Japanese Garden Design, Zen and the Art of Balance

Whenever you hear someone mention Japanese gardens, what comes to your mind? For me the first thing I think of is bonsai plants and trees, unique decorative pots, a quiet but ever present sound of water flowing over rocks rolling into a pond, balance and tranquility. The one thing that always seems to define a true Japanese gardens is the art of Zen. I can’t describe what Zen is exactly but mot of us seem to know Zen when we see or experience it.

I’ve always held a fascination with Japanese Gardens, I guess it all started in my teens when working at a nursery a neighbor of the owner living across the street had a small Japanese garden. The neighbor was Japanese and was what we called a “war bride.” She kept the Japanese culture alive in her home from the rice cakes, decoration and even a small garden. Maintaining a Japanese Garden is truly an art.

japanese gardens

As an avid collector of plants I’ve been blessed to meet people from different places and cultures throughout the world. Our common bond is plants and their care, but it’s also interesting to see how many of these “friends” incorporate their love of plants and growing things into their lives.

Traveling to Hawaii was probably my first exposure to a “full size” garden dedicated to the Japanese art form.

My wife an I visited a plant collector on the island of Oahu, it’s the island where all the tourist go to start their Hawaiian adventure. The only information and communication we had prior to our visit was some snail mail passed back and forth and a phone call or two… long before the web came into being.

When we arrived at the home I immediately became awe struck with the true beauty the garden the moment I saw it. The peacefulness, balance of nature and the incorporation of plants, water, landscape rocks, containers, wood decks, pathways and small viewing areas, all rolled into one perfect scene I pictured from a book.

Each item was extremely neat, proportioned, clean and seemingly so delicate. I felt almost scared to walk up the path of the stones to the door as I felt my footsteps would disturb the tranquility.


Our host, about the build of a small Sumo wrestler must have seen the look of awe in my eyes, he greeted us and kindly stood with us, patiently explaining the whole tranquil setting. He took the time to not only expound on the beautiful garden but did it in a defining way that seemed to be “one with the garden itself.” He pointed out the bonsai specimens, explaining the unique features of each one. He also talked about the pond of Koi fish and explained that although they were Chinese, they added the element of prosperity to his Japanese garden.

Our visit flew by in just a matter of a few hours, yet it was a defining moment is my “life of plants” as I came face to face with plants not as a collector but plants as a part of our life.

How about you? What role do plants play in your life inside or outside? Do they help provide balance, a place of retreat and do they matter? In a Japanese garden plants, rocks, water, wood and fish come alive.

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