Japanese garden ideas – the 11 design tips and 8 plants you need to create a zen backyard

Create a semblance of tranquility, serenity and peace within your garden by borrowing the techniques used in traditional Japanese garden design

Japanese garden ideas
(Image credit: Future / Annaick Guitteny)

Japanese gardens are works of art. Immaculate, serene and perfectly poised, these gardens have often taken a lifetime of study and devotion to produce. And while we may not have much time in our own lives to put aside for learning the gentle art of cloud pruning, intricate gravel maintenance or Kanso (the Japanese equivalent of Feng Shui), we can take inspiration from these life-affirming gardens to bring a little magic, reflection and quiet contemplation to our own outdoor spaces. 

Take a look at these wonderful Japanese gardens for more inspiration.

What is a Japanese garden?

Japanese gardens come in all shapes and sizes, from small courtyard gardens to the larger tea and stroll gardens that are designed to be walked around rather than viewed from a static spot. They can include ponds and islands, bridges, tea houses and dry landscapes of sand and gravel and are full of design and planting ideas that we can try for ourselves.

1. Introduce water into a Japanese style garden

Japanese garden ideas

(Image credit: Future / Mark Bolton )

Water is an essential element in a Japanese garden. Adding a water feature is a wonderful means of bring an extra dimension to the garden, providing a focal point and lending a sense of peace and tranquillity. The planting in and around it is vital to the overall effect as the water itself. Think of weeping willows bending down to the glass surface, or the color of Acer palmatum (maple) reflecting its fire-like gold and orange leaves across a pond or bowl. 

2. Preserve the moss and patina

Japanese garden ideas

(Image credit: Future / Michelle Garrett)

Long gone are the days of scrubbing ever stone, pathway or rockery to create a 'clean' surface. Japanese gardens are all about preserving the patina. Age and life equals wisdom, after all. In Japan, the moss garden is the latest trend for solving problems with patchy, yellow grass and overgrown lawns. 

‘Moss gardening is traditional in Japan and become increasingly popular in North-West and North America,’ says Guy Barter, chief horticulturist at the Royal Horticultural Society. Your garden should look as if it has been there for many years.

Read more about how to create a moss garden in our handy feature.

3. Embrace the Japanese concept of 'ma'

Japanese garden ideas

Ryoanji or the Temple of the Dragon at Peace is a Zen temple in northwest Kyoto. The temple and gardens are listed as Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto and as a UNESCO World

(Image credit: John S Lander / Contributor / Getty)

The Japanese garden is a process of distillation and serenity, so overcrowding your space for the sake of it is a huge faux pas in Japanese culture.

The Japanese concept of Ma is something that relates to all aspects of life. It has been described by many as a pause in time, an interval or emptiness in space. Ma is all about creating the sense of balance that has both movement and stillness. It is filled with nothing but energy and feeling.

In theory, dedicate your time and passion to your outdoor space. In practice, do resist the temptation to fill in every last corner of the garden. Being 'unfinished' isn’t a bad thing in this instance.

4. Keep the color palette consistent

Japanese garden ideas

The Japanese Gardens during the fall weather at The Royal Botanic Gardens Kew

(Image credit: Chris Jackson / Getty)

If you had to pick one color that’s essential to a Japanese garden, it would be green. Use a variety of green hues to create a sense of quiet and calm, a place that is restful, a million miles away from the hectic pace of daily life.

That is not to say that the Japanese do not like color in their gardens. In Japan, if there’s any sort of bright color, it’s one plant at a time. Think azaleas, iris and maple –it is all very singular.

5. Create movement with sand and gravel

Japanese garden ideas

Japanese Zen Temple Garden; Kyoto, Japan

(Image credit: Philippe Widling / Zuma Press / PA Images)

If you’d like to make the move towards minimalism in a garden, consider dedicating a space to a dry garden with no plants at all – just sand, gravel and granite.

You can use a rake to create patterns in the sand, and change the patterns from time to time to make the garden feel new. While any kind of gravel will work, decomposed granite is best for getting those sharply raked lines.

6. Incorporate gates and pathways

Japanese garden ideas

(Image credit: Future / Annaick Guitteny)

'Pathways are used in Japanese gardens to help the body and soul to wander,' says gardener David Domoney. 'Most Japanese gardens feature decorative paths, walkways and bridges that meander to unseen areas of the garden.'

Many Japanese gardens have gates that aren’t intended as physical barriers. A gate or bridge can give visitors a sense of discovery, and will make a garden feel bigger by dividing it. Each area should be subtly concealed from the next, yet there should also be a sense of connectivity and harmony.

7. Use stones and boulders to create a natural look

Japanese garden ideas

(Image credit: Future / Howard Walker)

Rocks are used to create islands, cliffs and mountains, and their shape and placement call for great expertise. You don’t want uniformity or consistency in stepping-stones; quite the opposite in fact. The best stones for an authentic Japanese garden are rounded on one side – and flat on the other – for being walked on. 

To make your own natural garden path or walkway, look to riversides, in the forest, or by the ocean for stones with the right kind of shape. 

8. Create a hypnotic water feature 

Japanese garden ideas

(Image credit: Future / Andrea Jones)

A pond is a requisite feature of most gardens, and it if it can be fed by a running stream, creating miniature waterfalls, so much the better. Ideally the stream should run from east to west, because purity is brought from the east. 

