What makes an Asian-inspired garden?

Debbie Arrington

In Japan, gardening is more than plants and their care; it's a philosophy. Each element of the garden represents an ideal, a physical representation of a spiritual pursuit.

And like bonsai, no garden is ever "finished." It's an evolving, living work of art.

Gardens can be broken down into basic styles and may contain more than one. Karesansui –– rock gardens or dry Zen gardens –– are places for meditation; white sand, raked into ripples and waves, replaces water. Roji gardens are simple and rustic, centered by a teahouse or similar structure. Kaiyu-shiki-teien invite visitors to follow a path around the garden to see carefully composed landscapes. Tsubo-niwa are small courtyard gardens with exquisite detailing.

Every plant, stone and accessory is deliberately placed to be part of a harmonious scene. Nothing is by chance; even the shadows cast by tree branches are deliberate.

Adapted to American backyards, these gardens may be part of a larger landscape or tucked into a corner or side yard.

While each garden is as individual as its creator, some elements are common:

-- Water. These gardens always have some representation of water, such as a pond, waterfall or fountain. In dry gardens, white sand represents water.

-- Stone or rock. With water, stones and rock represent the garden's duality –– its yin and yang, opposites that complete each other. Depending on shape and placement, they may represent mountains or Earth itself. They're often grouped in multiples of three, five or seven. River rock, gravel and sand complement the larger boulders.

-- Garden architecture. Teahouses are the most common and offer the garden a focal point as well as a place to contemplate the garden.

-- Bridges. Often seen arcing over a streambed, they represent the path to paradise.

-- Stone lanterns. These five-part lanterns, like pagodas, represent five elements of Buddhist philosophy: earth, water, fire, air and spirit.

-- Water basins. Placed at a garden's entrance, they allow visitors to wash their hands and mouths.

-- Fish. Usually brightly colored koi or goldfish, these are swimming garden ornaments. They add a decorative touch to the pond.

-- Plants. There are no big beds of annuals or straight rows of hedges. Instead, plant placement is made to look natural, as if each shrub or tree had grown forever in its specific place. Evergreens –– in several subtle shades of green –– are preferred. But autumn color is important, too, making Japanese maples a natural choice. Flowers tend to be pastel with a few bright bursts of hot color. Everything is very controlled. Bushes are trimmed into balls or rounded shapes to imitate the flow of water.

-- Plant suggestions. Japanese maples, flowering cherry and plum trees, black pines, azaleas, yew pines, lily turf or Scotch moss, dwarf conifers, bamboo, Japanese forest grass, nandina (heavenly bamboo), camellias, wisteria, ferns, irises and, of course, bonsai.

Contact Debbie Arrington at darrington@sacbee.com.