A Japanese garden does not only consist of plants, but must also embody a sense of peace. We are here to help you discover not only what your zen garden space should look like, and, more importantly, how it should feel.
Zen gardens are popular, low-maintenance spaces that can help give a feeling of peace and wellness when observing or tending to the garden. These gardens are not just landscape features, though; they are a great place to add a statement piece in the form of a plant. The Japanese plants suited for zen gardens are endless, so it's a guarantee there will be at least a few plants fit for everyone's ideal backyard zen garden.
Key Features of Japanese Garden Plants
A Japanese garden does not only consist of specific plants, but must also embody a sense of serenity and peace. There are some key features that should be included in your garden space to fully encapsulate what a Japanese-inspired garden is (and everything it could be).
- Balance is key. Keeping a sense of balance and proportion is one of the main factors contributing to a relaxed oriental garden space. Gradual changes should be utilized in all senses; color, size, shape, etc.
- Avoid harshness and use nature as a guide. You will not find many sharp lines or harsh angles in traditional Japanese gardens. To go along with the flow of nature, use organic shapes and features as your design guide. Keep pots and planters minimal in style and opt for more natural colors and patterns. Be intentional. A Japanese garden's main point is finding peace and stillness amidst a busy world.
- Find your purpose. Be purposeful in the plants you choose, how you arrange them, and what you want to achieve to be successful with your garden. Make sure you take into consideration each plant's needs and the effort they take to maintain to ensure your garden is a place of happiness, not stress.
- Use the four essential elements: plants, water, rocks, and structures. Have each of these elements balanced along with each other, and try to integrate all of the special features of your garden in a way that makes sense; keep in mind the above features when considering how to integrate all of these elements together.
- Plan your flowering and evergreen plants accordingly. A hallmark of Japanese gardens is a wave of blooms, but it mostly consists of evergreen foliage throughout the year. Make sure you're getting a good mix of both and that you have flowering plants that will flower at slightly staggered times for a cascading flowering effect. Taking the time to decide exactly what plants and varieties you want and where they go will help your imagination become a reality when it comes time to put together your zen garden.
- Use what is available to you. Since a zen garden consists of more than just plants, begin to look around and see what you have around that fulfills the essential elements of a Japanese garden. Smooth stones, large rocks, old decor that needs new scenery, and even moss can be transplanted into your zen garden. This will help cut down on costs and labor trying to source your materials and help to repurpose other things you may have had lying around your yard.
If you get these features right, your zen garden will not go wrong. Remember, details matter!
What Are the Most Popular Japanese Plants?
Many plants commonly found in Japanese gardens are chosen for their natural beauty, low maintenance requirements, and ability to adhere to the principles of a Japanese garden. Many choose to use Japanese plants outdoors, though if you're low on outdoor space, some of these plants translate well to living indoors too.
Trees can be dwarf, bonsai, or full-size; as long as they flow naturally and organically with the rest of the area, any tree can be put into your Asian-inspired garden.
- Cherry Blossom (Prunus serrulata). A favorite Japanese plant with a wide variety to choose from, the cherry blossom is a captivating plant with early blooms and colors from white to pink. No matter the variety is chosen, they are all beautiful and also help to feed pollinators as one of the early food sources of the spring. These trees can grow to be quite large, so keep the ultimate size of the plant in consideration when establishing a Japanese garden.
- Chinese Elm (Ulmus pavifolia). This dwarf works well for smaller spaces, and though it does hail from China, it works well and is a worthwhile addition to a Japanese garden. Full sun to partial shade works best for these small trees. Additionally, pruning will be required if a dense canopy of branches is the desired outcome.
- Japanese Maple (Acer Palmatum). These trees can range from red to purple in color and can have a dramatic appearance in the landscape. Japanese maples are a good statement tree that can also come in different sizes with various leaf shapes. Plant them in an area with dappled sunlight and be mindful of their soil moisture for the best results.
