The 5 Best Plants for Your Japanese Garden

Date Posted: 29 October 2020

Japanese gardens are a beloved aspect of Japanese culture that has become increasingly popular with gardening enthusiasts in the West. With their deep symbolism, enchanting aesthetics and connection to the natural world. A Japanese garden is above all, a feast for the senses and plants are just one element of the garden that can allow you to connect with the space, both visually and mentally.

However, if you are thinking of creating your own Japanese garden and growing some traditional plants, knowing where to start can be a challenge. With hundreds of years of history and countless plants to choose from, choosing a variety that both gives you the aesthetic you want, whilst also being relatively easy to maintain is a tricky balance to strike.

Below are some of our favourite examples that can plant the first seed in the step to creating your perfect Japanese garden. These plants differ in type and style to give some variation and will provide you with a treat for the eyes as you enjoy your very own corner of paradise.

As with any project, the best place to start is usually from the ground up. When you think of a Japanese garden, it’s very difficult to not think of a gorgeous mossy terrain as far as the eye can see; a soft blanket of green. There’s a good reason for that. The history of the Japanese garden is thoroughly intertwined with moss. In fact, Japan is home to about 2,500 species of moss alone and a Japanese garden without it seems unthinkable.

For most gardeners, moss is usually a mortal enemy, but for the Japanese garden, it will be your best friend. Moss symbolises many positive things in Japanese gardening, such as imperfection, harmony with nature and asymmetry; an aesthetic the Japanese call ‘Wabi Sabi’.

With its lack of respect for boundaries and ability to grow almost anywhere, moss is therefore a perfect plant to symbolise this traditional aspect to Japanese gardening that makes it so special. It also makes it a fantastic plant for beginners, as it will grow almost anywhere - in damp, shady conditions that flowers and other plants often find it near impossible to thrive in. The perfect start to a Japanese garden that is sure to set you on the right track.

Japanese forest grass
Staying on the ground for now with Hakonechloa Macra, or Japanese forest grass as it is more commonly known. Another shade-loving plant, this is a perfect and classic addition to any Japanese garden, especially for that dreary, overcast English climate.

Not only is this a visually stunning plant, with its gently cascading stalks that can droop over the side of plant pots and a distinct yellow tip that turns red in the autumn, but also for the impact it can have on your senses. The flexible stalks give off a distinct, beautiful rustling sound in the wind, which offers the viewer an aural sensation as well as a visual one.

The Japanese garden prides elements that stimulate as many senses as possible, especially your ears. Chimes, waterfalls, fountains are all staples for this reason. Therefore, a plant such as this that provides music to your ears is a must have.

Moving onto flowers, everyone wants to add a pop of colour into the mix. Ironically, most of the rhododendrons grown in Japanese gardens came originally from China, but they have remained an important part of the Japanese garden for hundreds of years.

Just like forest grass, rhododendrons thrive in a partially shaded environment, however, they are a little more difficult to grow. These beautiful plants need an acidic soil, preferably with a pH of around 5.0 to 6.0. This means that if your soil is more alkaline, you may have to grow them in a plant pot where you can treat the soil in the correct way. For those lucky enough to have the perfect conditions for such a plant, you must also ensure that the soil around the roots is kept cool, moist and well drained due to its shallow roots.

So while it may take a little more practice to grow a healthy rhododendron, the Japanese garden simply wouldn’t be complete without this delightful pop of pink amongst all the greenery.

Japanese pines
Japanese pines offer yet another taste of that traditional aesthetic that so many of us love about Japanese gardens. They are arguably one of the most attractive trees that you will find in a Japanese garden, with their soft, rounded features. They are also an evergreen plant, which is always an essential to any garden, regardless of what type of aesthetic you’re going for. Combining evergreen varieties with seasonal plants means you’ll be able to enjoy your hard work for the entire year, rather than ‘pine’ for the good weather to return.

For novices, or those with limited space, dwarf varieties may be the best solution, as they do not dominate the space or cause future headaches for yourself and your neighbours when they eventually grow too tall to manage. They also do not require much pruning - a definite advantage for busy gardeners. Just make sure that they are watered thoroughly and that your soil drains well, especially if you intend to grow them in full sun.

Plants such as this are a perfect addition to the entrance of a garden, framing the space beautifully and creating a stunning first impression. And as if its aesthetic appearance wasn’t enough, the pine needles help to make the soil around it more acidic when they drop - perfect for those rhododendron bushes you’re trying to grow.

Japanese maple
The Japanese maple comes in hundreds of varieties, so you will not be short of choice, especially if you are looking for the perfect size to fit your specific space. Once you have narrowed down your options, however, you’ll be able to enjoy the deep, rich colours that its foliage offers, as well as its eye catching, elegant shape.

The best time to incorporate these into your garden will be in the autumn with plenty of time before the ground freezes up. Come spring, you will have a real treat for the eyes as it starts to bloom. The most important detail to remember when it comes to taking care of a Japanese maple is that its soil needs to be constantly moist, so regular and thorough watering will be necessary if you wish to get the most out of this plant. Newly planted trees may require extra attention, as well as those grown during a period of drought.

This elegant tree can be utilised in a variety of ways in the Japanese garden and will work perfectly as both a border plant or a focal point itself. Depending on the variety and size you prefer, the maple tree could easily become the main event, making your garden into the perfect Japanese oasis.

There are countless plants that could be incorporated into a Japanese garden to give it a traditional feel. The most important thing to remember when choosing your own varieties is paying attention to what evokes a personal connection for you. Japanese gardens are visually stunning, yes, but more importantly, they exist to form a connection between the mind and the natural world.

Creating a Japanese garden in its truest form is extremely difficult and few have managed it to perfection. But keeping in touch with what makes these spaces so special and choosing your elements accordingly will help you achieve a space you can be proud of.