Minimalism for Maximum Interest: Japanese-style Gardening

Japanese gardens rely on a pleasing and perfectly imperfect balance of just a few key elements. If you like your space uncluttered, Japanese style gardening may be the way to go for you.

The harmonious asymmetry of Japanese gardens offers a pleasing alternative to Western gardeners, who may be used to a stricter symmetry. But don't think that the asymmetrical composition of Japanese garden's is not about controlling the space. Deliberate pairings for the sale of balance - for example hard elements such as rocks, stepping stones and gravel with tightly clipped shrubs and trees - requires great discipline.

Many plants used in Japanese gardens - maples, azaleas, camellias and bamboo - are subjected to rigorous pruning regimens to maintain or restrict their size, but also to ensure that they remain in proportion to their surroundings. Rocks are also selected for their weathered qualities, and other innate characteristics. Gravel is used to symbolize water and provides a neutral but textured contrast to the planting and rock formations. The route through the space is scrupulously planned, and the winding paths or stepping stones ensure that the visitor stops to experience the views that are revealed along the way.

Design Influences: Zen Gardens

The Zen gardens of Japan, which date back to the 14th century, were created as a focus for contemplation; the process of raking the gravel into precise patterns is is considered conducive to contemplation and self-knowledge and is central to their intent. Minimalism rules, here, and planting is rarely done. Moss, the only living material in most Zen gardens, grows like an emerald carpet around the base of rocks. The intense abstraction and stillness of this Zen garden inspires a state of reflection and meditation.

A Japanese zen garden with moss surrounding the rocks.

Zen Garden in Japan

DK - Garden Design, 2009 Dorling Kindersley Limited

Key Design Elements

Evergreens are often densely planted and pruned to provide a consistent structure, whereas deciduous species are used for flower color or seasonal change (image 1).

Water is either used expansively as a reflective surface, or in smaller features, such as stone water basins (image 2).

Stone lanterns, water basins and sculptures are often placed close to paths leading to the tea ceremony (image 3). Pagodas create focal points in larger gardens.

Other Essential Elements

Gravel is used to represent water, with stones symbolizing islands, boats or even animals. Great care is taken over the placement and orientation of the stones (image 1).

Fences and gates are often made from bamboo fastened with elaborate ties or bindings (image 2). These are used as boundaries and screens, or to direct or control views.

Stepping stones create a heightened self-awareness through the garden (image 3).

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