Japanese gardens – design ideas that will transform your outdoor space

Use the principles of Japanese gardening - and a careful selection of plants - to bring a little magic to your own outdoor space

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 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.

Related: Garden landscaping ideas: how to plan and create your perfect garden

Japanese gardens

Japanese gardens come in all shapes and sizes, from small courtyards 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 (see the Kingston Lacy garden, above) and are full of design and planting ideas that we can try for ourselves.

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.

Japanese gardens

Image credit: Mark Scott

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 colour to highlight a feature or celebrate the seasons rather than using it for its own sake. Here are some of our favourite plants for Japanese-style gardens.

1. Pinus thunbergii

Japanese gardens

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 favourite species for bonsai. It is hardy and loves full sun. Available from Dulford Nurseries.

2. Acer palmatum ‘Dissectum’

Japanese gardens

This fully hardy maple has clouds of soft feathery leaves in an exquisite shade of green, turning gold and orange in autumn. 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. Available from Crocus.

3. Rhododendron (Satsuki Group) ‘Gumpo White’

Japanese gardens

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. Available from Loder Plants.

4. Phyllostachys aureosulcata f. spectabilis

Japanese gardens

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. Available from Simpson’s Nurseries.

5. Ginkgo biloba

Japanese gardens

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

6. Prunus ‘Shogetsu’

Japanese gardens

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 autumn. Its lovely shape – it is considerably wider than it is tall – makes it a signature piece for any garden. Available from Mail Order Trees.

7. Iris ensata

Japanese gardens

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. Available from Jacksons Nurseries.

8. Polystichum polyblepharum

japanese gardens

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. Available from Gardening Express.

Credits and attributes

Lead shot

Kingston Lacy Gardens – Kingston Lacy Estate – Japanese Garden by Elliott Brown is licensed under CC by 2.0

1. commons.wikimedia.org

2. en.wikipedia.org

3. Rhododendron (Satsuki X) ‘White Gumpo’ by Cliff is licensed under CC by 2.0

4. Phyllostachys Aureosulcata ‘Spectabilis’ by Rob Young is licensed under CC by 2.0

5. Ornamental Trees

6. Mail Order Trees

7. Jacksons Nurseries

8. Gardening Express

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