placement.

A stepping stone invites you on a journey of discovery when the ultimate destination cannot initially be seen, and this ties into another signature style of Japanese garden design, namely the slow revealing of a hidden point of view.

Japanese “promenade” gardens feature circular paths constructed of stepping stones, interspersed with pockets of raked gravel that resemble undulating waves and moss spreading into nooks and crannies for a green carpet effect. The hard and soft landscaping combine for a sensory experience that takes you to a particular location such as a tranquil swimming pool.

8. Select the right accessories


Manutti SAN garden chair, Go Modern

(Image credit: Go Modern)

On the furniture side, Japanese design is based on clean lines and a clean aesthetic, and this also applies to the garden. Choose the best outdoor furniture, such as elegant, low, modernly designed, natural wood seating. Colors are best taken from a simple tone palette chosen from nature.

When it comes to lighting, lanterns are a constant in the design of Japanese gardens. They are usually made of stone and placed in a carefully selected location, providing both light and a pleasing aesthetic. Lanterns are often deliberately weathered, with foam encouraged to cover them for a naturally aged effect.

Follow these simple Japanese garden ideas and you can create a truly serene space to meditate, sit, and relax – your own Zen retreat.