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How to create a Japanese garden

Martyn Cox / 03 August 2015

Organic lines and simple structures are the key to a Japanese-style garden.

Japanese toro
Stone lanterns, known as 'toros', have been a feature of Japanese gardens for centuries and were originally used to light entrances to shrines and temples

A garden chock-a-block with flowers is fine if you’ve got plenty of time on your hands, but if you lead a busy life, then you need something that’s easier to look after.

A Japanese-style garden is worth considering. These low-maintenance spaces largely consist of hard landscaping embellished with plants, water features and ornaments.

A Japanese garden requires very little elbow room. A small back garden or even a courtyard can easily be given an Oriental look. Of course, if you’re lucky enough to have a few rolling acres then you can really go to town - rather than transform your entire plot, it’s a good idea to hive off a corner or to convert an existing garden ‘room’.

Simple structure

Japanese style gardens should be given a simple, structural backbone. Avoid straight lines and symmetry, as seen in some formal styles, going for something far more organic and uncluttered.

These types of garden are largely inspired by nature, so a dry gravel path can be used to be represent a meandering river and a carefully placed boulder, stands in for a mountain. As with other types of garden, using planting or structures to divide it into different ‘rooms’, for eating, relaxing and even meditating, if that’s your thing.

Add some water

A water feature of some kind is essential. Ponds of koi carp are often seen in large Japanese gardens, along with cascades, waterfalls and streams spanned by a low, arched bridge. Bodies of water are often navigated by stepping stones or raised decking paths. If you don’t have the space for a large water feature, try a bamboo deer scarer or a stone basin fed by a bamboo water spout.

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Perfect plants for a Japanese garden

The planting in Japanese gardens tends to be fairly restrained, with the emphasis on foliage rather than flowers. Bamboos, fatsia and nandina provide year round interest, while rhododendrons, camellias and flowering cherries add a splash of colour in spring.

Under plant with hardy begonias, farfugium, hostas and other perennials. 

A Japanese maple is a must-have, as are cloud pruned box, phillyrea, conifers, holly and evergreen oaks. Remember that these topiary shapes need precise clipping several times a year to maintain a crisp outline. 

For beautiful examples of cloud pruning, see our gallery Jake Hobson's cloud pruning

Finishing touches

To complete the look you need to fit your garden out with the right ornaments.

Sculptures, bird baths and granite basins are all worth considering, but the most essential is a stone lantern. Known as a toro, they’ve been a feature of Japanese gardens for centuries and were originally used to illuminate the entrances to shrines and temple.

Place among plants, alongside a pathway or water feature. Alternatively, let them brighten up a gloomy corner. Electric and solar powered versions are available, but for authenticity you can’t beat a candle or oil version.

Visit Japanese gardens in the UK

If you're looking for inspiration for your Japanese-style garden, the Japanese Garden Society website features an interactive map of Japanese gardens open to the public in the UK.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.