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10 Ideas for Designing a Japanese-Inspired Garden, with Marc Keane

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10 Ideas for Designing a Japanese-Inspired Garden, with Marc Keane

March 25, 2019

Maybe you love the look of a Japanese garden, but you’re thinking, “I already have a garden. How can I make what I have look more Japanese without starting from scratch?”

Fear not. We have some great advice from landscape architect Marc Peter Keane, an expert on Japanese gardens who’s written six books on the subject. American-born, Keane lived in Japan for 20 years and goes back regularly to visit family with his Japanese wife. He now lives in upstate New York and designs Japanese gardens around the US.

The photos shown here, taken by Keane in historical gardens around Japan, appear in his latest book, Japanese Garden Notes: A Visual Guide to Elements and Design, published by Stone Bridge Press. Read on to hear his ideas for creating the Japanese look at home.

Photography by Marc Peter Keane.

1. Create open spaces.

 Less is more: In the traditional karesansui, or stone garden, at Ryoan-ji Temple in Kyoto, the only growing thing is a ring of moss around each stone.
Above: Less is more: In the traditional karesansui, or stone garden, at Ryoan-ji Temple in Kyoto, the only growing thing is a ring of moss around each stone.

“Japanese garden design is a process of distillation,” says Keane, explaining that what’s left out is as important as what is put in—if not more so. “Open space, or ma in Japanese, creates the sense of balance that has both movement and stillness. Resist the temptation to fill in every last corner of the garden.”

When you think about it, much Japanese design incorporates open or empty space—you see it not only in gardens but also in paintings and flower arrangements. Being unfinished isn’t a bad thing.

Be aware of this in your garden: When you don’t stuff every corner, individual elements have a chance to shine. Make your garden look more Japanese by taking things out.

2. Simplify the color palette.

 The most important part of the Japanese garden is its forms, and they’re green.
Above: The most important part of the Japanese garden is its forms, and they’re green.

“If you had to pick one color that’s essential to a Japanese garden, it would be green,” says Keane. Layers of green in subtle varieties create a feeling of calm.

“Westerners are so focused on their perennial borders and the layering of multiple colors,” he says. “In Japan, if there’s any sort of bright color, it’s one plant at a time. When the plum is in flower, that’s the only thing in flower. It’s the same for the azaleas and the iris. It’s very singular and it’s brief—gone within a week.”

3. Prune with purpose.

 Pruning a mass of plants to look like a flowing landscape has long been popular in Japan.
Above: Pruning a mass of plants to look like a flowing landscape has long been popular in Japan.

The practice is done most effectively with Satsuki azalea—a small-leafed variety common in Japan (and available in the US, though not hardy enough for all growing areas). “If it’s done properly, the pruning creates mounded forms that rise and fall in the hummocks and valleys,” Keane says. “When the plants come up against a stone or a garden lantern, they wrap around it and seem to embrace it.”

Boxwood and small-leafed yew also respond to this type of pruning. “You want something with fine branches for an even cover of green leaves,” Keane says, adding that people sometimes mass in perennials such as chrysanthemums to make these tightly mounded forms.

When asked about cloud pruning, Keane admits that he’s not a fan. “I find it stiff and unnatural, like topiary,” he says. “In Kyoto, the old imperial city where things are done in the most refined manner, trees are never pruned that way.”

4. Frame the view.

 Sliding doors offer many possibilities to create framed views, as they can be opened or closed as you want. Here, the four panes of clear glass capture four separate elements of the garden.
Above: Sliding doors offer many possibilities to create framed views, as they can be opened or closed as you want. Here, the four panes of clear glass capture four separate elements of the garden.

“Think of the garden view seen from a nearby room as if it’s a painting,” Keane says. This advice is best heeded when you’re in the design stage, but you can also keep it in mind as you add plantings or make other changes. “The trick is to compose the garden in such a way that when it’s seen through the frame of a window or doorway, it’s artfully balanced.”

5. Preserve the patina.

 In part, the beauty of a Japanese garden comes from what happens as its elements age and weather.
Above: In part, the beauty of a Japanese garden comes from what happens as its elements age and weather.

“Moss on a water basin and lichen on a stone lantern are a precious gift that only time can grant,” Keane says. He’s found that many Westerners constantly scrub to keep things looking like new. “Don’t think of something that looks old as being shabby,” he says. “In Japan the patina of age is one of the most prized aesthetic additions to a garden.”

Note: This doesn’t let you off the hook for all garden maintenance. If a wooden deck becomes slippery and dangerous, or a gate won’t open, you’ll need to step in. But if weathering doesn’t cause a functional problem, it is a very good thing.