Zen is all about harmony, so use the sturdy trees as its rightful upholders. Let your garden be covered in their soothing shade!
Shrubs provide some privacy and can separate an area in an unobtrusive way while still maintaining an element of openness to the rest of the spaces in the yard.
- Japanese Quince (Chaenomeles speciosa). Quince shrubs have flowers reminiscent of cherry blossoms but longer-lasting and in a more compact form. The blooms come in many different shades and can be grouped together with other quince shrubs. Provide full sun to partial shade for best flower development.
- Japanese Boxwood (Buxus microphylla var. Japonica). Japanese boxwood is an evergreen shrub that can be trimmed into different shapes to cultivate the desired appearance of your garden. They are drought tolerant and hardy, and their dark green foliage provides a natural elegance and shape to the outdoor space.
- Japanese camellia (Camellia japonica). The camellia flower is a symmetrical, colorful flower that helps to provide visual interest when it's in flower, and when it's not, its glossy evergreen leaves persist throughout the year. The only downside is the Japanese camellia is a high maintenance plant. If you're going minimal in terms of plants, it may be worth the effort to have a camellia shrub featured in your garden.
A small tip! Shrubs tend to be smaller and more easily manicured than trees and can give a similar effect in gardens that are short on space.
Pictures of Japanese gardens often exhibit a distinct feature from Western gardens, as they tend to prioritize the beauty of foliage over flowers. When flowering does occur, it is usually a carefully planned process to have plants that bloom at staggered times, providing a continuous display of colorful blooms throughout spring and summer.
- _Japanese Wisteria (Wisteria floribunda)._This plant produces bunches of drooping, lavender-colored flowers along its vining branches. Take care when planting it around other plants, as wisteria can be a very aggressive spreading plant. Due to this, you may find it to be a higher maintenance plant, though its beauty may be worth it.
- Japanese Anemone (Anemone x hybrid Alba'). Beautiful and hardy, Japanese anemones come in many different colors to suit the gardener's desires. These plants also spread readily, so consider planting these in pots to control their growth. They are also insect and deer resistant and tolerate moderate levels of salt in the soil. This salt tolerance can be useful to individuals living near water as the salinity in the soil will leave them unaffected.
- Japanese Iris (Iris ensata). Japanese irises are tall, elegant plants that bloom with a single flower per bulb. These are good additions to the garden if you have more flowers that bloom in spring, as these irises bloom through the summer. They're also very easy to grow, and even when not in flower, the long, thin leaves provide another level of visual interest.
- Azalea japonica' Diamond White'. Azaleas are flowering evergreen bushes with an early spring bloom time. This variety consists of stark white flowers, which help to balance out the dark foliage. These flowering beauties are also quite hardy and tolerant of many different conditions. Provide full sun or partial shade to see the azaleas in their best condition.
Your garden will be transformed into a pocket paradise with waves of blooms that bring vibrant bursts of color. Embrace the fantasy.
Ground Cover Plants
Ground cover plants serve a dual purpose of suppressing weeds while also enhancing the natural, forest-like ambiance of the entire garden. Moreover, with many being evergreen, they add a touch of life and vitality to the garden all year round.
- Japanese Sedge (Carex oshmensis). Sedge plants are extremely common in Japanese gardens thanks to their ability to harness form, balance, and shape all in one ground-cover plant. They grow in rounded clumps and will usually get no larger than 2 feet tall.
- Garden Juniper (Juniperus procumbens' Nana'). This juniper is low-growing and will nicely fill out any spaces you let it creep into. The bluish-green needles add a sense of peacefulness and also subtly stand out from other more traditionally green plants. It is low maintenance too, and rarely requires additional trimming except to manicure it to your desired shape. Allow garden juniper to grow freely between stones and walkways, and soon you'll have a lush sea of blue-green.
- Mondo Grass (Ophiopogon japonicus). Similar to Japanese sedge, mondo grass is a rounded, clump-forming evergreen grass-like plant (though not a true grass) often used to fill in empty spaces on the ground. It is very tolerant to deer and other grazing animals, though it requires a moist environment to do its best.
