How to Create Your Own Japanese Garden in the Backyard

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Do you consider gardening styles when planning your garden? Most of us probably do not, but I think that adapting a style, like a Japanese garden, could add flair to your backyard.

I have slowly been working on a project that I am calling a tea house. I took down these too small plastic playhouses that had been set up for my daughters to create this new space. Why a tea house? I still remember the tea house in the gardens of Sans Soucci when I visited there as a child. The building was a fantasy set in the garden. I wanted to recapture that feeling. I am building this house with materials from the garden; I have only purchased pine fence planks for the walls. As I am near completion, I have been considering the plantings which will be near this house. Visiting the Japanese Garden in Hermann Park gave me the idea of creating a space that reflected that style.  In my case, I am not thinking of creating such a garden in the entire backyard, but I thought that such a space could be quite nice.

    What do you think of when I write “Japanese Garden”? We may consider specific plants or objects. I would imagine that most gardeners have a picture in their head. I think of certain elements: curving planes; large stones dramatically placed; water features with koi; arching bridges; stone lanterns; manicured plantings; and little tea houses to have a place to sit to enjoy the garden. This sounds as if it would be too great a task to replicate in a backyard, but why should it be? We can simplify the elements to their basic form and develop our own fantasy of a Japanese garden. Here are photographs to keep in mind when planning out what you may attempt.
japanese lanternsmall waterfallstones and watertea houseteahouse
    Do we have to adhere exactly to Japanese elements? I have visited the garden in Hermann park often since its inception. Originally, the designer realized that he could not use the plants he was familiar with in Japan, so he adapted plants common in Texas for his landscape. The one plant which did have a Japanese feel was the camelia. If you walk through the garden today, you will not see them. The garden has changed over the years. The garden still evokes a Japanese feel, but the design has changed. You can choose the plantings that best fit your space. How you treat them effects how we perceive them. To me, a Japanese garden will be stylized nature. Avoid straight lines, because that gives a man-made feeling. Prune to show off the bark and the structure of a bush, or prune in a rounded form.  Create a path that meanders through the garden, rather than in straight lines and right angles.
    Think about the textures or colors of different leaves. Mass plantings give a richer feeling, but then breaking up that mass planting with one glorious specimen that has a different texture or color will help the bed to stand out. I can see a border of box wood pruned to have a rounded edge and then a crepe myrtle sprouting up along the border. We could had have a field of monkey grass with a coleus int eh middle. I am considering stylized nature. If you look at a natural border along a road side, you will see one plant dominating the scene, but other plants will poke their heads through.  To make the scene like a stage setting, I plan for a contrast.
    Scale down on features to achieve the desired effect. I do not need a grouping of boulders. One beautiful stone will do. I will want this rock to have character though, so pick it carefully. Ponds may be hard to imitate. I do not have the space in my backyard. They also have to be maintained. I saw a vase fountain at the nursery entrance the other day, and I thought how perfect for a small scale Japanese garden. Part of what is done in such a garden is to engage your senses. A fountain like this one has the bubbling water sound and the splashing. I think I would like a solar powered water pump on mine. I spotted a small plastic pond at the building supply center that would fit in a smaller scale. Instead of koi, I could use another fish from the same family: goldfish. The arching bridge is a standard. I thought that I could create an arching ramp instead. This can be paced behind the pond, which could be raised to hide the fact that I have a ramp and not a bridge. Otherwise, I could set the bridge over pebbles to imitate a dry creek bed leading to the pond.
 We come to the last element to reflect in our version of a Japanese garden; the lantern. I have seen such lanterns available at garden shops or these garden statue stores. I am not sure how much they would cost. These are replicas made from cement. Other options would be to use garden lights. I like my solar lights, but these do not quite look Japanese, so I would not move them into my planned garden; however, there are solar lights or low voltage garden lights which have a Craftsman style appearance. These would fit into the Japanese theme. I could make an interpretation of a lantern using cement blocks from the home center. I have made pagoda like structures from plaster that may work as a lantern. I am suggesting that you can be creative.The more authentic look may be finding the replica.
    This garden design may need more maintenance, so you have to be prepared. I am thinking about how I would transform my space. The tea house is in a shady area. Not full deep shade, but on the shadier side of partial shade. I am using a variegated grass in one bed with coleus already. I am hoping that the variegated grass will spread over the next year form my mass planting.  I will be using ferns around the tea house. They have a manicured look without the need for pruning. I already use pebbles as a muclh, so maybe a bridge will give the idea of a creek bed. I have a large boxwood bush in one corner, that I can prune like a large bonsai. I also have a cement column which could be the start of a lantern. We will see. The space is under construction now. I happen to have my outdoor cooking area and reading spot there, which are both undergoing changes, so I cannot start on the garden till this work is done.

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This site came out of my desire to write about my love of gardening, but also to connect it to my knowledge derived from home inspections. That is why I tied it to the home inspection site.If you have questions, you can email them to me (frank at For home inspections, call 713.781.6090.
Happy gardening, Frank


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