June 3rd, 2009
Spirit of a Japanese Garden

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?

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.

by M Sinclair Stevens

16 Responses to post “Spirit of a Japanese Garden”

  1. From Pam/Digging:

    Thank you for explaining the defining features of the Japanese garden in such detail. I just visited the very nice one in Chicago Botanic Garden and enjoyed it, but Japanese gardens are still somewhat foreign to me. The rigorously clipped greenery generally does not please me. However, I do love the naturalistic peace of the garden, and your photos illustrate this marvelously. I think my favorite, like yours, is the “fairy circle” of lawn with the little water feature.

    By the way, have you read the blog Each Little World, which shows a garden that is reminiscent of a Japanese garden while using a midwestern plant palette and hardscaping materials? I find Mark and Linda’s garden to be very inspiring.

    Thanks for the head up on Each Little World. I’m not big on clipped hedges (or any hedges, I guess) either, but I do like to keep my fine-leaved basil, Mexican oregano, and parsley clipped. And I love to prune trees so that their trunks are all twisty. Or rosemary bushes. I’m going to have to see if I can find any photos of regular Japanese yards (as opposed to a tea gardens). — mss

  2. From Carol, May Dreams Gardens:

    Excellent post, one to come back to and read many times. I’m always trying to think about and understand why one garden draws me in, whereas others leave me standing at the gate saying, “that’s nice”. Your explanation of Japanese gardens will certainly make me explore the next one I encounter with a better sense of the thought that goes into a well done one.

    One of the things I like about writing is that it forces me to analyze an experience in order to articulate it enough to understand it. Blogging adds another level of motivation because I want to share my discoveries with my friends. If I weren’t writing about a garden, I’d probably hurry through it and give it only superficial attention, marveling over the big features and not really seeing it. But when I write, even if it is just for myself, I have to ask myself why I like this and why I hate that and pay attention to how certain effects are achieved. In order to articulate my feelings, I have to pay attention and scrutinize my reactions. Some people have argued that this means I don’t know how to “just be”. For me, “just being” is a pretty empty experience. I want to do more than look; I want to see. I want to delve into the why of everything. — mss

  3. From Mr. McGregor's Daughter:

    Great post! Japanese Gardens aren’t my favorites (I love flowers and a wild exuberance), but their design principles are adaptable to other types of gardens. Your explanations are very helpful.

    I can imagine a Texas Mountain Laurel fulfilling the position of a Japanese Maple in your garden, it’s beautiful flowers, and interesting pods dangling down would make a great reflection.

    I have a split personality. I love flowers and wild exuberance in the spring and the fall. But come summer, I just feel the need for some wide open spaces. I long for the greens Austin will never have in the summer (although some spend copious amounts of precious water trying). So barring that I just want space and room to breathe. What would be really lovely would be a summer cottage in Wales. Then I could have those saturated greens and abundant flowers at the same time. My sister-in-law would remind me that most of the time it’s just saturated. I thought of a Texas mountain laurel, too. It’s evergreen and could be pruned into an interesting shape. — mss

  4. From Vertie:

    I feel cooler (temp wise) just reading this. I’ve visited that garden but certainly did not glean as much from it as you. Next time I’ll look at it with these ideas in mind. Thanks for the tour!

  5. From Carrie, N.Ireland:

    Goodness, I loved my visit to Japan, we stayed in Kyoto for 13 days and I was in love. The gardens there are so calming you are right, but wow, you have actually managed to describe it so well! The photos are beautiful, goodness now I’m desperate to get back to Japan and soak it all in again. Pity about the cost and distance…

    You’re right, it is hard to bring elements of garden styles you love into your own place but we have a good few bamboos and a couple of stunning little acers to help us remember.

  6. From Linda Lehmusvirta Austin Texas:

    How beautiful! Your writing, your perceptions, and your photographs. Very inspiring.

    I agree with you heartily that the garden jumble that I certainly create has me wishing for something more elegant, focused, and restrained. You are right on the mark about that claustrophobic feeling.