9. Understand the true nature of an authentic Japanese garden

Japanese garden ideas

Koraku-en, one of the three most famous gardens in Japan, with its pond, cherry trees, pine trees, tea pavilion and the black castle

(Image credit: Micha Pawlitzki / Getty)

While wanting to create a zen garden is a universal thought, ultimately one should never borrow from another culture without truly understanding its significance throughout history.

A Japanese garden reflects the complex character of a people for whom symbolism is seen in commonplace objects. To Westerners, it seems to lack color. But for the Japanese, a garden is not a place for growing flowers, still less for making geometrical patterns of shape and color in formal beds. 

The classical Japanese garden is a landscape, artificially contrived, and redolent of symbolism. Contour and contrast are everything; color is unimportant, except for a small accent. The garden is an extension of the house, and the verandah or patio – a platform from which to view the landscape and contemplate its meaning. 

10. Plant a traditional Japanese iris

Japanese garden ideas

(Image credit: Future / Annaick Guitteny)

Since the Japanese iris was first introduced to America in the late 19th century, it has become an essential part of many transatlantic gardens. Breeders began work almost immediately to increase the rate and improve the features of this exquisite new plant. The colors are also richer, due to an increased flower pigmentation. Such is the regard for the Japanese iris in America that entire gardens, such as the Ensata Gardens in Michigan, are dedicated to their culture, and attract thousands of visitors. 

Ideally, they look best beside water, where their reflections create a shimmering duplication and, more importantly, the roots can remain constantly damp. This is the secret to growing Japanese iris, and even a small garden pond could be enriched by a few of these irises planted around the edge. 

11. Take inspiration from imperfection

Japanese garden ideas

(Image credit: Future / Jennifer Ebert)

Aligning with the new awareness of the old Japanese philosophy of wabi sabi (or beauty and wisdom in imperfection), designer Chris Beardshaw made a dramatic statement in his Show Garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2019. The most captivating feature, in our opinion, was the wonderfully wonky pine tree, leaning on its own crutch. Its unconventional shape meant it was rejected by other gardeners, but it was exactly this unusual form which made the designer want to use it. 

How do you make a simple Japanese garden? 

Start by thinking about how people will experience your garden and design with that in mind. Imagine how they will get from one point to another and include a pathway that, when followed, will reveal and screen particular views as they travel through. Look beyond the confines of your garden and design with its backdrop in mind, using planting to screen off less attractive features and using more pleasing ‘borrowed scenery' to enhance your design. 

Think about including water and guide your visitors over and around it using rocks and large flat stones as low-level bridges – the combination of water and rock represents the essential forces of life and nature and is a staple of Japanese gardens. Also – creating a water feature brings something really special to the garden, encouraging wildlife and offering the opportunity to introduce new flowers and foliage.

How to plant a Japanese garden

When it comes to planting, include lots of evergreens, but ensure your mix of greens is subtle and interesting and includes different textures. Focus on foliage over flowers and bring in color to highlight a feature or celebrate the seasons rather than using it for its own sake. Here are some of our favorite plants for Japanese-style gardens.

1. Pinus thunbergii

The Japanese black pine is an ornamental tree that's full of character with its irregular shape, stunning silhouette and lovely dark green foliage. A favorite species for bonsai. It is hardy and loves full sun. 

2. Acer palmatum 'Dissectum'

This fully hardy maple has clouds of soft feathery leaves in an exquisite shade of green, turning gold and orange in fall. It is slow growing, has a naturally domed compact shape and doesn't require pruning, making it a good choice for smaller gardens and containers. Position so that it is protected from strong winds. 

3. Rhododendron (Satsuki Group) 'Gumpo White'

Evergreen azalea that bears beautiful late-flowering single white and pink blooms. It is low growing (maximum height 50cm) and fully hardy as long as it has adequate shelter. Protect in severe weather as it can suffer damage. 

4. Phyllostachys aureosulcata f. spectabilis

Stunning vivid yellow bamboo that starts life as a young bushy plant and transforms to full maturity remarkably quickly. It is clump forming so less invasive than other varieties and (at five to seven metres tall with a one to three-metre spread in 10 years) is big enough to provide full screening. Loves sun and partial shade. 

5. Ginkgo biloba

The maidenhair tree is a hardy specimen that looks as stunning in spring and summer as it does in fall. Its beautiful fan-shaped leaves turn from verdant green to a truly show-stopping yellow in the fall. Can be a statement piece in any garden as it can grow to 10 metres in 20 years. 

6. Prunus 'Shogetsu'

Also known as Blushing Bride, 'Shogetsu' is widely acknowledged to be one of the most beautiful flowering cherries thanks to its pendant clusters of pink buds that turn into white blossom and hang all along the branches come April. The mid-green summer foliage turns orange to red in the fall. Its lovely shape – it is considerably wider than it is tall – makes it a signature piece for any garden. 

7. Iris ensata

The Japanese water iris has pretty, violet butterfly-like flowers. Perfect for waterside planting as it loves those moist, poorly drained areas of the garden and is happy in partial shade or full sun. It is early to mid-summer flowering. 

8. Polystichum polyblepharum

Japanese lace or tassel fern that creates superb ground cover in partial or full shade. Remains evergreen or semi-evergreen in milder areas and has lovely glossy deep green leaves. Trim back old fronds before the new ones unfurl.