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When I talk to people about what they would like to include in their new garden there is often a hint towards the Japanese. Perhaps there is something about the elements of a Japanese garden which confer some of the calmness that a Japanese garden achieves, or maybe it is the plants they choose so carefully to create a certain effect.

Japanese gardens are not all rocks and gravel and miniature versions of landscapes although this is certainly part of the tradition.

The Japanese first took their inspiration from the Chinese with ‘pond and island’ paradise gardens used for boating and banquets. Weeping willows created shady banks, fish added colour and movement and islands were linked by bridges, and perhaps planted with pines or with rock arrangements.

 When Zen Buddism arrived from China, rocks were used in greater quantities and the Zen monks started to make gardens (12th to 14th century). There were two main reasons for the creation of dry gardens:

• They used the principles of Japanese painters whose work inspired a monochromatic treatment of the landscape

• They were associated with Zen Buddhism and meditation.

They tended to be framed within rectangular courtyards – viewed as paintings illustrating an idealised landscape. Rocks were laid out in specific arrangements to aid meditation. The best example is the Ryoan-ji garden in Kyoto.

 Rocks in gravel

Tea arrived from China and the tea ceremony was made popular (16th century).This led to the creation of the tea gardens where a journey was created through the garden to the tea house. The tea house imitated the mountain-side hermitage of Chinese sages with the paths representing those taken by pilgrims to meet the sages in their hermitages. There were often stepping stone paths, and gates separating the inner and outer gardens. Guests would wash their hands in a stooping basin (tsukabi) and a lantern often accompanied the basin as many tea ceremonies were at night.

Tea House -Compton Acres

Stroll gardens (17th-19th century) included ponds but moved away from boating and entertainment. Visitors were encouraged to amble along paths that usually circled the pond. There were more clipped shrubs than rocks as rocks were more scarce around Tokyo (the new capital). It incorporated aspects of other styles: stepping stone paths, lanterns, water basins, tea houses, expanses of sand, one or two rocks, streams, waterfalls, ponds, bamboo fences and bridges. Streams would enter ponds with stepping stones or a bridge over this point. Water would tumble over rocks upstream. These gardens were meant to be viewed from the veranda of the house.

Stepping stones-Compton Acres


Strolling or Tea gardens showed seasonal change; pine and bamboo in winter, flowers in the form of shrubs and trees in the spring and summer:

Spring – Cherry plus Wisteria, Peony, Azalea, Camellia

Summer – Irises, Hydrangeas, Lotus, Ipomoea

Autumn – Acer plus Platycodon, Tricytris

Winter – Bamboo, pines

Conifers were pruned into clouds and broadleaf evergreens into waves and rounded shapes, and used to define spaces. Western pruning imposes shapes whereas Japanese pruning opens up natural forms and the voids become more important.

Pruning - Hampton Court show garden

Moss grows profusely in Japan and is used instead of grass. It does not need to be mown and so you can site rocks and plants without those constraints (although it needs weeding).

The key to creating a Japanese garden is not so much to include all the features traditionally used, but more importantly to re-create the essence of the gardens as places for contemplation.

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