    Thanks for the encouragement. As the temperatures rise, I’m always tempted to just pull everything out and strip the garden to its bones. Our winters don’t do that for us automatically so the only way we can get a moment’s (visual) rest in the garden is to do it ourselves during our dead season–summer. — mss

  7. From Annie in Austin:

    Wow. You really paid attention when you lived in Japan, MSS. It’s amazing what you now see in Japanese gardens, and I thank you for trying to help us see it, too.

    We’ve been to quite a few Japanese-style gardens across the US, of varying ages and sizes and during repeat visits watched the staggering feat of construction that resulted in the Japanese islands at the Chicago Botanical Garden. We’ve never deliberately tried to copy one but maybe some of your elements sneaked into the subconscious?

    Clipped evergreens turned me off when I was young, but rounded boxwoods and myrtles please me now and so do layers with see-through plants. (also was a diorama fan- especially those at the Field Museum).

    From the time you come in our back gate everything is supposed to make you choose paths and stroll to the far end to discover the Secret Garden – got the strolling in, anyway!

    Do my amateur attempts at cloud-pruning white crepe myrtles have something to do with leaving space?

    Green shade is here courtesy of those pecans, as long as you don’t expect perfection in the lawn.

    I want my garden to dance – how does one do this? “The plants are distinct individuals but they are organized so that they flow into each other, echoing shapes and weaving patterns, harmonizing like dancers.”

    Philo read this post too, and appreciates how you’ve analyzed these elements. He says he’s always felt comfortable walking in Japanese gardens and thought it was odd to feel at home in a place so different from his idea of an ideal garden.

    Your comments on the intimate arrangements of rocks near the water feature make me realize that it’s hard to see the elements when one concentrates on maintenance. Zen can’t be reached until I can see the beauty in that scene instead of wondering how the heck they can mow the grass.

    Good luck with getting a Texas native to fill in for a Japanese maple. So few natives have attractive leaves and something like a Barbados Cherry would drop fruit in the water. Maybe a single-trunked Mexican redbud?

    Your fan forever,

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose
    (Sure hope you meant it when you said you like long comments)

    I do like long comments especially when they are as thoughtful as yours. Yes, the maintenance in a Japanese garden is daunting and a bit off-putting. I certainly felt that way after going to a lecture on the Adachi Museum Gardens where they employ a staff of gardeners working 14 hour days every day of the year. Rocks or flagstones in St. Augustine grass would be gobbled up in a month. But what if you did that same arrangement in mulch? or a bed of silver ponyfoot? Rather than clipping box, use naturally architectural plants like yuccas or agaves or barrel cactus. Linda L and I were talking about how this garden manages to weave succulents into a very harmonious design. I’m not sure how to do that weaving together of elements myself. I understand the concepts theoretically but I can’t figure out how to put them into practice. And like you I find it hard to imagine a good substitute for a Japanese maple. But something with a twisty interesting trunk, like Texas persimmon, might work. An evergreen that didn’t drop leaves would be better, maintenance wise. Yaupon holly? I remember the first time I visited your garden I was very attracted to how you pruned up the bush (was it a holly) on the side of your house by the gate to show of its twisted trunk. I’d say you did pick up some of the concepts by osmosis. — mss

  8. From ryublade - baton rouge, la:

    I love the Botanical Gardens in San Fran. Ah, The memories of that beautiful garden that your post brought back. When I was in Tokyo, I was able to visit several shrines and garden spots, including the Royal Gardens. They were so serene that it was hard to believe they exist side by side with the hustle and bustle of Tokyo downtown. When I travel, the Botanical Gardens are my favorites sight seeing spots.

  9. From Pam/Digging:

    Texas persimmon *would* be a good choice–that white trunk would make a beautiful accent. Also, if you’re willing to water a bit more, the variegated, taller abutilons are lovely for shade. Even variegated pittosporum can be pruned up over time, with twisting trunks. Remember the beautiful specimen over the waterfall in the Zilker Japanese garden?

