Japanese gardens are minimalist by design. Much of the interest is created using small details like foliage texture and color rather than a lot of flowers. Many of the plants are bent and persuaded into living sculptures. Each plant is carefully selected to evoke an emotion or a memory. Whether the goal is an authentic Japanese garden or a garden designed with Japanese influence, certain plants are considered staples of Japanese garden design.
Pine trees are one of the most common conifers found in Japanese gardens. The black pine (Pinus thunbergii) is the most popular over-story tree. The plated black bark next to the deep green twisted needles creates a noticeable presence in the garden. It is an open-branched sculptural tree that is equally wide as it is tall.
If pruned from a young age, these trees can be kept small enough to grow them in containers. The goal is to make the trees appear weathered by the wind and elements. Sometimes the branches are tied or staked in chosen positions. Once they begin growing at the right angle, the props are removed. The needles of black pine are concentrated at the branch tips, so they work well for a topiary method called cloud pruning.
Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) come in many sizes and varieties. The delicate cut-leaf shrub form of maple (Acer palmatum "Dissectum") is a popular addition to Japanese gardens. The dissected maple need protection from the afternoon sun, as they are prone to burning. The next size up, mid-sized Japanese maples, are 6-10 feet tall. The largest Japanese maples are between 18 and 25 feet tall at maturity. The green-leaved varieties display intense orange, red and purple fall colors. Many Japanese maples also have interesting winter bark.
Azaleas and rhododendrons are in the same family. Azaleas have smaller leaves and blooms and some lose their leaves in winter. Rhododendrons are evergreens and are larger than azaleas. These are among the most popular flowering shrubs used in Japanese garden design. White flowering azaleas and rhododendron are used the most.
All Japanese gardens should include at least one form of bamboo. Many gardeners avoid bamboo because of its invasive qualities. These are well-founded concerns, as they run underground and can surface far from the original plant. Clumping bamboos are easier to control. The crown continues to enlarge but they will not spread by runners. The clumping form can be grown in large containers and divided when necessary.
Several types of bamboos exist: ground-cover bamboos, dwarf bamboos and mid-sized bamboos. The giant bamboos should be reserved for very large areas. The heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica) is a shrub that has bamboo-like qualities. It does not develop canes or become invasivel rather, its leaves give it the look of bamboo. Nandina develop white flower clusters and bright red berries.
The maidenhair tree (Ginkgo biloba) is one of the oldest plants in the world and is native to China. The small, shell-shaped leaves supply the fall garden with bright yellow color. When the leaves drop, they easily blow away, requiring little or no clean-up. The species reaches about 30 feet tall at maturity and has a wide crown. There are pyramidal varieties for narrow positions, and also dwarf forms for small gardens.
The most flamboyant plant used in Japanese garden design is the flowering cherry. Not all cherries are desirable, though. The best ones have horizontal branching, dark-colored bark and delicate double white or pink blooms. It is not the flower color that makes these trees stand out, but rather, the masses of bloom and interesting structure.
Flowers and Ferns
Perennial flowers and bulbs are not massed in Japanese gardens, but are used like exclamation points. The color palette is predominately white, purple and pale yellow. The key is to stay with cool or pastel colors so you see the garden as a whole without one plant stealing the show. Popular perennials are Japanese iris and peony. Ferns are often used around fountains and koi ponds. Mosses are grown in large swatches to evoke the feeling of calm. Ornamental grasses are used as accent plants in Japanese gardens.