How to create your own Japanese garden

Japanese garden

Japanese gardens are designed to provide a space of relaxation and meditation, and creating your own is an authentic route to an idyllic outdoor space. If you’re planning to create your own Japanese garden, this guide includes a summary of the different types you can take inspiration from, a few ‘how to’ steps on actually making your garden a reality, and some helpful tips along the way:

There are several types of Japanese gardens to choose from, and the first step is deciding which option is right for you.

Zen Garden (Karesansui) – If you’d prefer a dry garden, the ever-popular zen garden is arguably the best option. Also known as a Japanese rock garden, a zen garden is designed to go without water, and usually consists of boulders, sand, gravel and rocks.

In a Zen Garden, the different elements come together to depict a bigger picture. Boulders and rocks represent islands, whilst the sand and gravel represent water, with waves drawn within the sand to evoke a suitably aquatic atmosphere.

Courtyard Garden (Tsuboniwa) – If you have a smaller outdoor space, a courtyard garden is an ideal way to make the most of it. These gardens usually include non-flowering plants, dry streams (made of gravel or sand), and small water features such as fountains. Due to their quaintness, courtyard gardens are designed to be viewed and maintained, but not entered.

Strolling Garden For those with a larger plot of land, a strolling garden is perhaps the best option. Strolling Gardens were developed in Japan’s Edo period, and represent some of Japan’s most beautiful cultivated landscapes. These gardens typically include ponds, hills, islands and a circular trail, which allows visitors to experience the garden from different perspectives.

Tea Garden (Chaniwa) – A tea garden is typically split into two areas – the inner garden and outer garden – with a barrier dividing the two. This is usually made from a small gate or wall of rocks, and should have an opening to walk from the outer to inner garden.

Traditionally, the outer garden is meant to be pathway into a traditional tea ceremony, which takes place in the inner garden. It’s also worth noting that a tea garden can be on flat or hilly land. There should, however, always be a flat area for the tea house to sit on.

How to Create a Japanese Zen Garden

Choose a flat piece of land – Zen gardens are usually built on flat or levelled surfaces, and it’s important to ensure your garden is flat before you begin. If you don’t have a flat garden, you may need to level out the land with a carpenter’s level by digging and dirt packing. These gardens are usually made in the shape of a square for mediation purposes, so it’s key to make it the correct size.

When it comes to the planting, you’ll need to remove any grass or flowers from the area. You can leave natural moss, shrubbery and small trees however, as these are traditional elements of a zen garden.

Add the rock features – The first step is outlining the garden with rocks and boulders, to prevent sand and gravel from spilling out of the designated area. Once the rocks have been set out, layer 3-4 inches of gravel and sand around the middle section. Then, it’s time to decorate with additional rocks. Small groupings of varied sized rocks are typically positioned in appealing patterns to achieve the desired effect.

Incorporate plants and water designs – Zen gardens are more famous for their simplistic appeal than their foliage. However, it doesn’t mean they are a no-plant zone, and shrubbery, small trees and moss are natural elements you can include.

A traditional feature in zen gardens is the rake water designs in the gravel and sand, representing the flow of water. This look is easily achievable, and can be done with a standard garden rake. A rake with larger, wide-set teeth however will create a more legitimate wave design. The design is down to you – be creative as you want, and look to maintain and resculpt the water design each week.

How to Create a Japanese Courtyard Garden

Choose the best location – Despite the name, you don’t actually need a courtyard to create a courtyard garden. As these gardens are designed for limited and confined spaces, areas including terraces, porches and rooftops will be more than ideal spots.

Create the garden’s border – To begin your garden, you’ll need to create a border, defining the point at which the garden starts for any guests. This can be done with a combination of plants and rocks to suit your intended design.

Add your garden features – The last step in creating a courtyard garden is adding your chosen features. When it comes to plants, you’ll likely want to use those which require little to no sunlight, such as ferns and palm plants. Pot the plants, place them where you choose, and make a dry stream with sand and gravel to run through the garden. If you’d like any additional scenery, consider a small fountain, tree, or a few tactically positioned rocks.

How to Create a Japanese Strolling Garden

Choose a large plot of land – Strolling gardens require a lot more space than other Japanese gardens, and suit those who have a large backyard, or a private plot of land. If this is you, you’re in luck, as a strolling garden is a beautiful landscape to maintain. Strolling gardens can consist of everything from ponds and rivers to hills and pathways – and are a little more costly as a result.

Plan the garden – As strolling gardens are a much bigger project than the other Japanese garden types, you should map out on paper how you’d like the garden to look, and what work needs to be done. The main features – a pond, hills and strolling path – can all be easily incorporated if you plan it out correctly.

Create the garden – Once you’ve planned how everything looks, you can go ahead and create your own strolling garden. To make it look like a traditional strolling garden, you’d ideally need to incorporate artificial hills and bodies of water, which we’d recommend hiring a professional for. Artificial hills require adding mounds of packed dirt to your land and planting grass on top, whilst creating a pond or river can be slightly more challenging. You’ll need to dig out large chunks of land and transform them into bodies of water. Without professional help, the landscaping elements will prove pretty tricky.

After the main landscape tasks, you’ll need to build your strolling path. You can use a variety of materials to make your walkway; common choices include wooden planks, pebbles, gravel and large stepping stones.

Decorate the garden – Finishing touches are always the best part of a big project as you can see everything come together. Given the size and scale of these gardens, their decorative elements can be a lot more extravagant compared to other options. Incorporate everything from benches, statues, fountains, sculptures, plants and lanterns – the creativity is yours.

How to Create a Japanese Tea Garden

Prepare the outer garden – A tea garden is split into two areas: the outer and inner garden, with the outer garden serving as a pathway to the inner garden. This outer garden usually consists of a pathway, water features (such as a waterfall or fountain), and several simple plants. The pathways are typically made up of wooden planks or flat stones, and are big as the garden allows. As tea gardens are traditionally designed for tranquility, when decorating with plants, keep it natural.

Create the transition between the gardens – To separate the two gardens, you need to build a small gate or wall. This wall is sacred to the tea garden, because it represents the separation between the outside world and complete relaxation. You can either build a simple fence out of bamboo sticks, install a small wooden or metal gate, or create a wall out of rocks. The choice is yours, and you can pick whatever is most suitable for your own design purposes and budget.

To keep with tradition, you’ll need to include a cleansing area between the outer and inner gardens. Ritual cleansing takes place before a tea ceremony, and the stone water basin (known as a tsukubai) should be available for guests to wash their hands and face before entering the inner garden. These basins should be located at a low height so visitors can kneel and crouch to cleanse themselves before entering the inner garden.

Plant the inner garden – When the outer garden is complete and the wall is built, you can focus on planting the inner garden. As a space of tranquility and meditation, the garden should be kept quite simplistic, and should only use natural materials. Simple plants such as ferns, mosses and shrubs will accentuate these qualities, and should be easy to manage in future.

Build your tea house – After everything else is put in place, you’ll need to build the main feature: the tea house. This tea house should remain natural like the rest of the garden, and can easily be built using a wooden structure. Try to include a low table for you and your guests to enjoy your tea – and decorate with comfy cushions for the ultimate relaxing experience.


About the Author

Japeto is a family owned business who offer an extensive selection of handpicked, high quality Japanese gardening tools, developed for professional and amateur gardeners.