Japan is high on the must-see list for holidaymakers. Many travellers return with new visions for their gardens, inspired by Japanese temples or the natural landscape. Of course, Japanese gardens represent centuries of development and deep aesthetic concepts, and their gardeners are highly skilled. However, anyone bowled over by the simple beauty of a Japanese garden can interpret the idea in their own space, right here in Sydney.

 

Essential elements

While Japanese gardens can vary in their overall look, there are four essential elements you'll find in all of them, each of which you'll need to incorporate in order to successfully replicate the style.

  1. Simplicity.
  2. A balance of open and planted space.
  3. The idea of taking a journey.
  4. The use of hard and soft landscaping elements (or more simply, rocks and gravel with plants) in a way that mimics the wider landscape such as mountains and plains.

 

How to achieve a Japanese inspired garden at home

The four essential elements of Japanese style can be adapted into any garden. They work particularly well, however, as a starting point for a small garden such as a courtyard or small yard. Here are a couple of techniques and selections to help you achieve these elements.

 

Plant choices

Japanese gardens can, of course, be created using traditional Japanese plants. A traditional plant palette includes conifers, which are joined by deciduous trees such Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) and flowering trees including cherry, flowering peach, flowering almond and crabapples. These are under-planted with shrubs such as Kurume azaleas, Japanese pittosporum (Pittosporum tobira), camellias and hydrangeas, as well as perennials such as Japanese iris (Iris ensata) and hosta. Bamboo and wisteria are also traditionally found in Japanese gardens, as are mosses, ferns and Japanese zoysia or temple grass.

It isn’t necessary to stay with plants that are native to Japan, though. There are many outdoor plants that you can clip and shape to give the controlled effect achieved by a Japanese planting scheme, including Australian natives. Among these, correa (Correa alba), banksias such as Banksia ‘Coastal Cushions’ and Davidson’s plum (Podocarpus elatus) are excellent choices.

Japanese gardens are full of colour and vibrancy, with exciting plant choices. From left: A small Japanese-inspired garden featuring pieris and azaleas; a larger space making great use of Japanese maple trees.

Clipping and shaping

Suitable plants for a Japanese-inspired garden include small trees, shrubs and perennials, so cover a balanced range of sizes - but choosing the plants is just the beginning. Most plants in Japanese gardens are clipped and shaped to manage the garden's look and feel. Beds of gravel are raked to complement these clipped plants.

Shrubby plants may be clipped to create mounds in a Japanese garden, but trees are also shaped. Rather than offering a dense shape, however, evergreen trees may have their trunks and branch structure revealed through cloud pruning.

A tree exhibiting the cloud pruning technique that is very popular in Japanese gardening.

 

Ornaments

While large-scale Japanese gardens can include pagodas, tea houses, waterfalls and bridges, small gardens need to concentrate on smaller elements. Japanese-inspired ornaments including wind chimes, pots or bowls along with carefully selected natural features such as rocks and pebbles can help add to the effect. Even a waterfall may be possible if incorporated into a wall, but water in a Japanese garden can be as simple as a shallow bowl.

In very small spaces, a display of bonsai plants in a courtyard can provide all the elements of Japanese gardens in miniature.

 

Inspiration

A visit to Japan is the ultimate inspiration for creating a Japanese garden, but there are Japanese gardens in Australia to give local inspiration. Top of my list is the Japanese garden within Western Sydney's Auburn Botanic Gardens.