A Japanese garden is a study in harmony. Designed to be a quiet and meditative space, it artfully combines the idealised elements of nature in a compact area. Planning a Japanese garden is an essential first step that requires a different approach than the traditional Western garden. Japanese gardens have become so popular, some Australian garden designers
now specialise in them, but even if you choose to have a professional landscape architect manage your project for you, taking the time to visualise and plan your Japanese garden yourself can be a rewarding experience that will deepen your appreciation for this ancient art.
Perspective in Japanese Gardens
Japanese gardens may either be designed to be "walking gardens," with footpaths and seating areas or "viewing gardens," which can be very small. In either case, a well designed Japanese garden will create the illusion of spaciousness. Japanese garden designers create this illusion in the same way that landscape painters do; by using perspective:
- The perimeter of a walking garden may be surrounded by dwarf or small trees, to create the illusion of greater distance.
- A natural feature, such as a pond or hill at the front of a viewing garden will be larger than a feature at the back of the garden. From the perspective of the viewer, the smaller natural feature will appear to be much further away.
- In a walking garden, the viewer embarks on a journey. Each point along the journey should offer a fresh perspective that harmonises with the whole.
Balance in Japanese Gardens
As a rule, Western gardens are geometrically designed. We have hedge rows, circular or rectangular flower beds and other geometric features. In contrast, Japanese gardens achieve balance and harmony by imitating nature. A garden path will gently meander around a natural or created hillock. A distant mountain will be positioned asymmetrically, as it would be in nature.
Stones in Japanese Gardens
From the small round stones that may form a pathway to the large rock that may be a central feature, natural stone is an important aspect of any Japanese garden. In some cases, such as a Zen rock garden, rocks are of paramount importance. Large rocks are carefully selected as natural sculptural works of arts. Small pebbles are chosen for their colour, shape and texture and are often used to symbolise water. If a Japanese garden designer wants to create the illusion of a distant rocky peak, they may choose a large, jagged stone. A distant hill may be symbolised by a more softly rounded, moss covered stone.
Stones in Japanese gardens always reflect the environment they are placed in. Just as stepping stones across a natural creek would be asymmetrically placed, so are stones set for crossing a body of water in a Japanese garden. Whilst care is taken to use stones that are not slippery, smooth stones would be used instead of rough hewn stones.
Also important in the selection of stones or boulders in Japanese gardens is the less tangible, but very important "energy" of the stone. Some stones seem to be strong and domineering, whilst others are softer and more "feminine." How a stone "feels" is as important as how it looks.
Man Made Elements in Japanese Gardens
Man made elements of Japanese gardens should always be made from natural materials or appear to be natural. They should also appear to serve a natural purpose. A timber bridge, for instance, should cross over a body of water or a bed of stones or sand that represents water. Any seating that is provided in the garden should be low and unobtrusive. The colour, shape and texture of man made elements in a Japanese garden should blend in harmoniously with the surroundings. Fortunately, garden ornaments specifically designed for Japanese gardens are now widely available in Australia.
Plants in Japanese Gardens
Unlike Western gardens, which are showcases for plant species, plants are actually of secondary importance in Japanese gardens. As a rule, rocks come first in a Japanese garden, then trees. Finally, shrubs, bushes and ground cover plants are chosen to enhance the appearance and atmosphere of the garden as a whole. The shape, texture and colour of the plants are all important. One of the most difficult aspects of planning a Japanese garden, it is probably best to contact a nursery in your area to help you make your plant selections.
For more inspiration, check out some of the garden photos
on our Inspirational Photos pages. There are hundreds of photos in the gallery. Many of them are of Japanese gardens or are inspired by Japanese garden design.