Bridge with flowers

Recently I’ve been working on a project, with a modern take on a Japanese inspired design brief.

Now I am not Japanese, and I haven’t formally studied this topic, I suspect one would need to go to Japan to do so. However, I have researched the basic principles and already created a small-scale garden myself, so I thought I’d share my learnings. As working through the recent design concept, I realised how straight forward the principles are and what a pleasing effect they create.

What Makes a Japanese Garden

Japanese gardens are serene and simple places of calm, providing a peaceful retreat for reflection and meditation. Normally consisting of mostly evergreens, rocks, pebbles, sand, ponds and waterfalls. Given the move towards simplicity, minimalism, sustainability, and mental health that many of us want from our outdoor spaces, this is an aesthetic which can often fit the brief harmoniously.

Three of the essential elements used to create a Japanese garden are stone, which form the structure of the landscape; water, representing life-giving force; and plants, which provide the colour and changes throughout the seasons.

Rock water feature

Adding a water feature to your garden is a worth considering as they bring an extra dimension to the garden; providing a focal point, soothing sound, lending a sense of peace and tranquillity and well as hopefully improving biodiversity.

Planning the Layout

Japanese gardens are designed to replicate landscapes in miniature, often with planted mounds representing islands and the gravel/stones surrounding them raked into furrows to represent waves or ripples in water. Gravel and pebbles can also be used to create dry riverbeds.

The space between features is as important as the features themselves and there should be balance between these, with blank space being proportionally greater than features/islands.

Simplistically Japanese gardens are laid out using a grid plan, with the main crossing points (‘strong points’) and consideration of sight-lines being the places to locate features; such as a stand of bamboo, small tree, or feature stone grouping.

Pathways and bridges are often ‘broken’ by means of changing direction, slightly altering the alignment of materials or the use of two or more differing materials.

Stand of Bamboo
Sand pattern

Planting Design for your Japanese Inspired Space

Traditional Japanese gardens use small trees, carefully curated perennials, and moss with less focus on shrubs. Commonly used Japanese garden plants include peony, chrysanthemum and Japanese water iris. Flowering shrubs include azalea, camellia, Pieris japonica, and Leucothoe all of which provide strong seasonal interest.  Whilst I find Cornus kouza, Prunus serrula, Magnolia stellata and Acers are good small tree options. With multi-stem trees and crown lifted large shrubs looking more authentic.


Primary Considerations when Selecting Plants for your Scheme:

1 – The aspect and climate; Japan is a relatively cool, damp country so this aesthetic may work better on the more northerly west coast of the UK. If your garden is in the dry South East of England, as my project is I’ve used more traditional planting in the shady areas; like Epimedium, ferns and grasses like Hakonechloa and Ophiopogon.

I’ve expanded the palette in the areas of partial sun, with plants that complement the aesthetic whilst favouring the conditions like; Anemones, oak-leaved Hydrangea, Enkianthus, Skimmia, Deschampsia, Chaemaecyparis obtusa, Nandina, Liriope and Fritillaria meleagris and so forth.

If you have a full sun and dry climate garden, you may wish to consider a different aesthetic.

2 – Seasonal Interest; is a key part of Japanese gardens, specifically in denoting and celebrating the seasons; so it’s not surprising that trees like cherry blossom and Acers which bring Spring and Autumn interest so prominently, are often key feature elements.

I also make a point of celebrating winter with; Magnolia (M.stellata is a good choice), Hellebores and snowdrops, whilst the latter two aren’t traditional Japanese plants they do work with the motif.


3 – Bamboo, in my opinion it’s not a Japanese garden without bamboo however, you must be very careful planting bamboo as some varieties can be highly invasive.  I would recommend always planting a clump forming variety, however they can still become large so you will need the space. In the recent project I’ve planned for the bamboo to be restricted in a large bespoke built planter. In my own garden I have planted it in massive pots although these can be expensive.

Alternatively in small spaces you could consider small ground cover varieties like Pleioblastus Fortunei ‘Variegata’ or even Nandina which has a similar look.

Please do your research though, the RHS is a good place to start.

Small Japanese garden

Miniature Japanese Garden Example

In a small Japanese garden and dry riverbed project we incorporated the following features:

  • Feature stones, as mentioned an important element in a Japanese garden, were added for visual interest.
  • Hand placed river pebbles were used as ground cover and to represent a riverbed, which in flash floods does actually fill up for brief periods helping with surface water management.
  • A teak wooden cover acted as a symbolic bridge whilst allowing access to the manhole.
  • A partially submerged pot with stones adds to the Japanese style whilst providing a water supply for birds, squirrels, and insects.
  • We planted with shade tolerant plants which also enhance the Japanese aesthetic; Acers, Ferns, Epimedium and bamboo. I also added Heuchera and Luzula nivea for added colour and texture.

You can read the full case study here.