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. Take-home elements for a Japanese garden include simplicity, a balance of open and planted space, the idea of taking a journey and 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.

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.

Clipping and shaping

The basic 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. Plants include small trees, shrubs and perennials, but most are clipped and shaped to manage the garden's look and feel. Beds of gravel are raked.

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.

Japanese garden with cloud-pruned feature tree A tree exhibiting the cloud pruning technique that is very popular in Japanese gardening.

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.

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.