Japanese Garden Design: What to Include and Avoid

Traditional Principles to Master Before Landscaping

High angle view of a Japanese zen garden

Junichiro Tokiyoshi / EyeEm / Getty Images

A Japanese garden is a space for peaceful meditation and should be kept simple and natural. To make your garden look Japanese-inspired, incorporate the essential elements of stone, plants, water, and ornaments. Use plants sparingly and carefully: You won't see lush flower borders or succulents in an authentic Japanese-style landscape.

Japanese Garden Principles

Before understanding what not to do in a Japanese garden, here's a quick review of the guiding design principles of the Japanese garden style. The following elements: asymmetry, balance, and serenity, are your best guidance. Be purposeful but avoid cliché.

  • Natural materials: Choose raw materials that make sense in the scene; do not mix elements like river rocks with desert rocks.
  • Organic shapes: Waves and swirls are nature's way of design; steer clear of corners, harsh edges, and blockiness.
  • Evergreen plants: Use plants with lush foliage throughout the year.
  • Peaceful water element: Waterfalls and water spouts with trickling running water, koi ponds, and reflection pools accentuate the life-giving force of water.
  • Enclose your garden: Gates, arbors, and bamboo fencing separate a Japanese garden from an ordinary landscape.

Three main types of Japanese gardens—Karesansui (rock/dry), Tsukiyama (hill/pond), Chaniwa (tea ceremony)—serve as the main inspiration for Japanese gardens. Other types include a traditional stroll garden, a paradise garden used in temple design, a pond garden with a large (often existing) lake or pond, and a courtyard garden used within or beside a small home or shop.

Stone or gravel used in Japanese gardens, particularly rock zen gardens, is Shirakawa-suna or sand from the Shirakawa River in Kyoto, composed of granite, quartz, black mica, and white feldspar. For a local source in the U.S. that comes close, get pea gravel, which is tiny and smooth.

Read on to learn the rules for what not to do as commonsense Japanese garden design principles.

  • 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.

    Continue to 5 of 11 below.
  • 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

     Proportion is a key element of Japanese garden design. 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 Show 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 number 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.