Mary Payne MBE, Horticultural Consultant at Compton Acres, lends her insights on creating an authentic Japanese garden. Mary is responsible for the Japanese Garden at Compton Acres, Poole, which is widely regarded as one of the finest Japanese gardens in the country.
There are many different styles of garden in Japan and in each one the various elements have their symbolism. All are calm, serene, relaxing places and their gardens are an artform both from the layout and the plant cultivation.
The Japanese garden at Compton Acres was built in 1924 reflecting the worldwide travels of the owner Thomas Simpson. He is reputed to have brought Japanese craftsmen and artefacts to create the garden, which is virtually unchanged since its inception. It is in a classic style displaying many of the features one would expect to see, such as water, stepping stones, a tea house, red painted footbridges, stone lanterns and statuary, as well as traditional plants including Japanese maples, cherries and colourful azaleas.
Compton Acres’ Japanese garden is an example of what is sometimes called a ‘stroll garden’ – taking the visitor on a journey through a representation of a landscape in miniature with red lacquered bridges, differing views and traditional ornaments. Here the planting reflects the natural seasons, starting with cherries in the spring, followed by true Moutan peonies (Paeonia suffruticosa) and evergreen azaleas, Japanese water iris (Iris ensata) in high summer, leading to the fiery autumnal tints of the Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) in their many forms. Much time and care are taken in training and pruning plants such as pines to look old like giant ancient bonsai rather than topiary shapes. Water is always a feature. This style is suitable for more extensive layouts and may involve contouring land to create valleys and mounds.
The other broad style is aimed much more at meditation and is associated with Zen Buddhism. Here the garden may be as simple as raked sand and / or gravel representing the oceans. Rocks may be used to symbolise islands. Planting may be minimal, and often in shades of green using bamboo and moss.
But, we do not all have the desire, space, nor the pocket, to create an extensive stroll garden, nor a truly minimalist style, but elements of these can be used to create your own personal oriental space in even the smallest of courtyards. Artefacts such as stone lanterns and Buddhas are all readily available these days. A pagoda represents religion and spirituality. Water represents calm, and the essential of life. A water feature could replace a pool using a drilled rock set in gravel or a simple bamboo Shishi Odoshi (deer scarer). Thick bamboo canes can be tied together to make low fences or plant supports.
Plant selection must be guided by the location in respect of sun or shade, and if solely Japanese natives are required. Japanese maples prefer a sheltered position. Care must be taken when selecting bamboos as many are prone to spreading. Those belonging to the genus Fargesia are clump forming and come in many sizes. Hostas are ideal when surrounded by gravel, as they are less likely to be attacked by snails. Moss, so loved in Japanese gardens, is difficult to grow in the UK climate, but may be substituted by the slow growing Dwarf Mondo Grass (Ophiopogon japonicus ‘Minor’). Avoid the temptation to use Mind Your Own Business (Soleiria soleirolii), especially in warmer areas as it spreads rapidly. Hakon grass (Hakonechloa macra) is useful for adding autumnal tinted foliage. For damp shaded area the attractively marked foliage of the Japanese Painted fern (Athyrium nipponicum ‘Pictum’), or the evergreen Japanese Lace fern (Polystichum polyblepharum) would be ideal. Dwarf pines can be maintained by pruning out the new shoots. The Fuji cherry (Prunus incisa ‘Kojo-no-mai’) makes an excellent substitute for flowering cherry trees in a small space, and its wiry twigs add winter interest before the spring flower and autumn foliage colours.
On an acidic soil the compact growth of evergreen Kurume azaleas can be used to add vibrant spring colour, while the Japanese wisteria (Wisteria floribunda ‘Macrobotrys’) could be trained as a standard to display its incredibly long flower clusters. For winter fruits the so-called Sacred bamboo (Nandina domestica ‘Richmond’), although not a true bamboo, has excellent evergreen foliage, and white flowers, followed by red long-lasting berries.
The calm and tranquility of a Japanese style garden of whatever size can make a low maintenance garden ideal for all ages. A space in which to think, meditate, or reflect in this bizarre, frenetic world in which we live.