Making a Japanese-themed garden

I have just finished a fun project – creating a Japanese-themed garden in a back garden in Stirlingshire.  The finished product is definitely a westerner’s interpretation and is a melange of ideas from across the spectrum of Japanese garden-making philosophies, especially tea gardens and zen (dry) gardens.  No doubt I have committed a heinous crime in combining these elements, but for me the skill in garden design is in creating a garden that successfully marries meeting the clients’ needs with a layout that makes the best use of the space available, rather than creating a faithful reproduction of a style or philosophy.

The client brief for this project included the following: the requirement for ‘wow’ factor – creating something that you would not expect to see when coming round the corner into the garden for the first time; the garden needed to be relatively low maintenance; one area was already designated as a memorial space to one of the client’s parents and this was to be retained if possible; an old apple tree dominated one area of the garden and was to be retained; new fences had recently been installed, and this bare wood, along with the trunks of the mature Leyland Cyprus trees that had been revealed by hard pruning served to emphasise the lack of depth in the garden and provided an unattractive view from the windows of the new conservatory; occasional play space for visiting grandchildren was also on the wish list. From talking with the clients I discovered that they prefer simple decor and colour palettes, and that they were sympathetic to oriental design philosophies and spirituality.  Whilst walking around the garden at the first meeting the idea of a series of progressive garden spaces, based on an oriental theme, came to mind and the clients loved the idea, so we were off and running!

In this blog I would like to share some of the elements that I used to create a Japanese feel in this garden, from philosophies of Japanese garden-making to materials and artifacts.


Japanese garden-makers do not use artefacts as focal points or as decoration, but to serve a purpose so, the stone lantern, which originally stood outside Shinto and Buddhist temples, made their way into gardens to illuminate water basins, tea garden pathways and pond edges.

In this garden a granite lantern has been positioned to one side of the stepping stone path, adjacent to a granite footbridge over a ‘stream’ of polished black pebbles.


Water basins are often found in Japanese tea gardens, to purify the body before entering the tea house. Here a simple granite bowl, with water bubbling up from a hole drilled in the bottom, creates a gently burbling feature in the memorial area of the garden. The client is looking forward to sitting on the curved granite bench and reflecting on the view of the garden, or quietly meditating to the sound of the water.


A tall wooden archway, based on the design of a Shinmei Torii gate found outside Shinto shrines, marks the entrance into the memorial area, and a change of ground material from pea gravel to small beach pebbles, helps to create a distinctive feeling for this small area bounded on three sides by the house and garage walls, and by the boundary fence.

The Torii gate frames the cloud-pruned Ilex crenata in the main gravel garden, which is drying out unevenly after rain.


All the woodwork in the garden in stained black, to mimic the colour of oriental lacquerware and reduce its visual impact.  Mirrors have been used in shadier areas to reflect light into the spaces and to trick the eye into thinking that the garden is larger than it really is.  Here a mirror behind a gate reflects the water feature and a  potted acer, and masks the rear steps to the garage that lie behind.  In other areas of the garden mirrors on the fence create a ‘hall of mirrors’ for the amusement of the grandchildren (and adults!).


Outside the Japanese areas of the garden, a bark play area has been created under the trees, with these fabulous wooden mushroom seats and a ladder up to a platform in a particularly interesting gnarly tree. The client plans to create a ‘faerie grotto’, with dangling crystals, wind-chimes and tree faces, and, as this shady corner of the garden provides a interesting viewpoint, an adult seat is also to be installed. The black trellis creates a sense of non-claustrophobic enclosure, with intriguing ‘windows’ into the gravel garden.

The planting in the gravel garden is restricted to evergreens – bamboo, dwarf pines and the cloud-pruned tree – with a restricted palette of shrubs and architectural perennials in the boundary borders, and, of course, a flowering cherry for the spring time.  The client is looking forward to clipping his cloud-pruned tree with a glass of wine in his hand, and I look forward to re-visiting the garden as it matures.

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