Elements of a Japanese Garden

Japanese gardens combine the basic elements of plants, water, and rocks with simple, clean lines to create a tranquil retreat. Learn how to make your own Zen garden.

By Denny Schrock


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Covered gate with bamboo screen
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Make an Entrance

    Use a simple bamboo fence to block views of the world outside your garden. Make the entrance to your garden clear with a gate and attractive arbor.

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Create Mystery

    A key element in Japanese garden style is creating vignettes that can't be viewed all at once. Here a winding path leads your eye past the stone pagoda and beckons exploration of what's around the next corner.

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Grow Evergreens

    Most Japanese gardens rely on subtle differences in color and texture. Here conifers provide soothing shades of green for year-round interest. Some echo the pyramidal form of the pagoda while others frame the feature with their low, spreading branches.

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Encourage Moss

    Moss makes the perfect groundcover in moist shady areas of the Japanese garden. Because moss doesn't tolerate foot traffic well, place stone steppers among the moss to allow passage without damage to the cushiony surface.

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Make a Private Pavilion

    Create an intimate space in your Japanese garden with a teahouse or pavilion made of bamboo or wood. Use such a structure for entertaining or for viewing the serene landscape.

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Try a Pagoda Pillar

    Stone lanterns shaped as pagodas are staples of Japanese gardens. They can echo the roofline of a teahouse or covered gate entries in addition to providing a charming glow in the evening garden.

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Add Textural Contrast

    Shaded sections of the Japanese garden rely on subtle color contrast and bold textural differences to create interest. Here chartreuse and green hostas surround the base of a tree while variegated hakone grass softens the edge of the bed.

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Create Structure from Plants

    Trees in a Japanese garden often are pruned into shapes that reveal their architectural form. This Japanese maple shows its zigzag branching pattern. Arching branches reach over the contrasting groundcover and reflect in a nearby pool of water.

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Protect Yourself from Evil Spirits

    Legend has it that a zigzag bridge such as this one will protect you from evil spirits in the garden. The myth says that evil spirits can only travel in a straight line, so the bridge traps them, allowing you to escape to safety.

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Provide an Island Getaway

    A small island in the middle of this pond creates the illusion of a secluded retreat, even though the arch of the bridge is too steep to safely walk over. With a larger space and longer span on the bridge, you could access the island.

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Time for Reflection

    This small reflecting pool has a decidedly Japanese flavor. From the glass Japanese fishing float on its surface to the bamboo fountain, Japanese bloodgrass, stone pagoda lantern, and moss-covered rocks surrounding the pond, all elements blend in Asian style.

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Feed the Fish

    Colorful koi and goldfish bring hours of enjoyment to the Japanese garden. Train your fish to come on command for feeding time. Goldfish are hardier than koi, but both types may need to be overwintered indoors in cold climates.

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Go with the Flow

    The sound of moving water from waterfalls adds to the soothing nature of Japanese gardens. This stream is punctuated by two waterfalls and ponds. Papyrus, ornamental grasses, and groundcovers bring life to the stream edge.

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Deter Deer Naturally

    This clever bamboo device is designed to frighten deer away from the garden. The upper bamboo tube drips water into the larger, lower tube. When the tube fills, the weight of the water causes it to clunk against a bamboo mat resting on a stone. The sudden sound startles deer and reportedly scares them away.

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Braced with Bamboo

    Bamboo has many uses in Japanese gardens: It's grown as an ornamental plant, and it serves as an important structural component. This bamboo fence uses bamboo shoots as rails and smaller ones tied into latticework to follow the curve of the gravel path inlaid with steppingstones.

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Graceful Gravel Garden

    Raked gravel surrounding stones represents ripples of waves around islands. This type of Zen garden is designed for contemplative thought and is super-easy to maintain.

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Artful Additions

    Personal touches in the Japanese garden should have a connection to nature. These polished egg-shape stones arranged in a bowl are a good example. Backed by the crimson foliage of a Japanese maple, they take on a sculptural quality.

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Stone Streambed

    Japanese gardens usually utilize representation. Here, tumbled gray river rocks of uniform size have been carefully arranged in this meandering dry streambed to create the illusion of flowing water. Ferns and evergreens line the stream, softening its "shoreline."

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