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Why do we love Japanese garden design?

Look at a Japanese 'Zen' garden and you feel a comforting wave of calm wash over your soul. Why?

It's all about a spiritual sense of place that is historically linked to the Japanese culture. Garden design in Japan is connected to the philosophy and religion of the country. Buddhism, Taoism and Shinto all bring a spiritual sense to a garden. This encourages people to be peaceful and meditative.  

The Koi carp, the stone lantern, the water and the planting - all designed to soothe the soul at Hammersmith Park in London.   Even back in the 7th century, garden makers were trying to capture the landscape and replicate it in miniature.  Aristocratic and shogan gardens were created in front of mansions. They provided a setting for poetry and official ceremonies.  

Adachi Museum Gardens in Japan - they are described as being 'living museum pieces'. Japanese gardens didn't evolve by chance. There were strict guidelines and rules:

  • The garden should feel natural and should appear to have grown without human intervention.
  • A Japanese garden should strive to look natural.
  • Garden spaces should be asymmetrical, as in nature.

The Japanese garden at the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew, demonstrates the asymmetrical nature of the Japanese style.  Plant numbers should be odd as this supports the effect of asymmetry.  Three mounded, tightly clipped evergreens are essential within this Japanese-inspired design.

Japanese gardens should be simple. 'Less is more'.

Simplicity is the key to an effective Japanese garden design.

Triangular shapes should form the composition for stones and plants.

Triangular shapes can include hard elements in addition to planting.  There should be a contrast between elements, thereby creating a little 'tension'.

The contrast in elements gives Japanese gardens a strong presence.  Curves create a softness that is essential to Japanese gardens.

The Moon Garden at the Connaught Hotel, London, was designed by garden designer Tom Stuart-Smith.

There needs to be a 'flow' which interacts between the different elements.

The flow in this Japanese-inspired garden creates a soothing rhythm.

Japanese gardens are based on symbols. Let's look at their meanings:

A stone lantern: it represents the four natural elements - earth, water, fire and wind. Statues of lions: they are protectors. A male and female lion represent the two opposite forces of yin and yang (fire and water/male and female).  

The noble lion is a protector! Click on the image to see details about these sculptures. A water basin or small pond within a container. Traditionally this is known as a 'deer chaser'. It makes a sound when filling which keeps deer away, thereby protecting the plants. Koi carp in the pond are purely for decoration and their movement is soothing to the soul. A Japanese bridge, also known as a moonbridge, reflects artistic and creative feelings.  

The Japanese moon bridge is iconic.

Five basic styles of Japanese gardens.

Hills and ponds: these elements originated from China. The ponds represent the sea and the hills are the islands. Bridges provide links between the areas. The original hill and pond style gardens would have covered many acres but they are now re-created in miniature spaces. Dry landscapes: reproduce natural landscapes in a more abstract form. They use stones, gravel and sand to represent the Zen philosophy. They encourage meditation. Tea gardens: have an intimate atmosphere and they represent an escape from a busy life. They are designed for the traditional tea ceremony and include a tea house and a stone basin where guests can cleanse before enjoying tea. Strolling gardens: these spaces are designed to be viewed from a pathway and they don't reveal the whole picture from one spot. They encourage people to walk along a winding path in order to see different 'vistas', creating a contemplative setting to calm the soul. Courtyard gardens: are a hybrid between the indoors and outdoors. There are large statement elements such as lanterns and bridges and these spaces are highly ornamental.

So how can we re-create a Japanese garden?

We can't, of course. But we can use some of the ideas and elements to make suggestions of our own. The aim is to compose a relaxing, calm and comforting small space. Use carefully pruned plants and a thoughtful composition of rocks, pebbles and gravel. Everything should be ordered. A 'naturalistic' style isn't appropriate.

Ferns are great for shady Japanese gardens, including these Polystichum munitum and Blechnum spicant. In a dry landscape garden setting, for example, you can start playing with stones and rocks. They dictate the basic shape and atmosphere. Arrange them to create a feel of a landscape. The rocks symbolise land and smaller stones can represent a waterfall. Gravel (smoothly raked) is the sea, a river or lake. There will be water plants such as irises positioned on the 'banks' of the river. Any tree will be an architectural beauty and its trunk and branches will be exposed to show its curvaceous dignity.

Acers are the perfect tree for a Japanese garden. The beauty of a Japanese garden is that it doesn't need to be large. The smallest space can be transformed into an oasis of calm. A roof garden; a basement garden or a forgotten corner could all be transformed.  

A Japanese garden can be easily squeezed into a small space. Try it! Create your own contemplative space. Your soul will rejoice!  Stone effect Buddha. Click on the photo for more details.   Watch the video of Acers here:      


By Perfect Plants


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