Japanese Tea Garden San Francisco
What come to mind when you think of a Japanese garden? clipped shrubbery, twisted trees, raked gravel, stone latterns, koi ponds, bamboo forests, red pagodas, Japanese iris?

June 3rd, 2009
Spirit of a Japanese Garden

During my visit to San Francisco, I returned to the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park.

Gardeners visit gardens not just to ooh and aah but to find inspiration and maybe learn a few useful tricks that we can apply in our own gardens. Most of us, I think, attribute a sense of calm to Japanese design. I turn to my own garden to ground and soothe me. So it’s natural to wonder what makes a Japanese garden serene.

Having lived in Japan, I’m always curious about Japanese gardens (especially in Western countries) although I have no desire to replicate a Japanese garden in my central Texas back yard. I’m not looking to bring “a touch of Japan” into my garden in a decorative or superficial (I mean surface, here, not frivolous) way. However, I think the underlying principles of Japanese design can be applied without mimicry or parody. After all, the original Japanese gardens celebrate native plants and local materials. I think what particularly attracts me about Japanese design is how the essential nature of each element is revealed and revered.


Music has been defined as “the space between the notes”. Although I love the muss of English-style cottage garden during Austin’s cool springs, when the weather turns hot and humid, that style make me feel claustrophobic.

In Japanese gardens, foliage is often removed from plants both to reveal the beauty of the trunk but also to provide glimpses of what lies beyond. I love this peek-a-boo effect, a tension between mystery and revelation.

Japanese Garden Space

The resulting airiness provides a sense of relief during our muggy summers when I feel the need to let me and the plants have some room to breathe.

We avid collectors have the tendency to stuff plants in wherever they will fit. A Japanese garden demonstrates that negative space, empty spaces, are important to the overall design. This concept is harmony with the Texas landscape which is all about space. A single oak tree silhouetted against the horizon is emblematic of our oak savannah.


Japanese gardens can be viewing gardens, where the composition is framed though a window or arch, or strolling gardens. In a strolling garden the view shifts as you walk, emphasizing how gardens are constantly changing as we move through time and space.

The strolling garden is arranged so that you always wonder what’s around the next bend in the path.

Japanese Garden Strolling

Although Japanese and Italianate gardens both emphasize well-clipped shrubbery instead of flowers, they organize the plants in almost antithetical styles. Italianate gardens favor straight lines, geometric layouts, and repetition. To me, the plants line up like soldiers on parade. Japanese gardens prefer sinuous lines, naturalistic layouts, and focus on a specimen plants. The plants are distinct individuals but they are organized so that they flow into each other, echoing shapes and weaving patterns, harmonizing like dancers.

Layered Views

As a child I was fascinated with dioramas and how you could use glimpses through layers of interest to create different views as you changed perspective.

Japanese Garden Layered Views

No matter where you look the plants form a pleasing composition but they are also arranged in a way that makes you want to crane your neck and see what’s behind them.


Coming from a brown, drought-stricken land, I am happy to drink in all this green. Most people when they start out to garden envision flowers or veggies. To create a garden that focuses on neither sounds a bit boring, doesn’t it? Why not just leave the lawn? But like fellow Texan Allen Lacy, I often dream of a lying In a Green Shade

Japanese Garden Texture
I’m never going to find these saturated greens in Austin, but I can work harder to emphasize the shape and texture of our native plants. Central Texas gardeners certainly have a lot of choices when it comes to texture and great architectual shapes. At the Springs Preserve in Las Vegas, they arrange golden barrel cacti as if they were clipped box shrubs.


I know lawns are out but I love this one. Perhaps it isn’t actually a lawn since you can’t walk on it. It’s just grass used as a ground cover.

Japanese Garden Ornament

What really draws me to this spot is the way the stones are arranged around the water feature as if they just came to be there. This space is highly structured but it also feels natural. There’s a rhythm in the way that the little island of stones around the water feature echoes the shape of the island in the white gravel sea. There is something intimate and secret about this place. I feel like I’ve stumbled into a fairy circle.


Japanese Garden Reflection

I have one water feature in my garden but it just sits alone and disconnected. I’m going to have to think about how to use its reflective surface to emphasize something beautiful growing over it. The ideal would be a Japanese maple but I’d prefer a Texas native, something that would evoke a rare Texas oasis.


The one aspect integral to the Japanese style that I’ll never master is neatness. Neatness is not my strength in any provence of my life. Well-defined paths, tidily mulched beds, trimmed bushes and trees result in a sense of control over the chaos of nature which I think is part of the human impulse. We seek to organize our environment and such organization brings a sense of calm. And when things are all hemmed in, there is a delightful moment when they spill over again. Flowers burst into bloom. Vines tumble over a fence. Leaves fall. The garden is still only in photographs.