Japanese Gardening in Small Spaces

An Introduction to Japanese Gardening

There is hardly anything more inspiring than a well designed and maintained Japanese garden.  The marriage of rustic beauty and elegant simplicity can produce a breathtaking and intriguing experience.  Such a Japanese garden is every bit a work of art as any masterpiece done on a canvas.  In this case, the landscape is the canvas, natural things are the tools, and the gardener is the artist.  Though there is a long history behind Japanese gardening and many factors have shaped its development, for our purposes we will briefly look at some of the distinctive elements that make a Japanese garden.  Of particular note, most Japanese garden styles lend themselves nicely to small spaces.  It can be fit into a side yard or courtyard, accommodate a flat or contoured yard, a sunny space or a shaded lot.

A Viewing Garden

One thing to keep in mind, is that the Japanese garden is as much a garden to view from some vantage point as it is to take a stroll in.  Therefore, some of your best viewing points should be from your kitchen or dining room window, porch or deck where you can be visually drawn into the quiet of your garden on a busy day.

Borrowed Scenery Enhances the Garden

The Japanese garden uses the concept of "borrowed scenery" which connects your small garden space to the larger landscape picture and gives it continuity. It is much easier to allow larger tree tops and structures you may not have control over to become part of the overall design rather than try to eliminate them from the picture.  Also,  with careful planning you can make your garden seem larger than it actually is by incorporating larger trees and shrubs, a mountain or lake in the landscape outside your garden into the visual scope of your small space.  A tree with its branches over-hanging the fence from  your garden can provide a visual link to the larger "garden" outside your boundary. There are other techniques which can be used to affect the perspective size of the garden which will be touched on further in this text.

Intrigue and Surprise Serve a Purpose

The Japanese garden is designed to beckon you into its borders for quiet appreciation and contemplation of the beauties of nature and the wonders of the universe.  For this reason, the gardener uses the elements of surprise and intrigue in the most enticing ways: a small cut-out in a fence allowing a glimpse of the garden; a winding path that disappears from view;  an unexpected pond or waterfall; an ornament partially hidden by plantings- all calculatedly placed to pique your curiosity and call you further into the garden.

Natural and Rustic Materials

Natural and rustic-looking materials are always preferred in building any sort of structure in the garden; a freshly hewn stone focal point; a rock path; a teahouse of wood and stucco; a bamboo fence tied together with black jute.  Contrary to the western ideals of new and shiny, the Japanese garden looks aged, a reflection of the cultural values it sprang from.  The gardener goes so far as to plant moss purposefully on a stone or lantern.  The pruning of trees and shrubs may be done so as to give the appearance of age and weathering.

Scale Creates a Grand Impression

Often, the garden is designed to reflect the larger cosmos and give the impression of a much larger vista; a planting of stones or low growing shrubs for mountains; a pond with a border of scattered rocks for the ocean and shoreline; a small island in a pond for a larger island in a lake.  Water is a valued feature in the garden partly because it reflects the sky and draws the mind to a "grander landscape".   I remember once studying a picture of a Japanese garden and  trying to figure out the scale of the hills, plants and body of water I was looking at. To this day, I do not know if it was a large scale garden with actual grand hillsides, trees you could walk under and a lake or if it was the miniature semblance of a much larger scene in nature.  The Japanese are masters at this as well as other techniques we will discuss in the following text.


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