3 Small Japanese Garden Ideas for Backyards

Small Japanese garden-corner garden with maple, fern, bamboo and lantern
My Garden Life
March 27, 2023
Table of Contents

Japanese garden styles are a source of inspiration for anyone who wants to transform their backyard into a beautiful garden, even if they’re short on space. 

They incorporate natural elements like water, sand, and rock to make a harmonious atmosphere without being too ornate. 

Japanese Garden Design Principles

The traditional Japanese style garden is a reflection of Japan’s centuries-old culture and values. The design follows the principles of natural beauty while utilizing balance, symmetry, and contrasting elements. These gardens are designed to evoke a sense of peace and tranquility.

Traditional Japanese gardens typically feature pathways made from stones or gravel, ponds, streams, waterfalls, islands, bridges, and rocks. Plants are chosen to complement the season, with blooming flowers in the springtime and foliage in autumn. Trees such as maples, cherry, and pines provide a sense of deliberate arrangement.

small Japanese garden-stone paver path winding through a classic Japanese garden filled with ornamental trees and shrubs

The specific elements that make up a Japanese style garden vary according to region and period, with some being more traditional while others modern. A few examples of common elements include:

  • Stone or gravel pathways and walkways, arranged in a winding manner to create a sense of surprise and discovery
  • Ponds, streams and waterfalls featuring koi fish, turtles and other aquatic life 
  • Bridges crossing over the ponds and streams, often made from wood or stone 
  • Islands of various sizes and shapes connected by bridges 
  • Rocks, stones and boulders arranged in a specific manner to symbolize mountains or islands
  • Plants chosen for their texture, color and shape, with seasonal variations such as cherry blossoms in the springtime
  • Lanterns, statues, and other decorative elements which may represent various deities or pay homage to a famous landmark 

The goal of a Japanese style garden is to evoke an appreciation for nature, balance and harmony. Use the space between each element to create a sense of calm and serenity. With careful attention to detail and thoughtful consideration of design principles, you can create a peaceful, beautiful garden of your own. 

Types of Japanese Garden Design for Small Spaces

One of the difficulties in recreating a beautiful garden in your backyard is the limited availability of space around modern homes. Japanese gardens, also known as pleasure gardens, often include extensive water features and vast areas covered in lawns, trees, and plants. 

But you can have a beautiful Japanese garden even in a smaller backyard; here are three Japanese garden styles you can apply regardless of the space available. 

1. Japanese Rock Garden (Zen Garden)  

Also called Zen garden, a Japanese rock garden is a perfect place for quiet contemplation and meditation. 

What makes this ideal for a small backyard is that its concept relies mainly on miniaturized styles. Traditional Zen gardens are created in a small space and feature carefully arranged rocks. Trees and bushes are pruned to look like miniature versions, and sand or gravel are used to represent water. 

Small Japanese garden-a backyard Japanese style Zen garden with large stones, plants and gravel.

Monasteries, in earlier versions of Zen gardens, built walls to enclose three sides. You also can recreate the rock garden in the interior of the house to create an indoor Zen garden.  

4 Ideal Plants for a Japanese Zen Garden

Bamboo

Bamboo is a must-have for a Zen garden to give it an authentic Japanese feel. Bamboo’s tall, thin stalks help create an air of tranquility, while its strength and resilience are a symbol of inner peace.

Small Japanese garden-close up of the canes and foliage of a bamboo plant.

Moss

Moss is essential for any Japanese Zen Garden, as it adds texture and depth to the area. It also helps to keep the soil healthy and provide vital nutrients for other plants.

Small Japanese garden-a round rock half covered with green moss with a spruce tree branch in the background.

Stonecrop/Sedum

Stonecrops (also commonly known as sedums) are a great way to add color and texture to your Zen garden. These vibrant flowers come in many different hues, and their delicate petals create a peaceful atmosphere. Plants are available that are low and spreading, or look for larger, clumping forms that will provide rich color in late summer.  

Small Japanese garden-close up of a pink sedum acre plant in full bloom with a large limestone rock in the background.

Bonsai

Bonsai is an essential element of any Japanese Zen Garden. These miniature trees help bring the beauty of a woodland to a small space.

Small Japanese garden-a bonsai maple tree placed on a pedestal in an outdoor garden with a slatted fence in the background.

2. Japanese Courtyard Garden  

In Japan, courtyard gardens are widely built not only inside private homes but also at commercial spaces like hotels and offices. 

The reason for its popularity is that a courtyard garden can fit into a small space and, if set up carefully, this type of garden is straightforward to create and maintain. 

Courtyard gardens usually include relatively simple elements like a stone lamp, a small pond with stepping-stones and a few plants or small trees. 

Small Japanese garden-a Japanese courtyard garden with small trees, Japanese lanterns, bamboo and moss with a winding stone path.

In Japanese tradition, entry into the garden is prohibited. The courtyard space is meant to be admired from outside, although you can enjoy your garden however you wish. 

A courtyard garden can also be located inside a walled area at the rear of a house, in cases when the house was not constructed with a courtyard. 

Courtyard gardens provide modern homes with a glimpse of nature which is otherwise not possible in crowded towns and cities.

4 Ideal Plants for a Japanese Courtyard Garden

Japanese Maple

Japanese maples are a classic choice for any courtyard garden. Their petite size adds height to a courtyard without overwhelming the space. The delicate leaves offer great visual interest that can be enjoyed at eye-level. Varieties are available in different leaf colors and textures so there are many options to get the look you’re seeking.