    And clumping bamboos would add all-season interest and a definite Japanese flavor. Golden goddess. Mexican weeping bamboo. Linda said that CTG this weekend would have Meredith from the Great Outdoors talking about clumping bamboos, and I’m going to have to watch it in reruns somehow.

    You can watch Central Texas Gardener on YouTube or for much better quality, download the podcast free from iTunes. I intend to plant bamboo as a screen in the planter (where it can be contained) by my front window…after we have our windows replaced. –mss

  10. From Bob Pool:

    Your pictures are just stunning. It really shows the flow from one group of plants to the next so your eye takes in the total area of the palette, the same as a fine painting. Every view leads your eyes around.

    I think a Red Bud would look nice around the pond, the shiny leafed variety. My Mother’s pond had one close by that had grown when the cedars were thicker and it was long of trunk and twisted where it had searched for light among those cedars. I always thought it looked oriental by the pond, with it’s shiny green leaves and smooth, nearly white bark.

    A Texas redbud (I think that’s the one with shiny leaves vs the Easter redbud) would be nice especially because the tree has a horizontal habit. I’m still musing on the practicality, though. I just got rid of a tree near the pond because it was so messy. I don’t look forward to having to fish out a lot of leaves and other tree detritus. The Japanese style does seem very high-maintenance. — mss

  11. From Pamela Price/San Antonio:

    Layering… I love when it’s done well in gardens and parks. We had good luck achieving eye-pleasing layers in Louisiana and, to some extent, in the front bed here. The back yard? Not so much. But we’ve got time.

  12. From Dee/reddirtramblings:

    MSS, reading this post and gazing at the pictures made me think, “aah.” This post is really worthy of an article in a major garden magazine. Your prose and photos blended seamlessly.~~Dee

    Thanks for your vote of confidence. I know you write for various garden pubs so your praise means a lot. — mss

  13. From Antigonum Cajan:

    As an Creative Horticultural Critic, I believe
    that excessive pruning in Zen gardening should
    be questioned.
    It looks busy and artificial.
    In my humble opinion. The question arises:
    Could the essence of this type of garden
    be kept without such? Until next.

  14. From ryan:

    This is a good read. I’m currently installing gardens for two different clients who say they like “Japanese” gardens, so it’s helpful to see someone else’s take on it. My attempts end up looking more like naturalistic California with a hint of Japanese influence, rather than a true Japanese garden.

    There’s a California landscape architect, I can’t remember which one, who claims he was told by some clients that they wanted a Japanese garden and replied, “well, do you have some land in Japan?” A rather in-your-face attitude, but I can sympathize. A LOT of people out here ask for Japanese gardens, and it’s an interesting challenge to figure out not just what makes a Japanese garden, but also what other people mean by Japanese.

    I really like the photo with the stones in the grass.

    I think I would like your approach. I’d get frustrated too if I were a designer. You really have to be good about getting clients to explore their ideas…Is it plant choice, flowerless gardens, lots of gravel, Japanese-type decoration, emphasis on stone and water? Not all English gardens are going to look like Sissinghurst, either. West coast style has been influenced by Japanese immigrants and over time has been transformed so much it simply looks mid 20th century modern rather than like Japanese kitsch. That is, I don’t think that many people who want a Japanese “touch” are thinking about putting tanuki in their garden. In my mind that’s like the pink flamingo of Japanese culture. In Japan, itself, super modern gardens look quite different than the stereotypical palace or tea garden. — mss

  15. From joco:

    Well spotted: finally somebody taking a good look. I reckoned that if I turned the real tree sideways, I might as well turn the symbol upside down with the roots in the air. (I still think of these as Chinese more than Japanese: tete de bois)

  16. From M Sinclair Stevens:

    Dateline: 2018-05-21. Checked out a book on Japanese Master Garden to help me frame a response to my disappointment in Monty Don’s tour of Japanese gardens…and almost immediately I find my own thoughts voiced; that is, one of the important elements of Japanese garden design is how space (as well as light) flows.