Japanese gardens: Unique source of inspiration

By Kathy Chilek - Victoria County Master Gardener; Edited by Charla Borchers Leon
Feb. 1, 2018 at 10:46 p.m.
Updated Feb. 2, 2018 at 6 a.m.

This Japanese garden illustrates contrast in texture with a living painting of plants, trees and stones with calm, peaceful water. Note the large, flat stones that symbolize longevity and have been considered  to be for spiritual meditation.  Visit this Japanese Garden of Peace  behind the Admiral Nimitz Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg.

This Japanese garden illustrates contrast in texture with a living painting of plants, trees and stones with calm, peaceful water. Note the large, flat stones that symbolize longevity and have been considered to be for spiritual meditation. Visit this Japanese Garden of Peace behind the Admiral Nimitz Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg.   Contributed photo by Victoria County Master Gardener Kathy Chilek for The Victoria Advocate

Step through the gate of a Japanese garden and experience a garden 2,000 years in the making. It is quiet here. A place of peace and tranquility. Stroll the garden paths and see living paintings where every carefully placed plant, tree and stone creates an image of nature perfected.

Each Japanese garden, like each Texas garden, reflects its unique creator - but why do these gardens look and feel so different? What can we learn from them that will enhance our own gardening experience?

Early American gardens - planted to enable survival

Americans began planting gardens around 1700 when they planted more than edibles to survive winter. Their design ideas were brought from Europe, where small, rectangular gardens just outside the home meant food, flavoring and medicine.

Over the years, our gardens expanded to include a rectangular front and back yard with rectangular beds of flowers or shrubs around foundations. Later, tract houses came complete with one tree on each side of the sidewalk - a rectangular slab that shot from the curb to the front door. The design had nothing to do with religion.

Japanese garden design - guided by divine spirits

Japanese garden design began in China around 170 BC. An emperor fenced off an especially beautiful area of his kingdom and brought into it unusual rocks and unique plants.

For the next two thousand years, oriental garden design was guided by the practice of several ancient religions. These taught the presence of divine spirits within mountains, rocks, trees and water; the importance of the garden as a miniature representation of the world; and the garden as an inspirational place for meditation.

Four types emerged in Japan

In Japan, four garden types emerged: courtyard gardens, strolling gardens, tea gardens and dry gardens. Each of these has interesting elements we can use in our own gardens.

Courtyard Garden

Originally a small garden between two houses, these are placed where they can be seen close-up from more than one vantage point. No matter where someone stands to view it, however, it is arranged so everything in the garden cannot be seen at once.

This is meant to slow the viewer, to make him or her take time to find and absorb all there is to see.

Strolling garden

A much larger version of the courtyard garden, a strolling garden has long walking paths throughout. Straight lines and right angles are avoided. Curving paths and stepping stones are used again to slow one's journey, partially obscure parts of the garden and increase the enjoyment of each view.

This "hide-and-reveal" concept is the exact opposite of American home landscaping, where the view of the house and yard from the street creates "curb appeal." Instant gratification: See it all. Done. Move on.

Tea house garden

While we don't have tea houses in our backyards, many of us have outside areas for entertaining. Along the curving paths to the tea house, metal or stone lanterns were placed for lighting at dusk. Today, solar-powered and electric lighting fixtures can create a softly lit ambiance similar to these lanterns.

Dry garden

Created in Zen Buddhist monasteries as focal points for meditation, these gardens were enclosed by high walls. Large rocks representing specific entities stood in careful arrangements within the walls. The remaining spaces were filled with gravel, which monks raked into patterns representing the movement of water around the rock "islands."

Rocks in landscaping

How many of us use rocks in our landscaping? Rocks add wonderful contrast in texture to gardens. From smooth granite and quartz to honeycombed limestone, Texas has a bountiful treasure of rocks for home landscapers.

In Japanese gardens, tall, vertical rocks were sometimes designated "guardians." Large flat rocks were sometimes deemed "meditation" rocks. Exercise your imagination or a child's by naming some of your rocks. Putting a weed barrier beneath the rocks and placing gravel around them would allow for some creatively raked patterns.

Water conservation - xeriscape

Dry gardens are being embraced by many gardeners concerned with water conservation.

The term "xeric" applies to plants, trees and turf that can survive on little water per year.

Placing these plants together in areas of the yard that otherwise would require daily or weekly watering is a positive step in helping conserve water in our state.

Visit Japanese gardens in Texas

Observing, learning and putting to use new gardening techniques is one hallmark of a great gardener. Consider visiting one or more of the authentic Japanese gardens located in the Botanical Gardens of San Antonio, Fort Worth and Austin. Smaller gardens can be found in Houston and Fredericksburg. For sheer beauty and timeless inspiration, they are worth the trip.

The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or vcmga@vicad.com.


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