6. Pave with stone.

You don’t want uniformity in stepping-stones; quite the opposite. The best stones for this purpose are rounded but have one side slightly flat, to be walked on. They’re easily found in Japan, where nurseries carry all types of natural one-of-a-kind materials for the gardening trade, including field stones.
Above: You don’t want uniformity in stepping-stones; quite the opposite. The best stones for this purpose are rounded but have one side slightly flat, to be walked on. They’re easily found in Japan, where nurseries carry all types of natural one-of-a-kind materials for the gardening trade, including field stones.

Put natural stone pavers underfoot. “Stepping-stones have two effects on the design of a garden,” Keane says. “When chosen for their size and color, they’re like dabs of paint across the canvas of the garden. But they also act to control the speed with which someone moves through the garden, making the experience slower and more contemplative.”

To make your own natural garden path, look on riversides, in the forest, or by the ocean for stones with the right kind of shape. Cut flagstones just won’t cut it.

7. Use gates as thresholds.

 “The human understanding of space is experiential,” Keane says, “and a big space will feel even bigger if it’s subdivided by gates into different areas with different qualities.”
Above: “The human understanding of space is experiential,” Keane says, “and a big space will feel even bigger if it’s subdivided by gates into different areas with different qualities.”

Many Japanese gardens have gates that aren’t intended as physical barriers. “They’re simply to heighten the sense of threshold, of passing from one place to another,” Keane says. A gate can give visitors a sense of discovery, and will make a garden feel bigger by dividing it.

If you’re lucky enough to have a sprawling garden, try installing a gate (or several) to break up the space into smaller sections. A gate doesn’t have to be Japanese-style, but if you want that you can find sources online, or look for a carpenter trained in Japanese techniques to get one custom-built.

8. Draw lines in the sand.

 A specially shaped rake was used to make the deep valleys in this dry garden. For sources, see  Easy Pieces: Gravel Rakes.
Above: A specially shaped rake was used to make the deep valleys in this dry garden. For sources, see 10 Easy Pieces: Gravel Rakes.

If you’re moving toward minimalism in a garden, consider dedicating a space to a dry garden with no plants at all. “You can use a rake to create patterns in the sand, and change the patterns from time to time to make the garden feel new,” says Keane. While any kind of gravel will work, decomposed granite is best for getting those sharply raked lines. Japanese gardeners call it shirakawa-suna, a crushed granite with grains that are a mix of white, gray, and black, and range in size from coarse sand to fine gravel.

Note that these gardens aren’t meant for strolling—they’re considered viewing gardens, and usually placed in a spot where people in a nearby room or veranda can gaze out at it as if it’s a sculpture or painting.

As for the raking, no special technique is required. And while there are many traditional patterns, most are meant to replicate the look of waves rippling on water.

Don’t think that a dry garden means no maintenance. “Those famous gardens in Kyoto look perfect because they’re cleaned and raked every day,” says Keane. You won’t have to be that diligent, but you’ll still have to rake periodically and remove debris. If you use the right gravel, the pattern won’t be erased by a heavy rainfall.

9. Be bold with boulders.

 Instead of a sculpture, consider the judicious selection and placement of a beautiful rock. (Yours might be a little smaller than this one.)
Above: Instead of a sculpture, consider the judicious selection and placement of a beautiful rock. (Yours might be a little smaller than this one.)

The large ornamental stones in Japanese gardens are viewed with the same artistic eye that a sculpture would be. The shape, texture, and color are all intentionally chosen to enhance the garden’s overall design. “Before placing a boulder, you pick its top and its best side—in Japanese that’s called the face,” Keane says. “Then you place the boulder with the top up and the face pointing in the direction where it will be best seen, whether toward a room that looks onto the garden, or a path that passes nearby.”

10. Add a water feature.

 The sides of this sculptural stone basin were carved by nature; the top was cut flat and the inside hollowed out to hold water. Surrounding it are plantings typical of the Japanese style, including pines and grasses.
Above: The sides of this sculptural stone basin were carved by nature; the top was cut flat and the inside hollowed out to hold water. Surrounding it are plantings typical of the Japanese style, including pines and grasses.

Traditionally, garden water basins were intended as a place for patrons to clean up before entering a tea room. Today they’re mostly used as decoration, but Keane points out that they still lend a sense of purity. “They’re placed by a path at the point where you enter or leave the garden, and they’re either made of natural stone or carved granite.”

At one time, the basins were filled by pouring in water by hand. Today you can add the musical sound of running water to your garden by installing a basin with a recirculating pump and a bamboo spout so water can splash into the bowl. As an added benefit, the birds might flit by for a drink or a bath.

For more ideas:

A hardcover copy of Keane&#8
Above: A hardcover copy of Keane’s Japanese Garden Notes is $40.76 from Amazon.

See more ideas for adding Japanese-garden design elements to a landscape:

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