Design Ideas for Japanese Gardens

The Japanese Influence

The term "Japanese Gardens" has a different meaning for most people. For some, it conjures up images of plants trimmed into little balls, for others, an image of lanterns and waterfalls. A real Japanese Garden can inlcude both of these images but it is much much more.

The Japanese influence is one of an appreciation of nature, and the garden reflects that. The plants may be pruned in a layered style, but never pruned into un-natural forms.

The Japanese garden shows a love for the natural form. Waterfalls, stones, lanterns and other elements are used to support the natural beauty of the garden.

We have a couple of wonderful, inspirational examples of Japanese Gardens, one is in Pasadena, CA and the other in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.

Click on this link to see the Japanese Gardens at The Huntington Library & Gardens, over a hundred years old, it is a treasure.

The oldest Japanese Garden in the United States, located in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, this garden is a wonderful display of the techniques used to create a peaceful, serene garden with incredible beauty.

I encourage you to check out both of these sites and read about how they were created and look at the photos, they will inspire you!


These influences can be used as a subtle accent in a garden, in a small planter, even just a solitary pot on a deck. Or it can be an all-out Japanese Garden with all the elements typically associated with it.

My goal here is to educate you enough so that you may learn about and appreciate the true elements of Japanese Gardens so that you may download one of my free designs and use it as is, or preferably, use it to design your own space to reflect your own taste and preferences.

Use of Plants in the Japanese Garden

Plants make up one third of the basic framework of a Japanese Garden; stone, plants and water. Plants are the only part of this equation that changes, the plants grow and mature offering interest as they go through their life cycle.

One thing to keep in mind when considering plants is to keep it simple. Keep your plant pallet to just a few varieties to keep unity.

The use of a few trees, shrubs and accents keeps the garden simple and relaxing to look at. Repeating the same plants throught the garden creates unity.

Trees: When considering trees first you must use trees that grow in your climate zone. Then use a combination of evergreens in the background with a few decidous ones to add fall and winter interest.

Japanese Maples are a great candidate for their form, which suggests a strong Asian influence.


Shrubs: Shrubs plant in important role in the Japanese Garden, they provide a transition from structures to the garden, they provide color, and with their varied forms, provide interest.

To keep things from becoming boring, try adding some contours to your landscape. When doing so, please don't commit the big no no, planting something right smack dab on top of the hills!

Instead, plant the trees and shrubs around the sides of the contours, accenting and strengthening them.

There are shrubs that suggest an Asian theme in any garden, and including one or more of them will help to reinforce that feeling in your garden. They are;

  • Bamboo
  • Azalea
  • Juniper
  • Heavenly Bamboo 
  • Podocarpus

Flowering shrubs should be used sparingly as they can
easily overpower the garden.

Ground covers: Plants that grow more horizontally and cover the ground play a strong role in Japanese Gardens. Plants like;

  • Ajuga
  • Scotch and Irish moss
  • Mondo Grass
  • Korean Grass

will all lend an Asian feel, keep the weed population down, conserve the moisture in the ground and contribute to an overall cool, peaceful feeling to the space.

The Presence of Water

No Japanese Garden would be complete without the presence of water. Now, don't despair, I know some of you are thinking you would never want the maintenance that goes along with a waterfall, pond or stream and you are right, there is a certain amount of maintenance that goes along with those water features.

The good news for those of you that don't treasure the thought of running water, is there is an alternative, dry streambeds and ponds.

You know, it's like looking at the pond or streambed after the rains are gone and all that is left is the rocks and pebbles. Japanese Gardens are famous for creating dry streambeds to suggest the presence of water.

If you do decide to go with a real water feature, it needs to be natural looking with stones and plants on the sides, no tile or exposed concrete.

You also need to plan on designing your feature to include a recirculating pump and filter so your water is clean, always moving and does not become stagnant. I do not have the space here to go into water feature construction but there are plenty of sites on the internet that can teach you.

If you go the dry route, remember you need to keep it just as natural, using stone. Design the pond or streambed to have a natural, free form shape, never straight lines and don't use perfect circles either.

Make your stream meander and wind from one destination to another, never from the middle of nowhere to another nowhere. Start from a corner, rock outcropping or a secluded area and take it to the pond or it have it disappear into an area of plants where you are not sure where it went.

In building the dry stream or pond, a few basic rules apply. Contour the land so that there is an indentation where the pond is or a shallow ditch for the stream.

Lay down landscape fabric to keep weeds from growing through and then start with larger stones at the edges and work your way into the center using gradually smaller rocks and then finally, use gravel in the middle.

This will create a very natural looking feature. Of course make sure you use the same type of stone throughout so the color is consistent.

Waterfalls can be simulated with a placement of 2 larger stones installed vertically next to each other with a small gap between and a smaller horizontal stone over which the water would spill over.

This can be repeated with smaller stones going down a hillside to suggest a series of waterfalls coming down the hill. Connect each with streams built as described above.

Paths & Walkways


Paths and walkways are a key ingredient in Japanese Gardens. Always use natural materials, do you notice here that I am always stressing natural materials?

A meandering path can invite you to walk through the garden and depending on the way it is laid out, can encourage you to
pause and look at a particular area of interest.

Paths can be made of stones, cut tree rounds, or gravel and should take the visitor from one place to another, never from somewhere to nowhere. It should guide them to the best views in the garden and do so in a way as to make the journey fun and relaxed, not in a hurry.

You can use a combination of materials, it can follow a streambed and cross it with a stone or if it is a wider stream, cross it with a bridge of some sort.

Stone paths should be made with varying sizes of stones, mix large ones with small and medium ones.

You can combine stones that are squares and rectangles with a wood edging. This would be good for a path that needs to handle more traffic than a path that will take visitors on a stroll through the garden.

If you do have to use concrete, you can "seed" it with pebbles to give it a more natural look. Mexican Beach Pebbles lend themselves to this very well.

If you use redwood 2 x 4's for the concrete forms and leave them in place after the concrete cures, this makes a very nice, natural looking paved area.

Japanese Influences that Work in any Garden

The principles and ideas presented here, can work in almost any garden. They are good, sound landscaping principles and would improve any garden.

If there is a planter that you don't know what to do with, you can design a little Asian inspired landscape there. The use of stone, plants and water would benefit any garden and make it more relaxing, and more friendly.

Even using certain plants like Japanese Maple, Pines or Heavenly Bamboo can lend an Asian influence to your yard.

Trimming a Japanese Black Pine into a layered look will bring a bit of the Orient to your home. A relaxing area can be created with a simple bench next to a stone lantern, an Azalea and a low growing Juniper with a nice boulder.


So I hope you have learned something here that will help you with your Japanese Garden design for your whole yard or with just a corner of your landscape. Or maybe you were just curious and this is just enough to wet your whistle and make you curious to learn more.

You might want to just start with a pot with a Japanese Black Pine and clump of Mondo Grass growing at the base and a couple of Mexican Beach Pebbles to suggest an Asian feel to a front entry.

Whatever is the case, I hope you will try at least one of our donwloadable free designs for whatever might interest you, or design your own. Check back as we will be adding more designs soon. You can create a space in your yard that will be a place of rest and restoration and a place of beauty that you can be proud of.

Return from Japanese Gardens to the previous page

Return from Japanese Gardens to the HOME page