What Not to Do in a Japanese Garden

Planning and Designing Japanese-Style Gardens

A Japanese garden should be kept simple and natural. Basic elements used are stone, plants, and water. Plants are used sparingly and carefully chosen: you don't see lush flower borders or succulents in a Japanese-style landscape.

While it's true that you own the landscape and can do anything you want with the space, there are simple guidelines to follow for making the garden more attractive and enjoyable to you and anyone who experiences it. The following rules for what not to do are...MORE commonsense principles as you get involved in the design process.

Get Inspired: The Best Public Japanese Botanical Gardens

  • 01 of 11

    Don't Paint Wood Features

    wood fence
    Wood fence in Pasadena, California. Lisa Hallett Taylor

    Refrain from painting wooden benches, fences, gates, arbors, or other garden structures. Instead, stain them as needed or allow them to weather naturally. An exception would be a brightly colored bridge that serves as a focal point. These are often painted a red-orange, and have a lacquer finish.

  • 02 of 11

    Don't Use a Rainbow of Colors

    balboa park san diego japanese garden
    Japanese Friendship Garden in San Diego. Friendship Garden

    On the subject of color: don't go overboard with those chrysanthemums and begonias: too much color can literally take over the landscape and upset the flow. Use bright colors sparingly, more as an accent.

  • 03 of 11

    Don't Use Too Many Japanese Accessories

    sweet potato vine and buddha face
    Buddha face with sweet potato vine. Lisa Hallett Taylor

    You love Buddha figures, pagodas, bridges, and lanterns and can't wait to use these accents in your garden. Remember, less is more. Yes, you can have too many Buddhas and pagodas, and it can make your yard look like a showcase for your collection.

    Along the same lines, don't use everything that seems remotely Asian in your Japanese garden.  

    How to Use Bridges in Japanese Garden Design

  • 04 of 11

    Don't Use Colored Stones

    raked gravel
    Japanese raked gravel. Lisa Hallett Taylor

    White gravel--or any other color--does not look natural in a Japanese garden. The same goes for glass or other non-natural materials.

    Continue to 5 of 11 below.
  • 05 of 11

    Don't Prune Shrubs into Topiaries

    topiary giraffe
    A topiary giraffe decorated with lights. Lisa Hallett Taylor

    Sure, they look adorable, all those giraffes and dogs and bunny rabbits. But not in a Japanese garden. Save it for your next yard--the one with the wishing well and naughty gnome statues.

  • 06 of 11

    Don't Combine Out-of-Scale Elements

     A miniature bridge with a big boulder, for instance. It's just wrong.

  • 07 of 11

    Don't Mix Unnatural Rock Forms

    In other words, don't combine rocks and rock-type formations that would not occur together in nature. It might look odd to mix rocks that would you would find in a forest with those from a desert.

  • 08 of 11

    Don't Use Plastic Basins

    Waterfalls are a key element in Japanese gardens, and many are made of plastic. That's fine; just remember to conceal them with soil, rocks and plants.

    Continue to 9 of 11 below.
  • 09 of 11

    Don't Arrange in Even Numbers

    Release yourself from that symmetrical, even-number-is-the-best part of your personality, and understand that garden elements look more random and aesthetically pleasing if arranged in odd numbers groupings. This rule pretty much applies for most types of modern design, both interior and exterior.  

  • 10 of 11

    Don't Use Cute Accessories

    We all have different concepts of what "cute" is, but plastic or plaster figures, folksy signs, or other outdoor design elements will mostly likely be out of place. What not to use in a Japanese garden:

    • Gnomes and flamingos
    • "Welcome to Mom's Japanese Garden" or "Love Grows Here" signs
    • Windchimes and suncatchers
    • Out-of-place accessory buildings, like gazebos, trellises, pergolas and sheds that don't really go with the Japanese garden style.

    What's the Difference...MORE Between a Pergola and an Arbor?

  • 11 of 11

    Don't Prune Pines to Look Like Christmas Trees

    Sure, pine trees are one of the recommended plants for a Japanese garden. But that doesn't mean that every pine tree needs to be shaped like a Christmas tree. Pines in Japanese landscaping are favored for their irregular form.