Essential Elements of the Japanese Garden

There are a few elements essential to a Japanese garden.  They are: rocks, both large and commanding and small like pebbles or flat black river rock; water, both real or suggested; and, of course, plants. The Japanese garden leans heavily upon the use of evergreen plants which used in conjunction with rock allow for beauty in the garden year round.  The more nonessential but desirable elements would be things like paths, steps, bridges, fences, walls, gates, ornaments and structures such as a trellis, pergola, viewing platform or teahouse.

Rock and Stone

Rock has many uses in the Japanese garden.  Rocks of varying sizes, types and configurations may be found woven into the design of the garden and used as paths and bridges, or to simulate water.   They may be used in clusters or singularly as a focal point.  There may be different types and sizes used together to make a path more beautiful and interesting.  As a center piece, they are chosen for their overall presence in the garden and are themselves a work of art.  Their shape, color, angles and grain are all taken into consideration.  The more beautiful and unusual, the more highly prized they are.  Granite, limestone, and slate are some of the type of rock used in Japanese gardens.

Though rocks are meticulously placed,  the designer strives for a natural sense in the garden.  Therefore, larger rocks should be "planted" to appear as though they have been there a while.  This is accomplished by burying a third to a half of the rock in the ground.  As you will remember, you want the Japanes garden to look aged, natural and weathered.  To accomplish this sense, moss may be planted on rock and stone and made to grow if kept moist and somewhat shaded from the sun.


As mentioned earlier, water is a very desirable feature in the Japanese garden. A water source such as a spring, a stream or a waterfall will provide sound and keep the pond fresh.  A water feature will draw wildlife into the garden and provide beauty as it reflects the sky and the surrounding plant life.  It can give a sense of spaciousness in its reflective quality and make your small garden seem larger.  Koi fish, a kind of Carp, can be added to the pond for entertainment and interest.  These very colorful fish can grow quite large, given the space, and are a favorite pond life in the Japanese garden. They can live for decades in a clean, cool, well-aerated and partially shaded pond. Finally, a water feature will provide a source of moisture to plants in the garden and help to keep it  lush and green looking.

Sometimes, water is not an option.  In that case, the use of rocks may instead be used to imply water.  I have seen beautiful Japanese garden water scenes with not a drop of water in them!


Evergreen trees and shrubs provide for the bulk of plantings in Japanese gardens, mainly because of their year round color. Also, as the foundation of the garden, they provide a backdrop of green for other deciduous or flowering trees and shrubs, as well as stones and other garden features. Both needled and broadleafed evergreens are used. Plants are chosen for their ability to be pruned and shaped. Size and maturity are considered. Patterns, colors and textures of  leaves, stems and bark are important. Branching patterns of trees and shrubs, even the way a bare tree holds the snow in winter, are all taken into consideration.

Another important feature is the plants appearance during seasonal changes- its autumn color; its berries or spring flowers. Frequently used evergreens might include pines, spruces, several species of false cypress and junipers. Some deciduous trees used for their distinguishing seasonal properties are plum and cherry, ginko biloba, witch hazel, magnolia and of course numerous varieties of Japanese maple with their lacey leaves. Because rhodies and azaleas tolerate heavy pruning, they are a favorite in Japanese gardening. Camelia, gardenia, pieris,quince and Japanese holly are also among  the shrubs used.

Bamboo and ornamental grasses are hallmarks of the Japanese garden. They may be used to provide sound and movement in the garden as the wind catches their long slender leaves. Bamboo makes a good screen when planted in mass but does need to be contained or will take over an area. There are several types of grasses that come in a variety of colors and patterns.

Mosses are also highly associated with Japanese gardens as are a variey of ferns. They add texture and lushness to the garden but grow best in shaded areas and are sensitive to moisture. They are used to provide contrast to the harder features of the garden such as rocks, walls and buildings and do, in general, soften the landscape. There are other ground covers such as pachysandra used with mosses and rock to provide height, color, and texture variation in an area.

Flowers are used differently in Japanes gardening than in the western garden where variey is prized.  Flowers are not the feature in this garden.  Occasionally,  you will find a single variety of flower used in mass over an area around a pond for example, like Japanese iris. Otherwise, they are nestled here and there among trees and shrubs like the woodland wildflowers. Frequently used flowers are iris, astilbe, peonies, lilies (including water lillies), and asters.

Vines are also frequently used in the Japanese garden. They soften the architecture of walls, fences, gates, arbors, trellies and buildings as well as provide a spectacular show and abundance of fragrance. These vines may include clematis, honeysuckle, jasmine, trumpet creeper, wisteria and morning glory.

In your small area garden, it is better to have a few very nice specimens to serve as centerpieces. With a strong focal point, the personality of your garden can be established without the space required for multiple plantings.


Very few ornaments are found in any one Japanese garden. While chosen for their asthetic value, they are sensibly placed in keeping with their function in the garden and may include such things as bridges, water basins, lanterns, towers, sculptures, signposts or animal effigies. You may find a turtle sitting on a rock or a heron standing on the edge of a pond. They should integrate well into the landscape and be rustic and simple.

One such favorite is the deer-scarer. A bamboo flume is slowly filled with water. As it fills up, the weight of the water causes the flume to tip and empty itself. Empty of its burden, it falls back to its original position and striking a rock, it makes a clacking sound.

In keeping with the hide and reveal principle, ornaments may be hidden from view until you come upon it along the path and even then may be partially hidden by a branch or a rock. The best view may not be straight on but from an oblique angle some distance off. Again, the gardener strives to make objects look aged so let it weather. Discoloration and moss growth are encouraged.

With regard to the other nonessentials mentioned, be sure to keep in mind that materials used in building structures in the garden should reflect the garden's simple elegance. You will typically find numerous creative and artistic uses of natural things to make the various structures in the Japanese garden: tree branches, twigs, or bamboo laced together to make a gate or fence; a grass mat panel for a screen; a fence of espaliered yew. Most building materials are left to weather naturally.


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