Noted for its minimalist style, natural landscape and tranquil nature, the Japanese garden is as much art as it is science.
To the untrained eye, the evergreens, rocks, pebbles, sand, ponds and waterfalls, and other common Japanese design elements may appear to be randomly placed in the garden, but everything — including the tree branches — serves a purpose.
Every tree and shrub is purposely pruned in a way that leaves openings to allow the eye to see farther into the garden; and rocks, while solid, should be dynamic and positioned to lead the eye to the garden’s focal point, explained Mark Bourne, a noted expert in Japanese garden design who built the tea house garden at the San Francisco Zen Center and spent the core of his career in the Bay Area before moving to Seattle. He continues to provide expert advice in the Bay Area and occasionally teaches classes on the Peninsula.
Creating a balance of positive and negative space — which refers to the spatial relationship between objects — is one of the keys of Japanese design, Bourne said. It creates a sense of rhythm and mystery that stimulates the imagination as visitors move through the garden.
While there are many different styles of Japanese gardens, each was created to bring the beauty, tranquility and awe of nature into a small space.
Creating that feeling hinges on creating the right visuals, said landscape designer Bill Castellon, who renovated the Japanese gardens at San Mateo’s Lutomirski and Lilienthal estates and now teaches pruning and rock setting at Oakland’s Merrit College Horticulture School.
“Think about a beautiful spot you were standing at in nature … and the feeling (it gave it you),” he said. In the garden, “the (right) look will give you that feeling.”
Bourne said those who specialize in Japanese garden design often spend years apprenticing under master gardeners in Japan. He himself spent four years studying in Kyoto.
Those looking to incorporate Japanese design elements in their own backyards, can find plenty of inspiration from master gardeners right here along the greater Midpeninsula. The area is home to several gardens designed in the authentic tradition of those found in Japan (See sidebar).
Before getting started on your own project, Bourne and a handful of local landscape designers offered the following tips:
Decide on design elements
There are different types of Japanese gardens that incorporate varying elements into their design. Rock and sand are primarily used in a dry garden, while water and bridges can be found in pond gardens. Consider if your garden will be designed for strolling or intended to be viewed from a window or patio.
“Look at the space you have and think about how it can have visual complexity. There are a number of DIY Japanese garden books and if you learn the rules and apply them, you can enjoy making a garden,” Bourne said.
Start from the ground up
It’s important to start any Japanese garden design from the ground and work up.
The soil and stones come first, then the addition of shrubs and trees.
“Pay attention to how you’re going to move the soil. Is it going to be flat or mounded? And alongside the soil, think about the stones and the shape of the stone group,” Bourne said.
Choose your plants
While some of the greenery seen in Japanese gardens doesn’t grow naturally in the Bay Area, it’s easy to substitute plants, Bourne said. Moss, for example, which is often seen in Japanese gardens, doesn’t grow naturally in the Bay Area, but baby’s tears, elfin thyme or even California Woodland Strawberry provide an alternative ground cover that give the feeling of the lush gardens people envision when thinking of Japanese garden designs.
Leslie Buck, author of “Cutting Back-My Apprenticeship In The Gardens of Kyoto” and a pruning specialist whose work includes private residences in Woodside and Palo Alto, suggests mingling California and Japanese natives. Planting natives, she said, is encouraged by Japanese landscapers who “use primarily Japanese native plants and encourage us to use our own local natives in our Japanese Garden-inspired natural landscapes.”
Manzanitas, mahonia, California coffeeberry or pieris combined with maples, nandina, dogwoods or pines can create the look and feel of a Japanese garden.
Buck said natives require less water and pesticides and come with the added benefit of attracting local wildlife.
“The more native plants we use, the more birds and butterflies we attract,” Buck said.
Bourne said whatever plants you decided to use, keep the list simple and position plants and stones so they complement each other.
Create a natural look
Japanese gardens are intended to mimic nature — this means using asymmetrical design elements, such as incorporating an odd number of plants to create a dynamic feel.
“Nothing should be the same size or have equal distances between them,” Castellon said. ” It should look the same as it does in nature. If you look at nature, nothing lines up. Everything is uneven.”
Additionally, all features added to the garden should complement, not overwhelm, the scene, Castellon added.
Keep it manageable
Authentic Japanese gardens often require extensive pruning and upkeep, but there are ways to simplify the design to fit your needs. For those who don’t want to prune, consider a dry garden with sand and rocks arranged to mimic flowing water. For those who want something simple, add a rock and a single shrub.
“Create the feeling of your favorite scene, within your budget,” Buck said. “It could be as little as a rock with a local shrub and seasonal flowers scattered about, or as much as a moving stream lined with trees and shrubs that screen neighbors and give you a feeling of a regional park in your backyard.”
The Zen garden, also known as a rock garden, is usually relatively small and consists of carefully arranged rocks of varying shapes and sizes surrounded by sand. Sand and gravel are used to represent water.
Hill and Pond Garden
This is a classic type of Japanese garden that uses manmade hills, ponds, bridges and stones to replicate natural scenery in a small area.
Intended as a place for quiet reflection, the typical tea garden features bamboo fences, gates, water basins, an extensive use of moss, and stepping stones lined with lanterns that lead through the garden and to the tea house.
Meant for strolling, this garden is designed to provide visitors beautiful and unexpected views at different points in the garden. Typical features include a winding path, ponds with islands, artificial hills and rocks.
Read more: Looking to add some Zen to your landscape? Visit these Japanese gardens for inspiration