Your ground would be very happy to be covered by a soft lush blanket. Honestly, who wouldn't?
Other Common Plants
These unique plants can be considered as "wildcard" additions to your collection of Asian garden plants, adding an element of distinctiveness to your garden design.
- Black Bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra). Black bamboo gives a more dramatic flare to your zen space by adding dark, straight lines to help contrast some of the other greens in the space. This tall plant is also good for creating natural borders since they are fast growing.
- Japanese Painted Fern (Athyrium niponicum). Ferns give off a very natural forest vibe to your garden. Their triangular-shaped fronds also have a deep purplish and silvery "painted" appearance hence their common name.
- Japanese Cobra Lily (Arisaema thumbergii subsp. 'Urashima'). Also commonly called "Jack in the Pulpit" these cobra lilies are a unique and strange addition to other more "typical" looking plants. These are well adapted to wet soil, so if you have a small pond you're looking to accessorize, look no further than this strange plant!
- Japanese Blood Grass (Imperata cylindrica). This ornamental grass gets its common name from the bright red color of its slender leaves. It certainly grabs attention, so consider placing it amongst a few other boldly colored features to maintain a sense of balance within the garden.
These common plants are very uncommon in terms of their appearance, aren't they?
What Are the Most Common Japanese Evergreen Plants for Zen Gardens?
Evergreens are a more common and traditional plant type for zen gardens than deciduous trees. In fact, they can provide a lush and thriving appearance independent of the seasons or zone it is in. Here are some traditional oriental plants to pick from!
- Buddha Belly Bamboo (Bambusa ventricosa). It's hard to have a zen garden without any type of bamboo, and if you're looking for a stand-out plant, this is the one. Its bulbous stems stack on top of each other, resembling a large Buddha's belly at each section. Their organic shape and whimsical appearance are sure to captivate the eye of the viewer.
- Sawara Cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera). This is a quintessential addition to any Japanese or Asian garden. Not only does it stay green year-round, but it is easy to care for and produces small cones, which provide a sweet touch to this lovely plant. This is a medium-sized shrub, and different varieties have slightly different foliage color variations, such as 'Soft Serve Gold' if a brighter, golden hue is desired.
- _Japanese Boxwood (Buxus microphylla var. Japonica)._Thanks to their ease of care and customizability, Japanese boxwood is a staple in Japanese gardens. These shrubs are low maintenance, tolerant of cold temperatures down to -10ºF (-23.33°C), and generally are disease and pest resistant, making them a perfect filler or focal piece for an outdoor garden space. Full sun to partial shade is the lighting preference.
True companions for achieving zen energy, evergreen plants stay young forever.
Care Tips for your Backyard Japanese Garden
Now that you've set up your Japanese garden plants, it's important to maintain your garden to preserve the sense of peace and tranquility that comes with the different types of flora in your garden. Here are some tips from us:
- Choose low-maintenance plants: Asian garden plants are generally easy to care for, but it's important to pick ones that are manageable for your lifestyle. Don't take on more than you can handle, as there are other elements in a zen garden that also require maintenance.
- Make use of negative space: Leaving strategic blank spaces in your garden adds to the flow and reduces the amount of upkeep needed. Embrace the concept of negative space in your design.
- Embrace unique forms: Japanese landscaping plants may not always have a uniform appearance, and that's perfectly fine! Embrace odd or unusual shapes to add character and whimsy to your garden.
We hope these tips will help you in caring for your newly established landscape.
What Is the Most Famous Japanese plant?
One of the most famous and commonly associated plants with Japan and Japanese culture is the cherry blossom (Sakura) tree.
What Plants are Used in Zen Gardens?
Zen gardens can have a wide assortment of plants and still be considered traditional, with some of the commonly chosen options being Japanese maples, cherry blossom trees, and Japanese boxwood, to name a few.