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There are two distinct thoughts on gardening philosophies. Many people are familiar with the backyard Western garden ideology. In America, this is almost the standard style of gardening. But if you are looking for something with a bit more of an Eastern appeal you should consider a Japanese garden.
Japanese gardens are very different than Western gardens. There are specific elements, traditions, and philosophies that contribute to Japanese gardening. It takes a good foundation in these principles as well as practice to become a master of the Japanese garden.
There are various types of Japanese gardens that you can choose from. While there are different styles of Japanese gardens, each style has a few things in common. All Japanese gardens have a unique style that emphasizes different components than those of typical Western gardens.
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Design Features of Japanese Gardens
One of the most important aspects emphasized in all Japanese gardens is balance. Components of the garden should be carefully chosen. Everything in a garden should be balanced, but not necessarily even. This balance is not so much an issue of symmetry as it is a concern of space. Space should be used as an element in its own regard, as much as any other element in the garden. Items should be included in odd numbers, such as one or three or five stones, trees, or other elements. There should not be an even number of items. The balance should not come from the symmetry of these items but rather how elements work with the other elements in the garden. (Source: Japan Orbit)
One component of the Japanese gardening philosophy that is sometimes difficult for Westerners to understand is the element of wabi and sabi. These two terms are not easily translated. Wabi literally translates to ‘solitary,’ but in the case of Japanese gardens is more akin to unique or special. If an item in your garden has the element of wabi, it will stand out as a contrasting component while still containing the spirit of your space. Many Japanese gardens use stone lanterns or some other Asian inspired structure to bring out the sense of wabi.
Sabi, on the other hand, translates closely to ‘patina.’ When applied to Japanese gardening it is used as a way to say that something has an ideal image; or, in the case of balancing wabi and sabi, this means that your standout piece should reflect the image of your space. Many times this includes wear and age, because aged and worn pieces have a natural and storied look. A new stone lantern may have wabi but lack sabi, and a rock covered in moss may have sabi while lacking wabi. There are many ways to go about balancing wabi and sabi. A special tree, a lantern, or a particularly interesting rock, all aged and reflecting the spirit of the garden are great examples of a well balanced wabi sabi.
Japanese gardens also differ from Western gardens in how they are treated through the seasons. Many Western gardens are packed up, abandoned, and forgotten during off seasons. Japanese gardens should be designed so that they can be enjoyed in all seasons. A design that changes with the seasons offers different things each season to the garden goers. With spring comes the bright colors of the blossoms. Summer contrasts the lush greenery with the shadows and waters. Fall brings a splash of colors as leaves change, while winter brings a shroud of snow and the quiet solace of a winter’s night.
Space is another element that is used differently in a Japanese garden than in a Western garden. Western gardens are often full and blooming with large explosions of color and greenery. Japanese gardens utilize space and balance to create a complete look. Less is more in this style of gardening. With fewer components, each component means more and each has more weight and impact on the overall look. One thing many Westerners notice when they look at Japanese inspired gardens is that the gardens often seem empty. But in the Japanese style, space is a component which helps define the elements that it surrounds. This calls back to the idea of balance. Space defines the elements within and in turn is defined by the things in it.
In a Japanese garden, lines are important. You don’t want anything in your garden that has an overly man made feel. Square lines and harsh angles feel too manufactured. Your lines and angles should all be rounded, rough, and organic. The components of your garden should work together as in nature. This is also why things should come in odd numbers as it helps with that natural asymmetry. Aspects of your garden should be a representation of natural landscapes themselves. Large rocks become mountains and ponds are oceans.
Japanese gardens are also enclosed. Having the garden open to the rest of the world is rare in Japanese gardens. It is very common for a Japanese garden design to be surrounded by walls containing and enclosing the microcosm. It doesn’t let the outside world upset the carefully designed balance.
(Source: Helpful Gardener)
In general, there are a number of kinds of Japanese gardens, including paradise gardens, tea gardens, dry rock gardens, and a few others. Paradise gardens and dry rock gardens are the types of gardens that would be the best option for making a stunning backyard garden.
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A paradise garden is a garden that is built to represent paradise. This kind of garden has lush plant life balanced with water and stones. Arching bridges and stone lanterns are at home in these gardens.
These gardens were originally designed for Buddhist monks to meditate and reflect within the beauty of the garden. With your own paradise garden you can have a spot to escape to and meditate in a tranquil and balanced space.
(Source: Jpn Gardens)
This balanced garden has a natural and asymmetric pond. Ponds are common in Japanese gardens. These ponds often have Koi fish in them. These fish can bring even more wonderful color and life to your space.
If you have a water feature, an arched bridge is the perfect element to put over it. These bridges are emblematic of Japanese gardens. The arched bridge introduces some man made elements but keeps the lines smooth and organic.
The open space in a Japanese garden can sometimes make people used to Western gardening philosophy feel uneasy. Once they start to understand that the space is as important of an element as any other they can see the value of emptiness. Source: Elliott Brown / Flickr
Not all arched bridges have a steep arch. Some bridges, such as this one, have a very slight arch. Those with very steep arches may be so steep that stairs are needed on both sides of the bridge just to cross it.
In this garden we see the elements of wabi and sabi in effect. This piece in the garden is unique and singular. There are no other pieces like it, but it still reflects the spirit of the area.
