Sunday, October 1, 2017

Ideas from Japanese Gardens

I took a garden tour in northern Japan this past June (blog). Not only did it make me see my plants as poorly trimmed (see earlier blog), there were lots of useful ideas.

Japanese garden scene

I don't aspire to a Japanese garden, beautiful as they are.

Japanese garden

But I saw lots of good ideas that I can use in my Colorado garden. For example, the Japanese recognise different types of gardens. Flower gardens for cutting flowers, of course. But a strolling garden is for walking and should have diverse views as the paths turn (the two photos above). That's different from a viewing garden, where the purpose of the garden is to provide beautiful views from a window or other fixed vantage point.
viewing garden, Japan
Viewing garden, always seen from this one large window
Zen gardens, with raked gravel and curious rocks. are contemplation gardens.  You sit and consider what you see. Another time you sit somewhere else along the garden and contemplate the thoughts the view evokes.

Zen garden, Japan
Zen garden: you sit along its edges to contemplate
the rocks as islands in an ocean,
or other images they evoke
One clear take-home for me was to ask: what kind of garden is my garden? Is it for raising cut flowers? Do I stroll around viewing it? Or do I just to look from the kitchen window. My yard has aspects of all these, but the view from the breakfast table is currently rather bland. Realizing the garden under the maple is a viewing garden has shifted my plans for it.
garden view
This was the view from the breakfast table two years ago,
Its not much better now: bland, though the maple tree tries to brighten it.
Another observation is that many traditional Japanese gardens are chiefly formed from evergreens. Deciduous trees play a minor role and annuals almost none. So the garden has a stable shape from the pines and yews, with the occasional rhododendron or Japanese maple for contrast. This produces a comfortable garden which looks about the same all year round, though the perceptive viewer notes new leaves on the maple in spring and other seasonal changes. For my Colorado garden, the lesson might be: anchor the design with evergreens, then add color.

Japanese garden

Like the Japanese, Coloradans garden with lots of rocks. Modern Japanese gardens may just go for pleasant lines, but historically, gardens incorporated rocks that evoked auspicious images. A large round rock would be a turtle, symbol of longevity; a pair of rocks set vertically a pair of cranes, noted for their devotion to a single mate throughout their lives, a square stone on a large rectangular rock might mimic a lantern, welcoming guests to the garden...and so on. My rocks are just rocks...what an opportunity I've missed not to choose ones that look like something to me.

Japanese garden
The rocks at the far side of the pond are set vertically to
make you think of a waterfall
Finally, the gravel in zen gardens usually represented the ocean (or a lake) and the rocks were islands within it. My neighbors in northern Colorado often turn a section of their yard into a bed of gravel, sometimes just for ease of maintenance, sometimes as a place to park another vehicle. We could do a lot more with those gravel spaces: add a few rocks along the edge as islands, or, for a more Colorado fantasy, set a pile of rocks at one side and let the gravel look like an alpine tallus slope.

gravel around Japanese garden
The gravel turns the garden into an island
My garden is part strolling garden, part viewing garden, with a vegetable patch and a spot for bright annuals. I'm not planning to make it look Japanese, but I am looking forward to taking some of their good ideas and adapting them to my rather different aesthetic.

Comments and corrections welcome.

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist

You might also like these blog posts:
Visiting Northern Japan link
flowering plums, Japan
Visiting Japan--Pruned Trees and Shrubs link
 bonsai, Japan

Impressions of Japan: Visiting Japan--Gardens, Plants, Contrasts   link

medieval castle, Japan


  1. Very interesting... I do not think I have ever read a modern-day account of Japanese gardens that is this critical. Those tiny frontyard and courtyard gardens are really cool; they really ought to be given more attention.

  2. Hello everyone! Thanks for the interesting information. I've always wanted my own house with a garden. But I am a simple designer of 2D characters for computer games and I live in a rented apartment in the city. Although my work brings me pleasure and gives me good income, in the near future I will not be able to afford a house with a garden.