Ask a group of gardeners what a traditional garden looks like, and you'll likely get a different answer from each person. The same is true of virtually every landscape type, including Japanese or Japanese-influence yards. If you're not quite sure what a Japanese landscape is and are interested in learning more, or if you want to integrate elements of these gardens into your own outdoor spaces, read on for Japanese landscape inspiration.
What Is a Japanese Landscape?
For most people, Japanese gardens probably conjure mental images of serene and clean-lined spaces filled with trees, rocks, winding pathways, and naturally occurring colors. For experts who understand the history of Japanese gardens, the final product is a bit more complicated. "Traditional Japanese gardens were highly designed and belonged almost exclusively to Japanese aristocracy," says Jennifer Schneller, a landscape architect who owns her own firm in Ohio. "For purists there's a strict definition based on style of what can or cannot be included, with a very particular plant palette and elements placed in a particular way."
Even so, there are different types of Japanese landscapes -- strolling, meditation, tea, Zen. Each one has its own design principles as well as its own opportunities for home Japanese landscape inspiration.
Is There a Limited Plant Palette in Japanese Landscapes?
Most true Japanese landscapes have traditional elements including:
? Evergreens and clipped shrubs. These provide permanence and continuity, Schneller says.
? Seasonal flowering materials. In traditional Japanese landscapes, one might see spring-blooming cherry trees and maples for autumn color, among other plants.
? Rocks. Rock can be included in a number of ways depending on the specific type of Japanese garden -- boulders, pathways, stepping stones. Sometimes it will be highly formal in the shape of a cut-stone path. Other times it will be informal, with scattered fieldstone and gravel. Both ways offer opportunities for Japanese landscape inspiration.
? Water. Water, which represents the female yin -- flowing, changing, and calming -- is the counterpoint to the yang of rocks, which signify permanence and strength. "The idea is that you are trying to capture the essential nature of your natural surroundings," Schneller says.
Japanese Landscape Inspiration for Today's Gardeners
Contemporary design ideas as well as Japanese landscape inspiration needn't be so rigorously bound to the traditional principles. "More often than not, I'll have a client interested in incorporating the style of planting or the ornaments," Schneller says.
Schneller always starts with a plan, asking her clients how spaces relate to adjoining areas, what views they enjoy, what already exists that is calming. Then, she makes sure it has a defined edge, even if it's just a change in the ground plane.
Next, Schneller begins to deliberately add in specific elements with Japanese landscape inspiration -- a sitting area, water, materials, a lantern to signal invitation. The method can be varied, though. For example, water can be incorporated in a number of ways: a granite bowl or a curving stream bed. Rock can be everything from stonewashed river stone to sand. At its core, a garden that's created with Japanese landscape inspiration is probably one that reflects a limited plant palette -- evergreens, a flowering shrub -- with minimal accents such as a bench.
The point, Schneller says, is more to break down the Japanese landscape inspiration and the final garden to its fundamental elements to create a space that's simple and calming. "People are looking for a sense of comfort and a sense of relief where they can forget all the running around and craziness of life," Schneller says. "Japanese landscapes have an underlying order. You're not trying to stuff everything in the kitchen sink into your garden. It's reduced to a minimum number of elements, each of which performs multiple roles. All of them come together to perform a harmonious interaction that creates a calming space."
However, they may not necessarily be low maintenance -- but that's part of the point, too, even in gardens that end up only loosely mixed with Japanese landscape inspiration. "The repetition of the work allows you to stop thinking. You can go out and deadhead flowers and move from one flower to the next, and it allows you to stop thinking about all the other stuff," Schneller says.
In her own home, Schneller has designed her front entry as a Japanese-inspired landscape, marking the transition from the outside world to her home. The path widens and narrows, forcing people to slow down, with a lantern for welcome and a Japanese maple as a reminder to take in the seasons. "It's that simple, but those elements have a particular meaning in the approach to the house," Schneller says.