The use of space and water in this garden are in line with the Japanese design. There is plenty of openness to let the aspects present have an impact on the space. Source: Zillow Digs™
Stone lanterns and bamboo features are commonly associated with Japanese gardens. Adding features like this is a way to instantly introduce Japanese influence into your space.
Arched bridges are often made from wood. Many times you will see the bridges stained or painted darker. Many of them will be dark brown or black with a few red accents, though there are bridges that are simpler and lighter in appeal. Source: Zillow Digs™
This walkway through a garden is a great example of a Japanese inspired space. The look of the elements is very organic. The wooden fence is organic in design and the lake is asymmetrical and organic in nature. The lantern is a prime example of the principle of wabi/sabi.
A water feature is common in Japanese gardens. Waterfalls bring motion and sound to the space. Sound can be quite integral to the Japanese garden as anything visual. That is why many waterfalls and bamboo fountains (known as sōzu) are found in Japanese gardens.
Here is a great shot of a Japanese style garden that uses a great deal of negative space to build its profile. The spirit of this space is open and the garden reflects that.
Here is a stunning Japanese style garden. The space is organized but the lines are still organic and have a natural feel.
When building a Japanese garden you should remember the basic principles. Space and balance are very important, as is motion and tranquility. Make sure to build in lots of flow and elements that can help you focus in the right state of mind.
A stone footpath is perfect in a Japanese garden. The stones help build upon that organic and natural feel. They pair well with rope fences and gravel beds.
Rocks are very important to Japanese gardens. They are often even more important than trees. The placement and number of rocks can have a big impact on your garden. Be mindful of where the rocks in your garden are placed.
Moss can be a good element to bring out the sense of age to your garden. The idea of sabi is not just about a worn look but the image of age and time. Moss can influence that essence of time very well.
Many times Japanese gardens can be quite spiritual in nature. To reflect this, statues and other icons of Buddhism are right at home in these spaces. Source: Zillow Digs™
Stepping stones are great for crossing water as well. They are stylish and give a great appeal.
Bamboo fountains are also a great addition to Japanese gardens. They provide a strong Japanese influence while also instilling movement and ambiance.
Small buildings are not out of place in a Japanese garden. These kinds of buildings are ideal for sitting back and enjoying nature while sipping on a cup of tea. A perfect getaway. Source: Zillow Digs™
Koi are a staple of Japanese ponds. These fish can be quite colorful and bring an abundance of life to your space. A koi pond has its own little ecosystem, which increases the organic feel of your space.
When you have a great deal of water in your Japanese garden, you can use a system of bridges to navigate the space. If the bridge has a Japanese influence with organic looking features it will fit right in with the rest of the landscape.
Here is a simple garden with a stone staircase between some moss covered stones. Sparse trees are spread through the space making good use of the area without overcrowding it.
The structure seen here is a quintessentially Japanese design. It instantly brings forth Japanese influence to your garden. The nice use of space also lets the design breathe in the environment.
There are many ways to create paths over your water features. You can even blend some together. Stone steps are an excellent option and pair well with other methods.
A great way to build lots of negative space into your garden is with a body of water. Large bodies of water create negative space above them.
The zen garden goes by a few names. They are sometimes known as dry rock gardens or landscape gardens. Rather than being filled with plant life, the zen garden uses little to no plant life whatsoever. The zen garden most often consists of dry rock, gravel, or sometimes sand. The bed of gravel is punctuated with a few larger standing rocks.
The gravel is then raked around the stones, making concentric patterns. In these gardens, the gravel or sand represents water and the larger rocks represent islands. Zen gardens are intended to be a personal project that reflects one’s own inner reflections. The patterns are best if they are original and from the owner. Copying the pattern of another zen garden goes against the spirit of the garden; though that does not mean you can’t get inspiration from them. (Source: Jpn Gardens)
This small zen garden has a small feature in the center with a single tree and some moss covered stone. Zen gardens can have a bit of greenery, but the majority of the garden should be focused on the gravel or sand. Source: Zillow Digs™
It is not required that your zen garden be landlocked. This interesting zen garden is out in the middle of a body of water. This makes an interesting and intriguing garden for sure.
This zen garden has a bench; while not typical of a zen garden, it does provide a great place to sit and relax. You can enjoy your raked patterns from this spot. Source: Zillow Digs™
A single tree is a great addition to a zen garden. It provides contrast but has plenty of organic and natural appeal.
If you have enough space, you can have a very large zen garden. Rather than representing islands with rocks you can have little islands hanging out among the sea of stones. Source: Mathieu Thouvenin / Flickr
Here is a zen garden with an interesting two-toned stone theme. This design has a very yin and yang feel.
Here is a classic, beautiful zen garden. The way the patterns radiate from the elements in the garden really show a water-like look in the gravel. This is the quintessential zen garden. Source: Selbe Lynn / Flickr
Here is another very representative zen garden. The variety of stones create an asymmetry and a natural balance at the same time.
Here is a zen garden with a lovely old stone lantern in the center. This lantern illustrates that the principles of wabi/sabi can still be shown in a zen garden. This piece is a perfect example of these principles in action. Source: Tetsushi Kimura / Flickr
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