Create Your Own Japanese Garden

Japanese gardening is an intricate art form. There are several styles of Japanese gardening, each with its own set of strict rules. When I spoke with Brian Funk, curator of the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, he confessed that there are only one or two hundred people in the whole world who could design a true Japanese garden, but that any gardener can take inspiration from this Eastern style of gardening. With a little patience and some careful planning, you can have your own Japanese-style garden in no time.
Here are a dozen tips to get you started:
Embrace nature
"Most Japanese gardens are representations of nature-a distilled essence of a natural scene," says Brian. Work in odd numbers, use nature as a model and don't try to plant a typical flower garden-nature doesn't really look like that!
Don't plant flowers
Instead opt for specimen trees, shrubs and groundcover. Moss is an authentic groundcover in Japanese gardens, but squirrels and birds always have a way of getting at moss whenever Brian tries to plant it. He recommends another evergreen ground cover instead. Mondo grass (which isn't actually a grass and doesn't require mowing) is a great choice.
Be evergreen
The majority of your plants should be evergreens, such as pines, azaleas, camellias, holly and moss. The quintessential plants for this type of garden are the Japanese maple and the Japanese black pine, both of which are native to Japan, so they may not be appropriate for all regions. As substitutes Brian recommends musclewood (carpinus) in lieu of the maple and Juneberry (amelanchier) for the black pine.
Think small scale
"Work on a human scale," says Brian. Plus, it's wise to keep it small, as Japanese-style gardens are much more maintenance than people think.
Keep it simple
You want a rarefied palette of plant materials-avoid a hodge-podge of plants. In a lot of Japanese gardens, there might only be three types of plants.
Leave Buddha in the temple
Sculptures are a big no-no according to Brian. "No bronze cranes or Buddhist statues!" he pleads. He also warns against red bridges. Bridges are common, but they aren't painted red-that's China.
And skip the teahouse...
A traditional teahouse or pergola is too elaborate for most home gardens. A better choice would be a macchi-ai bench (waiting bench), which range from very simple to elaborate.
Make it a secret garden
"You are trying to create your own world," says Brian. "It's important to enclose it from the exterior." A space can be contained with either fences or bushes. For fences, Brian recommends avoiding a harsh, solid fence. Instead, try a lighter version, perhaps one made of bamboo, which will offer glimpses of the garden.
Carve a path
Pathways are very important in the Japanese garden. Most are made out of stone and arranged in a naturalistic pattern. As an alternative to stone, Brian suggests small gravel. In particular, he likes 'Turkey Grit,' which is a fine, light-colored gravel. Sand is not advisable, as it's too fine, gets washed out and is hard to keep clean looking.
Water, water, water
Water is an essential element in a Japanese garden, but fountains are not appropriate, according to Brian. A stone water basin-a boulder with an indentation carved into the top to hold water-is what you should use instead. Brian cautions that ponds require a high level of maintenance that most gardeners would probably rather avoid.
Connect the inside with the outside
"To the Japanese, their homes and their gardens are one and the same," says Brian. The Japanese want to bring nature as close as possible to the house. Keep this in mind when planning your own garden.
Symmetry, but not symmetrical
Balance and symmetry are key: You want random plantings, but the visual weight of one should not outweigh the other.
Photo Credit: Flickr/grampymoose

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