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9 Tips To Create an Authentic Backyard Japanese Garden

A Japanese-style backyard is a place for contemplating nature. Here are some tips to help you set up your own retreat space.

Shishi Odoshi Japanese Bamboo Water Fountain in Zen GardenIVANOEL28/GETTY IMAGES

Japanese Garden Landscape: Firsthand View

I lived in Kyoto, Japan for 10 years, to support my wife’s research into Japanese gardening techniques. Although we both eventually settled into teaching positions, we never stopped touring the Kansai region, appreciating the gardens and — because I’m a builder — the architecture and construction techniques.

On snowy winter day, my sister and I were enjoying tea at Ryoanji, a temple just down the road from where I worked. No one else was around. As the snow gently covered the famous rock garden, we sensed the contemplative energy of the millions of people who had been there over the centuries. You could almost see the nature spirits.

Unlike my wife, I’m no gardening expert, but I did learn a little in the time we spent in Japan. Here are some tips for building a Japanese garden.

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Japanese zen rock garden with sandClive Nichols/Getty Images

Create Space

When designing and building your Japanese garden, plan for lots of space between elements. The Japanese sensibility is rooted in various schools of Buddhism, particularly Zen, which is all about the silence between words and the space between objects — ma in Japanese.

You can create space by including a pond, always a welcome feature in a Japanese garden. If you don’t have room for that, consider gravel or sand, either as a walkway covering or prominent feature. Sand and gravel should be natural, without artificial coloring.

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green park with water10255185_880/Getty Images

Balance the Elements

A Japanese garden is a study in the harmony of nature. To create harmony, the elements of air, earth, water and fire should all be represented.

Use rocks and sand to represent earth, and a pond or waterfall for water. Keep bushes and shrubs pruned to allow air to circulate, and add one or two orange or red plants to represent fire. Japanese maple and chrysanthemums are great for autumn, astilbe (false goat’s beard) for summer, and an evergreen with red berries like holly for winter.

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Japanese garden with bamboos and stone lanternDelpixart/Getty Images

Define a Clear Boundary

A Japanese garden is a retreat from the world to appreciate nature, so it should have a clearly defined border that separates it from its surroundings. A low stone wall surrounds the rock garden at Ryoanji on three sides, blocking the view of the streets and sidewalks.

The boundary should be visible but doesn’t have to hide the surrounding landscape. A wood or bamboo fence, stone or brick wall or even a landscape feature like a stream or hill will work.

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Image of slate slab pathway in ornamental, domestic garden featuring Japanese elements, modern wooden bench, potted azaleas, granite lanterns, bamboo hedging, koi fish pond and Japanese maples (acers)mtreasure/Getty Images

Take Your Time

Workers can erect a Japanese apartment building in a matter of weeks, but establishing a Japanese garden is a life-long affair. It’s an opportunity to slow down and attune to the natural world. That’s something you can’t rush.

Rather than fill a plot of land with grown, store-bought vegetation, start with bulbs and seedlings. As the garden approaches maturity, maintain the space as part of your daily or weekly routine, and add elements as they make sense. Become one with the garden and, by extension, the nature it represents.

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Beautiful tropical garden / Landscaping with tropical plantspattamod/Getty Images

Choose Subtle Over Showy

Some gardens are riots of color, but not a Japanese garden. Everything is understated. The vegetation is mostly green and brown, with landscape features in proportion to their surroundings.

The goal is to create a space where all the elements harmonize and none dominate. Moss is a great equalizer, tying all the elements together. Bushes and trees need to be manicured never be shaped into topiaries.

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stone walkway in gardenpanda3800/Getty Images

Don’t Make It Perfect

Master rug weavers in the Middle East traditionally include an intentional mistake in their rugs because, they say, “only God is perfect.” Japanese gardeners also appreciate the imperfection and transience of nature. Their term for it is wabi-sabi.

Introduce wabi-sabi by arranging plants and other elements in odd numbers. Some withered bamboo in a corner or a carelessly placed rock in an otherwise orderly arrangement can also work. Don’t overdo it, because nature already expresses wabi-sabi in the life cycles of the plants.

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A japanese garden decoration with a stone lantern.undefined undefined/Getty Images

Work With Nature

If you don’t live in Japan, some of the traditional Japanese garden plants may not survive in your climate zone. Don’t force it. Rely on native plants you know will thrive. Be sure to introduce evergreen shrubs, bushes and ground cover so the garden has color in the winter.

If you have a small, sheltered space inappropriate for living plants, consider a rock garden, called karesansui in Japanese. Although it’s more abstract, it still provides an opportunity for retreat and contemplation.

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Close-Up Of Bamboo Surrounding Stone FountainLaura Drake/Getty Images

Keep It Real

There shouldn’t be anything artificial in a Japanese garden. No plastic fencing or ornaments, no whirligigs hanging from the trees, and definitely no garden gnomes. All wooden items should be unpainted unless you bring in one or two bright red ornaments to balance the fire element.

Stone items like birdbaths and lanterns add a nice touch. Consider a shishi odoshi (deer scarer), which makes a satisfying clacking sound as it fills with water and empties again. It’s a feature of the garden at Ryoanji.

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waterfall in a gardenluisrsphoto/Getty Images

Tune Into Sound

The auditory experience is just as important as the visual. A Japanese garden should inspire quiet contemplation. So if you can, put it somewhere far from traffic noise. You want to hear the wind blowing and the water gurgling.

You can introduce meditative sounds in a number of ways. Make a waterfall and listen to the sound of it splashing over the rocks. Or hang some wind chimes. In a really quiet space, the clacking sound of a shishi odoshi can be particularly soothing.

Chris Deziel
Chris Deziel has been active in the building trades for more than 30 years. He helped build a small city in the Oregon desert from the ground up and helped establish two landscaping companies. He has worked as a carpenter, plumber and furniture refinisher. Deziel has been writing DIY articles since 2010 and has worked as an online consultant, most recently with Home Depot's Pro Referral service. His work has been published on Landlordology, and Hunker. Deziel has also published science content and is an avid musician.