Japanese Gardens For Small Spaces

Date Posted: 30 December 2020

A lot of the time, when we think of a Japanese garden, we think of wide open spaces, streams, rocks, stunning cherry blossoms and a place to sit back and take in the world around us. But as is the case with many of us these days, unless you live in the countryside, access to outdoor space is limited. A standard 3 bedroom semi detached house may only have a modestly sized yard, while some city dwellings are afforded even less. 

Even in its country of origin, the Japanese garden is not always a large, luxurious one. As more and more people are struggling for large open spaces, especially in urban or even suburban areas, gardens have had to accommodate to meet this way of living. In fact, smaller gardens have just as much importance in Japanese culture as large ones, with just as richer a history. And just like in Japanese homes, they can be enjoyed and utilised by anyone hoping for a serene and beautiful outdoor space. 

Why are Japanese gardens perfect for small spaces?

Contrary to what you may think, this style of gardening may be precisely what your tiny outdoor area needs to feel complete. The perception of the Japanese garden as an enchanted, green landscape is not what the heart of Japanese gardening is about. In fact, at the heart of it is minimalism. 

Because of this, smaller Japanese gardens can really thrive and take full advantage of the spiritual and psychological concepts that this space is supposed to provide. A place for relaxation and reflection, being able to shut out the outside world and its material things and focus on the natural world around you. The simplicity in beauty and nature, rather than an overblown, artificial reflection of what that means. 

What kinds of small Japanese gardens are there?

If you are a gardening novice, or at the very least a Japanese gardening novice, then a helpful starting point may be drawing inspiration from existing types of Japanese garden that make use of a smaller space. While these are fairly broad styles and types, they can be a useful springboard for ideas and possibilities.

Firstly, we have Karesansui, also known as a dry landscape garden. Water, which is such an essential symbolic element of any Japanese garden, is replaced with sand, gravel and rocks to create a similarly fluid design that very much resembles water and provides the same tranquil and sensory environment. Plants are rare in these sorts of gardens, but they can be found on occasion. The essence, however, of a garden such as this is to not be tempted to fill the empty spaces, but to accept the beauty that they provide. And because 

Secondly, we have Tsukiyama or hill gardens. In Japanese, the word ‘Yama’ means mountain, and so it stands to reason that these small spaces primarily rely on some sort of artificial hill. Rocks or plants are also usually found around the hill to further compliment it and make it a focal point of the garden. The benefit of this kind of garden is its versatility. The hill may be as large or small as the space you have, making it a perfect choice for those with limited space. 

The third kind of small garden type is a Chaniwa or tea garden. Physical structures may be one of the most recognisable aspects of a Japanese garden, from bridges to teahouses. A traditional teahouse is usually accessed by some sort of stepping stone or path, with the intention being that the person in question contemplates and reflects on their way there. And while extremely small spaces, such as balconies or tiny yards, may not be suitable for this style of garden, teahouses come in all shapes and sizes and could easily be made to fit a slightly smaller space with the right design and imagination.

How to create your own small Japanese garden

After you have an idea of what kind of styles of small gardens are available to you, you’ll be able to pick and choose which elements you feel are suitable for your personal space. Here are some of the considerations you may want to keep in mind if you are designing a garden from the ground up on your own.

Viewing Points

Small spaces can be rewarding, but tricky to pull off. Whereas with a large garden, you may have multiple angles from which to view it, both from indoors and in the garden itself, a small Japanese garden is not quite that simple. You may only have room for one focal point - such as an artificial hill or rockery and placing it in the correct place can make all the difference to your experience and enjoyment of the space. After all, Japanese gardens are all about interacting with the space as opposed to passively observing it. 

What do you want to get out of your Japanese garden?

Everyone’s experience of the outdoors will be different and Japanese gardening has so many symbolic aspects to it that you have a wealth of options when it comes to cherry picking what you want to include in a limited space. Some options may be more functional, whereas gardens focusing on zen will be less for entertaining and more for reflection or meditation. Remember that at their core, Japanese gardens are all about symbolism and looking beneath the surface. Research and discover which of these symbolic elements relate to you the strongest and make them a priority.

Start big

As with any small space, it’s vital you consider your focal point or hardscape first. Japanese gardening may be simplistic, but that doesn’t mean that it is void of physical structures. Benches, pathways, teahouse or even small ponds can easily dictate the look of a small garden in a way that it might not if you have an abundance of space. Use these elements to your advantage and work your design around them should you choose to include them. 

But think small

Even if you’re building your garden around a larger focal point, remember to keep it simple. Cluttering a small Japanese garden will only detract from its simplicity and aesthetic appeal. Choose your plants selectively and try to pick evergreen varieties that you’ll be able to enjoy all year round and avoid the need to plant too much. 

In this case, moss can be a saving grace. It is one of the most iconic and beautiful parts of a Japanese garden with a rich symbolism to it that will just make your space that much more authentic. There is nothing more simple than something that grows by itself, and thanks to the humid conditions in Japan, it thrives in gardens over there. Including it into a small space is perfect. By blanketing your space with moss, you’ll instantly get that soft, luscious look that will instantly relax you, without the need for countless plants.


Small Japanese gardens carry a unique charm, and are a great way of bringing nature that little bit closer. When it comes to your design process, thinking minimalistically should be at the core. Where you might have three or four elements in a larger space, try to achieve the same effect with just one.

Whether it be using moss as your primary plant, or including a water basin rather than a pond, there is always something you can downsize whilst still making the space recognisably Japanese.