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Japanese gardens offer four seasons of beauty -- unlike English-style perennial borders which peak in the summer and completely disappear by late fall. They rely on the use of evergreen plant material and are planned to soothe, rather than stimulate the senses. They work well in small spaces and can be very low-maintenance in their simplest forms.
The underlying philosophy of Japanese gardens is to recreate the natural landscape of Japan in miniature (usually in the form of a mountainscape with waterfalls and tumbling streams). This ‘distant view of nature’ gives the style much of its current appeal. What many Americans appreciate about the Japanese style of gardening is the use of boulders and the water features. People really seem to admire those elements.

There is an overwhelming number of plants, native not only to Asia but to the United States, that are suitable for Japanese-inspired gardens. Here are a few guidelines:

Limit the number of varieties. Repeating a few species throughout the garden creates a sense of continuity, which is especially important in smaller spaces.

Work with a controlled palette. Let shades of green predominate for most of the year. This style is more about form than opulence. Incidental color in the form of flowers or berries is used to show the passing of the seasons, but should be handled through a few well-placed specimens.

Use contrast. Again, this is about form and texture: a low mass of azaleas beneath the height and open branches of a dogwood; the broad leaves of a maple next to a pine’s spiky needles.

Plan for all seasons. Evergreen shrubs are the backbone of the Japanese garden; many do double-duty by producing seasonal blooms. Certain flowering perennials, such as iris and hellebores, also offer attractive foliage year-round. When using herbaceous plants such as hosta and ferns, incorporate them into rock groupings to avoid blank spots in the winter landscape.

Learn basic bonsai techniques. These can be applied to pines and other trees planted in open ground not only to limit their size in small gardens, but to achieve the aged, gnarled form that is characteristic of the style.

Well-done Japanese gardens tend to impart a feeling of antiquity and timelessness. Nothing gives the patina of age to a newly-placed boulder or stone lantern like moss. In a humid climate, moss will eventually settle in on its own. If you’re impatient, it’s possible to hasten the process by digging moss specimens from a wooded area and carefully transplanting them. Keep them moist until they settle in.

In Japanese gardens, water should take a form that is natural; not contrived. It can be a pond, a bubbling stream or a cascading waterfall, but not a fountain. Water brings another dimension to the garden by masking undesirable noises, providing a home for fish and attracting wildlife.

Where the use of water is impractical because of cost or maintenance issues, a dry riverbed can symbolize water. These features are created with gravel and the smoothest stones possible and, from a design standpoint, have the same function as water itself-- not only to act as negative space, introducing the element of contrast when juxtaposed with planted areas; but to lend a theme to the landscape, allowing the use of plants that would normally grow in a waterside location. If skillfully planned, a dry streambed can create the illusion that the water has dried up, suggesting that rain will bring it to life again.

Requiring more maintenance than the dry stream is the raked gravel “sea” of the Zen-inspired garden. The patterns made by the rake suggest the eddies and currents of water around rocks.

Tastefully placed, ornaments can help create the mood of a Japanese garden, and perhaps none is so popular as the Japanese stone lantern. Once used with candles to provide light for tea ceremonies, a concrete version is now readily available from many garden centers.