What to Avoid When Planning a Japanese Garden

High angle view of a Japanese zen garden

Junichiro Tokiyoshi / EyeEm / Getty Images

A Japanese garden should be kept simple and natural. The 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 commonsense principles as you get involved in the design process.

  • 01 of 11

    Don't Paint Wood Features

    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

    A small potted tree

    Francesca Yorke / Getty Images

    Don't go overboard with those chrysanthemums and begonias: Too much color can 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

    Buddha figures in exotic flowers

    EyesWideOpen / Getty Images

    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.

  • 04 of 11

    Don't Use Colored Stones

    Stone and moss garden in Kyoto

    Paul Atkinson / Getty Images

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

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  • 05 of 11

    Don't Prune Shrubs Into Topiaries

    Illuminated Japanese garden at night

    Eric Lafforgue / Art in All of Us / Contributor / Getty Images

    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 stone bridge with an Oriental look crosses a small lagoon.
    Photo by James Keith / Getty Images

     A miniature bridge with a big boulder, for instance, is just wrong!

  • 07 of 11

    Don't Mix Unnatural Rock Forms

    Rock Zen
    Don Baird / Getty Images

    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

    Beautiful stonegarden with waterfalls
    fotolinchen / Getty Images

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

    Continue to 9 of 11 below.
  • 09 of 11

    Don't Arrange in Even Numbers

    Japanese Garden

    Flickr / CC BY 2.0

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

  • 10 of 11

    Don't Use Cute Accessories

    Japanese Garden Fall Colors Sapporo Pagoda Lantern Portland Oregon
    GarysFRP / Getty Images

    We all have different concepts of what "cute" is, but plastic or plaster figures, folksy signs, or other outdoor design elements will most 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, such as gazebos, trellises, pergolas, and sheds that don't go with the Japanese garden style.
  • 11 of 11

    Don't Prune Pines to Look Like Christmas Trees

    Extreme close up photo of a plant

    @ Mariano Sayno / husayno.com / Getty Images

    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.