A Japanese-style garden is a calming retreat for both young and old

By Lloyd Thompson
WSU Chelan/Douglas County Master Gardener
January 13, 2022

Entrance to the Bridge of Friendship Japanese Garden in East Wenatchee, Washington.
Take a stroll through a Japanese garden and find your Zen, writes WSU Master Gardener Lloyd Thompson. The Misawa Bridge of Friendship Garden at the northeast corner of Eastmont Avenue and 8th Street in East Wenatchee is a Japanese garden that is open to the public.
Provided photo

Lloyd Thompson – WSU Chelan/Douglas County Master Gardener – Provided photo

I love the style of a Japanese garden because of the sense of wonder and peacefulness I get from walking through it. Much of our lives are spent in a blur of motion, but a walk through a Japanese garden helps slow down both the body and mind.

Growing up, I was taught that you fill your landscape with lots of color and variety; open soil was a place that other plants should go. I never really thought about the landscape as a way to relax, but more of a source of tasks and jobs that needed to be completed.

My wife and I bought our first house and I decided I wanted something more than just a yard full of pretty flowers. A timely visit to the Washington State Bicentennial Pacific Bonsai Museum garden in Federal Way while on an FFA judging trip provided the desire to try something different.

One of the most difficult things when I designed my first Japanese garden was to limit my use of “positive space” which is filled with plants, and to incorporate “negative space” or areas without plants or features. This allows you to better frame a plant or feature for a better display.

A well-designed garden changes seasonally as things go in and out of bloom, as well as the changing seasons. A Japanese garden design is like a journey where you make discoveries as you go through it. The views are like windows that frame a space using screening plants and twists in the path that allow you to find subtle changes and features, and provide surprises and a sense of wonder.

The use of a more subdued color palette places more emphasis on varying shades of color and texture that are best appreciated by a slow stroll through the garden. Traditional plants include Japanese maples, grasses, pines, flowering cherry or plum and azaleas, but can often incorporate many of your existing established plants. The plant palette you select needs to work for your growing area and should reflect the environmental factors present and still fit the style you are trying for.

A Japanese garden design can transform narrow spaces into intimate gardens for viewing not only from the garden but the house as well. This is a great way to practice designing your first Japanese garden; it requires less time and uses less material while you get the textures and colors just right. I also like the feel and look of incorporating views from windows in the house into my design. It allows me to glance out a window and feel the tranquility of the garden without even having to actually be in the garden.

The Zen sand garden is one design style that I really enjoy. It is simple in nature but challenging to get right. It contains rock, sand, gravel and perhaps a small tree in its simplest form, and a border of stone or tile. The gravel represents water, and the rocks represent the connection between earth, such as a mountain or islands, and are used in odd numbers of three or five rocks. It can be designed to fit into the space you have to work with and it’s entire design is created to be meditative and calming. The lack of plants helps cut back on some of the maintenance, but it still requires attention to keep clean and orderly. The raking pattern in the gravel should enhance the sense of water and create a feeling of flow around the rocks or islands. Use materials that are local and available to create your oasis of calm.

Remember, in a good design, sometimes simpler is better and less is more. There are lots of resources on the internet to help you with your garden design journey, including wwrld.us/3HXq7B3. A trip to an existing Japanese Garden is always a great spot to gather inspiration for starting your own.

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