Small Japanese garden-Close up of a small laceleaf Japanese maple, Acer palmatum var. dissectum, with ornamental evergreen shrubs in the background.

Japanese Quince

Japanese quince is a slow-growing shrub that is perfect for a sunny to partly sunny courtyard garden. Its small, fragrant flowers bloom throughout the summer, adding color over a long season.

Small Japanese garden-close up of a branch of rosy-red quince flowers, Chaenomeles japonica.

Camellias

Camellias are beautiful flowering shrubs that produce long-lasting flowers in various shades of pink, red, and white. They are a great addition to a courtyard garden, adding color, texture, and height to an area.

Small Japanese garden-close up of lush pink camellia flowers on a camellia shrub, Camellia japonica.

Snowbell

In summer months, Japanese shrubs such as the snowbell, Styrax japonicus or the Styrax obassia, produce a stunning display of white bell-shaped flowers. The blooms dangle in clusters along the branches.

Small Japanese garden-close up of a snowbell tree branch with dangling clusters of white blossoms. Styrax japonicus, Styrax obassia.

3. The Japanese Hermitage Garden  

The hermitage garden incorporates miniature versions of other Japanese styles in a single space. 

In the original concept, the house plays as important a part as the garden itself. Usually, an old, rustic house is the central element with a small backyard featuring the garden. The garden is typically comprised of a pond, a miniature rock garden, and trees and plants.  With winding pathways, the hermitage garden allows its users to retreat, being guided away from the hustle and bustle of the city. 

Small Japanese garden-a hermitage style backyard Japanese garden with a winding stone path leading to a small tea room.

Creating this garden in the backyard will give any residence a feel of the woods, even if it’s located in the city. 

With different garden styles incorporated into one garden, a hermitage garden is flexible in its design. Better yet, it gives the owner a sense of tranquility and peace even in a noisy city.  

5 Ideal Plants for a Hermitage Japanese Garden

Black Pine

Black pine (Pinus thunbergii) is an excellent choice for anyone looking to add evergreen color to their garden. By using the technique known as “cloud pruning”, you can shape the foliage into gentle cloud-like shapes that are pleasing to the eye. As old needles drop from the black pine tree, they help create acidic soil which is ideal for growing azaleas and rhododendrons as companion shrubs.

Small Japanese garden-two small Japanese black pine trees on a rocky ledge next to a koi pond with fish swimming by. Pinus thunbergii.

Wisteria

Wisteria is a fragrant flowering vine that can be used in many ways in the hermitage garden. Use it on a fence, wall, pergola, or arbor at the entrance to your garden. Wisteria’s sweet scent adds a calming atmosphere, and its cascading flower clusters add a dreamy beauty to any space.

Small Japanese garden-a rustic stone wall covered with a mature wisteria vine covered with dangling clusters of purple flowers. Wisteria sinensis.

Azaleas

Azaleas are one of the most popular shrubs used in Japanese gardens. These flowering plants come in many colors and sizes, and azalea’s dense foliage gives your garden a lush look. Azaleas provide a burst of color in the spring.

Small Japanese garden-close up of a cluster of pink azalea flowers.

Japanese Iris

Japanese iris are a popular choice for gardens with patches of wet soil or edging small ponds. They come in various shades of blue, purple, pink, and white, and their unusual flower forms add an interesting touch to the area.

Small Japanese garden-close up of clumps of Japanese iris in shades of lavender to purple. Iris ensata.

Ferns

Ferns are great for adding soft texture and greenery to a Japanese garden. Ferns come in many varieties with different leaf forms and some with colorful foliage. Look for hardy fern varieties that will return year after year.

Small Japanese garden-close up of Japanese painted fern fronds. Athyrium niponicum.

Anyone Can Create a Beautiful Japanese Garden

Creating your own Japanese style garden is a rewarding and creative experience that can bring joy to you and your guests for years to come. Achieving balance, harmony, and beauty requires careful consideration of the elements involved. 

Small Japanese garden-a garden corner packed with decorative Japanese garden elements; bonsai, lanterns, sculpture, tea room, stone path, gravel and colorful shrubs.

You can create an outdoor space that reflects your own style while incorporating traditional elements found in Japanese gardens. The end result will be a unique and beautiful blend of modern sensibilities and timeless principles. Whether you choose to add a few traditional elements or build an entire garden from the ground up, creating your own Japanese style garden is sure to bring you peace and serenity. 

Relaxing with a cup of tea is the perfect way to enjoy your new Japanese garden space. You can make your own custom tea blends when you Plant a Tea Garden. Discover common, easy-to-grow herbs along with ideas for laying out your tea garden.

4 Comments

  1. Jackson White

    I like the efforts you have put in this, regards for all the great content.

    Reply
      • Pauline

        Your gardens are beautiful .I have a tiled inner courtyard with our apartment not a lot of sun. How could I create one in pot.I am in Australia

        Reply
        • My Garden Life

          You could make a fairy-style garden in a large bowl or shallow pot with a Japanese garden theme. You might check hobby shops or online for sources of miniature items like garden benches or Japanese lanterns. Use aquarium gravel to create paths or a Zen gravel garden and small rocks for added dimension. Use plants with tiny leaves or tree seedlings such as juniper, to simulate garden plants.

          Reply

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