Tips for how to make a Japanese garden
- Less is more: stick to just a few types of plants. Japanese gardens are often sparsely planted, so the spaces around the plants are as important as the plants themselves. This can also help to create the effect of a bigger garden.
- Japanese gardens often ‘borrow’ the landscape around them. So if you have a good view, frame it with some choice Japanese maples.
- Hard landscaping can include gravel, rocks and stepping stones. Try tying pieces of bamboo together with twine to create Japanese-style fences.
- Encourage mosses to spread in nooks and crannies. Japanese gardens often showcase the different shades of green and moss is used in many Japanese temple gardens.
- Think calming and serene: Japanese gardens are used for contemplation. For inspiration, look at tea gardens and the temple gardens of Kyoto.
10 best Japanese garden plants
1. Japanese maple
Acer palmatum ‘Sango-Kaku’ (syn ‘Senkaki’)
Think of Japan and you’ll immediately bring to mind the beautiful autumn colours of the Japanese maple. Acer palmatum is a small tree with hundreds of cultivars, but this one is popular for its magenta pink stems and bright green leaves with pink tints.
It doesn’t disappoint in autumn, either: the leaves turn yellow-orange and seem to glow when viewed from a distance. Slow growing, it’s good for small gardens where it will eventually reach 6m. Other trees for Japanese gardens include Pinus thunbergii or flowering cherries, such as Prunus ‘Shogetsu’.
2. Siebold’s wood fern
This unusual Japanese fern looks good when planted near rocks or under a tree canopy. Its grey-blue divided leaves are long and leathery, and while not truly evergreen, they last long into the winter.
It likes a lot of organic matter in the soil, so dig some in before planting and add mulch around its base in the winter. It likes a bit of moisture but is also quite happy in drier conditions as long as it’s in shade.
3. Japanese forest grass
Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’
Japanese forest grass has mounds of arching stems tipped with bright yellowy-green, slightly variegated leaves that turn slightly red in autumn.
This cultivar is low growing (to 40cm) and looks fantastic allowed to spill over the sides of a large pot. Giving its best lemony colour in moist soils in full sun or partial shade, it grows slowly but is worth the effort. Use it with Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ to line pathways or dot among rocks. It also looks good in a gravel or pebble garden.
4. Black mondo grass
Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ AGM
Also known as black mondo grass, this isn’t actually a grass! A superb contrast plant, its black foliage, low-growing and slowly spreading habit create a foil for other brightly coloured plants. Small purple flowers are followed by black berries.
It does best in moist soils in full sun but will also tolerate some shade. It is also possible to buy green mondo grass, Ophiopogon japonicus, which has the same form but with dark green leaves.
Perhaps surprisingly, a lot of lilies are native to woodland areas in Asia, where they grow in sunny clearings or in dappled shade. They like deep, humus-rich but well-drained soil but also do well in pots. Surround them with sharp sand when planting to aid drainage.
Choice Japanese species to look out for include Lilium leichtlinii, which has golden yellow recurved flowers with brown speckles, and Lilium speciosum, which is usually available as a pink cultivar, ‘Uchida’. Lilium longiflorum is tall, with highly fragrant trumpet-shaped white flowers, while Lilium auratum’s white flowers have a yellow stripe and a spicy scent.
6. Green carpet
While it won’t win any awards for showiness, this Japanese woodland plant is incredibly useful as ground cover, gradually colonising areas without crowding out plants already growing there.
It prefers shade otherwise its leaves will bleach. There is also a variegated version, which will brighten up a shady understory. It has small white flowers in early summer.
What’s more Japanese than mounds of azaleas covered in brightly coloured flowers? A huge range of eye-popping colours are available, from ice white through to deepest red and fiery orange. Neatly pruned or allowed to sprawl, they are essential to an authentic Japanese garden. However, if you don’t have the acid or neutral soils they prefer, try Japanese quince (Chaenomeles) or heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica) for a similar effect.
8. Japanese woodland primrose
The tiny, frilly flowers of the Japanese woodland primrose, Primula sieboldii, are perfect for brightening up a shady corner. From crisp white through pastel pink and mauve to brightest purple, they seem to glow in the gloom, and often have a different colour on the back of the petals. The leaves are bright green, with scalloped edges. If planting in sun, ensure there is plenty of moisture in the soil, otherwise the plants will be happy with partial shade and lots of organic matter. It’ll also do well in a damp spot.
9. Japanese catmint
A relative of the catmint so often seen in UK gardens, but with bigger leaves, larger flowers and a more upright habit. In Japan it’s found in mountainous areas and grassy meadows near streams, so it will thrive in a range of garden situations. Blooming in midsummer, the flowers are generally blue, but pink and white cultivars are also available. Very easy to grow from seed, it’s a great source of nectar for bees and beneficial insects. Unfortunately it is also very attractive to cats, so be wary if your garden is full of felines!
10. Kirengeshoma palmata
Want something really unusual for your Japanese-style garden? With its waxy yellow flowers held above dark green, sycamore-shaped leaves, Kirengeshoma palmata fits the bill. A real specimen plant, it’ll grow happily in the shade under trees as long as it has plenty of organic matter and moisture. It can reach 1m tall and wide so give it plenty of room; try pairing it with toad lilies (Tricyrtis) or Anemonopsis for a woodland effect. Keep an eye out for slugs and snails, which are fond of its leaves.