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With winter underway, it’s the perfect time to spend a cosy afternoon designing your dream garden. japanese garden. 

Perhaps you’ve noticed recently that your garden is looking a little lacklustre and needs a refresh, or maybe you’ve just moved in to a place where the garden needs a total overhaul. Whatever the case, getting a few ideas together now means you can get to work on the design elements over winter and have your new garden looking fabulous by the time the weather picks up again.

Japanese gardens are a unique look and are easy to implement to your space, big or small. You can choose to add a subtle oriental twist by adding a few key elements, or you can completely re-create the look and feel of a Zen garden oasis.

Japanese gardens are often admired for their structure and symbolism. Many elements of the traditional Japanese garden are therefore implemented in order to highlight the importance of appreciating and understanding nature. So what better way to start appreciating our gardens more?

red-archway japanese garden

If you’ve been thinking about transforming your garden in this style, here are a few ideas to get you started. I’ve outlined the key elements of Japanese garden design, and the ways you can implement them into your own garden.

Plant Style Japanese garden 

A really good place to start with any garden design is with your plant choices.

acer japanese maple

You can use your chosen plants as a subtle nod towards the overall theme, in addition to creating the basis towards your structure.

It goes without saying that a Japanese Maple will look great in your Japanese garden and provides summer and stunning autumn colour.

There are loads of varieties in all shapes and sizes, so you can find the perfect fit for your garden.

I really like the Acer Palmatum ‘Trompenburg’ for its interesting colour-changing foliage that starts off purple in spring and ends up a vibrant orange in autumn.

Other plants that will play a part in tying together your Japanese garden are;

  • Rhododendrons: there’s loads of varieties to choose from here, I particularly like the Rhododendron Occidentale for its pretty spring flowers. Or you can try azaleas, there are short growing evergreen ones and tall growing deciduous ones to choose from.
  • Bamboo: Great as an alternative to fencing. This is especially important for small or narrow gardens where the fencing is likely to play a major part in the overall look of the garden.
  • Japanese Privet or Box-leaved Holly: you can be prune these into a ‘Cloud Tree’ using the Japanese method of Niwaki.
  • Cherry Tree: for that iconic spring blossom!

The Symbolism of Plants:

Plants represent lifeforms and the natural world. Blossom is depicted as the fleeting nature of beauty, and new beginnings.


Choose a variety of evergreen plants and deciduous shrubs so that your garden has structure, and doesn’t look too bare overwinter. A lot of Japanese style plants are small or dwarf varieties, so you can always try and find these versions of your favourite plants to tie them in with the overall theme.


Traditional Japanese gardens are designed with the senses in mind.

In many Asian cultures, the garden is a place for meditative reflection, and so the senses should be able to relax in a state of tranquillity when entering the space.

Water is often used in a Japanese garden in order to create this peaceful state of mind.

The trickling sound of a water feature, or the calm stillness of a reflection pool are both implemented to instil feelings of relaxation and serenity.


If you have a large enough garden, a fish pond with some koi carp will be a great ornamental feature for your Japanese garden.

Even better if you have space for a small bridge over your pond, as bridges are a common feature in many oriental style gardens.

For smaller spaces, a water feature or reflection pool will do the trick. Aquatic plants such as water lilies are a nice additional touch to your feature.

If you’re feeling really adventurous, and want something totally unique, you could even try building a water garden, separated into sections using pathways and bridges.

Designing your whole garden around the water feature might seem daunting at first, but once installed, larger ponds are generally easier to maintain that smaller ones, and will really make an impact.

If you are planning to have fish in your pond, make sure it is big enough to accommodate them, as koi carp can grow quite large.

The Symbolism of Water:

Water represents renewal, calmness and continuity.


Pathways and Bridges

Pathways are used in Japanese gardens to help the body and soul to wander.

To really get the essence of a Japanese garden, it’s important to carefully choose the style of paving that is congruent not only with the design, but also the symbolistic traditions of the Japanese culture.

If you have a larger space, you could incorporate a genuine ‘Zen’ rock garden into one area. Use large rocks or stones, surrounded by fine gravel or sand which is raked into a pattern designed to imitate the ripples in water flow. Place a bench overlooking this area, which can be used for thoughtful reflection.


Aside from the minimalism of the traditional Zen garden, you’ll find most Japanese garden styles incorporate ornate pathways and bridges that meander off into unseen areas of the garden.

In fact, the reason many pathways and bridges are built in a zig zag pattern is to encourage mindfulness; if you aren’t focused on the here and now, you could easily wander off the zig zag bridge and into the water.

Build a simple zig zag path to a hidden corner of your garden to incorporate this element, using simple wooden slats or paving stones to add to the effect.

Even if you don’t have a water feature, you can add a little bridge into your paving design for decorative purposes.

Or create a pathway that imitates water by using gravel, sand or slate chippings. Shape the pathway to imitate the flow of stream water.

The Symbolism of Stones:

Stones represent endurance and the force of nature.


Statues and Pavilions

These features will help to add a finishing touch to your garden design.

bamboo pagoda -water-feature

An authentic Japanese garden will always incorporate at least one pagoda, which is an oriental style pavilion that traditionally were used as outdoor temples.

If your garden is big enough for a full sized pavilion, perhaps nestled in a corner, or shading a dining area, then by all means go for it.

Try not to go over the top though. Keep the design of your pavilion simple and understated, otherwise it could look garish in a british garden.

If you want something of a smaller scale, then a simple stone statuette of a pagoda pillar is an excellent nod to the tradition. You can find these in most garden centres.

You can also purchase lanterns and other sculptures that are in keeping with your design plan and will add an extra something to the overall look.

Don’t forget to also consider your garden furniture. Low benches will look great, while they might not be very practical. Choose hardwood furniture, because this will blend in best with the theme. A pergola or canopy over your garden furniture will not only help your furniture to last longer, it is also very in-keeping with the Japanese Garden style.

The Symbolism of the Pagoda:

The pagoda represents spirituality and religion, as it is a replica of temple architecture.

Japanese garden

For some urban garden design ideas, check out this blog:

Or check out my Pinterest board for more ideas:

Ideas for an Urban Garden
Urban Gardens
Pinterest Board

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