Creating A Serene Garden Retreat
Create your own backyard retreat modeled after a Japanese tea garden.
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Simple and natural are the keys to building a tranquil Japanese garden. Host Ken Bastida shows how to use traditional materials such as bamboo, stones and Japanese-style plants for an easy, inexpensive sanctuary. This serene garden features plants with unusual forms and textures and soothing colors.
Homeowner Jill Skarka's home is in an oak forest, a perfect setting for a rustic garden (figure A). She loves her woodsy yard, but it's overgrown and not very usable. She wants a spot that is private and separate from the rest of the yard, where she can sit and relax.
So, landscape designer Blanche Lenine-Cruz designs a garden inspired by the soothing shapes, natural materials and simple design of a Japanese tea garden. She lays out a simple stone bench and pathway, enclosed by reed fencing supported by bamboo poles. She says that tranquility is a key component in Japanese garden design, which also emphasizes nature, simplicity and harmony.
Lenine-Cruz estimates that a professional would charge about $1,600 to design and build this Japanese sanctuary, but do-it-yourselfers can buy the materials (excluding plants) for only $350. This project is a simple 2 on a scale of 1 (easy) to 5 (hard) and can be completed in one weekend.
Step One: Preparing the Site
Choose the location for your garden and clear the site of any shrubs, plants, weeds and leaves. If the area is sloped, grade it for a comfortable, level surface. Mark the outline of the garden with landscapers' spray paint, keeping in mind that curving shapes are more natural and pleasing to the eye. Lenine-Cruz gives this garden a rounded, kidney-bean shape.
To ensure that your garden doesn't become overrun with weeds, cover the area with landscape fabric ($30 per roll at home supply stores). Stretch the fabric taut and secure it to the ground with landscaping staples.
Step Two: Building the Bench
Lenine-Cruz builds a simple stone bench in keeping with Japanese style. She chooses smooth river-washed rocks ($100 for this project), which are comfortable for sitting on and level for stacking.
Start with the base of the bench, making two low stacks of rocks spaced about 3 feet apart (figure B). Then add larger stones, fitting them close together to keep them stable. Top them off with a large stone for the seat about 2-1/2 feet long and 2 feet wide. Make sure it's centered on the base and doesn't wobble (figure C).
Step Three: Setting the Poles
Bamboo, a common Japanese garden element, is used for the fencing supports. Buy 1-inch-diameter bamboo poles in 8-foot lengths. For a 3-foot-tall fence, cut the 8-foot poles in half. Dig holes around the perimeter of the garden, using a post-hole digger, about five feet apart and one foot deep. Place a small rock or piece of brick in each hole to elevate the pole off the bottom.
Set a bamboo pole in a hole and fill the hole with dry concrete. Add water and mix the concrete in the hole to a stiff consistency. Make sure that the pole is plumb before moving on to the next one. Once all the poles are in place (figure D), let the concrete set overnight.
Step Four: Attaching the Fencing
Lenine-Cruz uses reed fencing (figure E) because it's easy to install and resembles bamboo. Building a fence entirely of bamboo would cost hundreds of dollars, but reed costs only $20 for a 15-foot roll.
Cut the 6-foot-tall reed fencing in half for a 3-foot tall fence. Unroll a section and attach it to the bamboo poles (figure F) using copper wire, a material commonly found in Japanese gardens. Continue working around the garden, wiring the fencing to the bamboo poles. Trim off any excess reed with shears and leave an opening for the pathway. Figure G shows the installed fencing.
Step Five: Completing the Garden
The path--an important element in the Japanese tradition leads to the tea garden, using a few simple river rocks. Lenine-Cruz also adds a Japanese lantern and groupings of moss-covered boulders for focal points. She uses fallen leaves from the oak forest to cover the floor of the tea garden. Borrowing from your surroundings is another common principle in Japanese design.
Dig out a shallow trench for the stones and then place them about 12 inches apart on center for a comfortable stride. Add a little bark mulch around the plants and boulder grouping. Then lay out a curving path of cobblestones to mimic a gentle stream (figure H).
Planting: In the Japanese Style
Lenine-Cruz chooses a weeping Japanese maple for soothing color and texture, a mugo pine for serenity and contemplation, and a bamboo plant to symbolize strength. She plants the bamboo in a container in the ground because it is so invasive. She fills in with traditional Japanese grasses and mosses. Flowers with white and burgundy blooms enhance the outside of the fence. Her planting plan includes:
Japanese maple (Acer palmatum 'Ever Red'), a staple in Asian gardens with its arching branches and lacy foliage (Zones 6-8)
Black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra), whose stalks turn black during the second or third year (Zones 7-10)
Mugo pine (Pinus mugo), an evergreen with a dense, rounded form (Zones 3-7)
Under a canopy of oak trees, the garden is an oasis (figure I) inviting visitors to sit and meditate. Its serenity is enhanced by the simplicity of the design and the use of natural materials, which tie the seating area (figure J) in with the surroundings. Japanese influence is seen in the curving layout of the reed fencing, the simple stone bench, the dry cobblestone streambed, the customary tea garden accessories, and plants that emphasize texture and subtle color.
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