Horticulture Magazine

5 Oriental Plants For A Japanese-Style Garden

an autumnal japanese garden in Canada

If you want your garden to exude peace and tranquillity then a Japanese garden could be just the ticket.

Japanese gardens are said to bring serenity and the simple beauty of nature into our busy and cluttered lives. They give the illusion of natural landscapes but are actually controlled by the gardener, meaning that though they are inspired by nature they are not naturally grown.

The art of Japanese gardens dates back to 1,300 years ago. However, they have become extremely popular in the west over the last century.

Daigoji Temple pagoda in Kyoto, Japan
Japanese gardens harness the peace and tranquillity of nature

Japanese gardens were heavily influenced by the country’s Shinto religion and Chinese philosophies where ideas about leading peaceful, harmonic lives and being at one with nature are at the core.

When we think of Japanese gardens we often think of the expansive gardens filled with lakes and pagodas, blossom trees and bridges and you may be wondering how on earth you will be able to recreate this in your own garden. But fear not, by choosing the right plants means that even the most modest garden can successfully harness the Japanese theme.

What is a Japanese garden?

Japanese gardens are traditional gardens defined by Japanese philosophies and aesthetics, there should be absolutely no artificial plants and the main focus should be to showcase the landscapes natural beauty.

Including aged and worn materials will also give the appearance of an ancient and distant landscape and will allude to the vulnerability and frailty of life and that time is always marching forwards with us or without us.

Japanese gardens are minimalist and should inspire reflection and meditation. They can also include a number of elements including water, rocks and sand, vegetation, paths, islands and bridges.

Japanese garden designers also work using the concept of “borrowed scenery”, this means they use the existing scenery such as a mountain or a castle to inspire and accentuate the garden they are creating. In modern times skyscrapers are instead used as borrowed scenery to great effect.

Choosing the right plants that would best suit a Japanese themed garden can be tricky so we’ve put together a list of a few of our favourites to get you started.

Best plants for a Japanese garden

Now that you’ve decided that a Japanese garden is for you it’s time to start getting to grips with the plants you might want to choose. Obviously there are thousands to choose from but we’ve narrowed it down for you so you can start creating that Japanese theme immediately. 

1. Bamboo

Topping our list is of course bamboo, the plant most instantly associated with Japan and its culture. Growing throughout Japan, bamboo is used for everything, including chopsticks, toilet paper, chairs, fans and even entire houses.

Bamboo is extremely easy to grow but do keep in mind that some varieties can grow up to 70ft in height.

Best planted in spring, bamboo requires moist but well-drained soil in a sunny spot where they are sheltered from the wind.

Bamboo should be watered regularly during dry spells, receive a large amount of nitrogen in spring and a well-balanced fertiliser during the growing season up to late August. 

Aside from that they require very little care and will give your garden an instant Japanese aesthetic. 

2. Ornamental cherry trees

If you have the space for it then including one or more ornamental cherry trees will immediately accentuate your Japanese theme. Japan is renowned for its beautiful, pink blossoming cherry trees – or sakura – and there are even dedicated festivals to celebrate them.

blooming pink cherry tree against a blue sky with clouds
Japan is famous for its ornamental cherry trees

Ornamental cherry trees should be planted in full sun and in well-draining soil and somewhere sheltered from strong wind. They will do well in most soil types and should be planted in early autumn.

Once planted you should water your tree well and often until it is fully established. Applying fertiliser often can also reduce stress on the tree which can encourage pests and disease.

Growing to up to 30 ft, these gorgeous trees can live from 25-50 years and if well cared for will reward you with its beautiful pink blossoms year after year.

3. Japanese maple bonsai

If you have a more modest-sized garden then opting for bonsai trees is a great way to accentuate the Japanese theme without using much space. 

Bonsai is the art of growing and cultivating artificially dwarfed trees in containers that mimic the shape and scale of a full-sized tree.

Japanese maple bonsai should be kept in a sunny, airy spot although they should be moved to a shadier spot during the midday heat. You should be watering the container every day and, in particularly hot weather several times a day. 

You can prune and trim shoots and twigs all year round but wait until autumn to prune the stronger branches so you can avoid bleeding.

These cute mini-plants will need repotting every two years, and with love and care, they will reward you with clusters of yellowy-green flowers in May and June.

4. Lotus

If you have included a pond in your garden to incorporate the element of water then the lovely lotus is a must-have plant.

These sun-loving, dramatic plants adore the sun and prefer to be bathed in it for at least 5-6 hours. 

a stunning pink, yellow and green water lily on the surface of a pond
The luscious lotus is the perfect addition to your Japanese garden

Lotus plants are fairly easy to care for but do be aware that lotus tubers will not tolerate freezing and will not survive. If freezing occurs on your pond then you should overwinter them by pushing them down deeper into the pond so that they are below the freezing line. If this isn’t possible then we recommend you dig the lotus out and overwinter it somewhere inside.

These aquatic beauties will really bring a taste of the exotic to your garden and will make a perfect centrepiece for your Japanese theme.

5. Wisteria

This is a great option for any sized garden because the wisteria can simply climb up your house. It’s also perfect for training up pergolas and other strong, wooden structures.

Wisteria is effortlessly beautiful but do be aware that it can take five years or more to establish itself. However, they are absolutely worth the wait thanks to their pendulous clusters of lilac, white or bluish flowers which they produce in late spring and early summer.

Wisteria needs fertile, well-drained soil and should, ideally, be planted a west or south-facing direction.

If you would like to learn more about wonderful wisteria then why not check out our wisteria guide.

Journey to a Japanese garden

Hopefully you now feel ready to begin your journey to a Japanese garden. There are so many wonderful plants to choose from and don’t forget to incorporate some of the Japanese elements like sand, water, distressed wood, and so on.

A Japanese garden will demonstrate simple beauty and grace and will be the perfect place to enjoy some much-needed calmness in the midst of the hectic lives we all seem to lead these days.

We wish you luck on transforming your garden into a Japanese haven, and we hope you enjoy the peace and tranquillity it will surely provide.

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