WASHINGTON – The objective of a Japanese garden is to establish a space that creates a mood of serenity and symbolism inspired by nature, designed in a controlled fashion. Typically this includes the use of rocks, gravel, water, statuary, bridges, wood and some plants that appear to be hundreds of years old. In a traditional Japanese garden, elements are representational of nature in human proportions.

Japanese gardens generally incorporate bonsai as a primary feature. Bonsai are used as accents, often on individual stands because they remain small enough to be kept in a pot.

These shrubs or trees are living sculptures, some of which have been grown and meticulously maintained for generations. Reducing trees that, in nature, might grow to 100 feet or taller to a few inches or a few feet tall is accomplished by rigorous pruning of branches and roots and is accompanied by careful care and nourishing. However, landscape-size plants are also used and trained to look like bonsai.

Having bonsai in your Japanese garden or indoors does not require growing genetically dwarfed plants, just working with seedling flora from companies that specialize in this type of stock. The same cultivation techniques are used: pruning, root reduction, potting, defoliation and grafting to produce small trees and shrubs that mimic the shape and style of mature, full-size plants.

Last spring, I spoke with two award-winning bonsai artists who participated in the Potomac Bonsai Association juried show at the National Arboretum’s Bonsai and Penjing Museum in Washington. Bob Chilton won first place this year, and Todd Stewart won second place in 2009. They are owners of Gardens Unlimited in Ladysmith, Va.

After I saw their entries, it was clear that bonsai was their calling. I visited a project their company was working on in a Richmond, Va., neighborhood of ancient oaks and 1920s-’30s era homes. They integrated a diversity of materials to create a Japanese garden featuring bonsai.

When we arrived at the home, our eyes were drawn toward a closed Japanese entrance gate to the side of the house. The gate is connected to a bamboo fence that follows the property line into the back yard, providing screening. The path leading to the gate is made of crushed gravel with inlaid rectangular stones and millstones. Mounded beds of 10 percent fine gravel, 40 percent composted bark and 50 percent soil grace the sides of the walkway approaching the gates. The mounds have moss-laden rocks on them and were planted with a dwarf Japanese maple (murasaki kiyohime), hinoki falsecypress and satsuki azaleas.

This garden is striking, with an array of plant material reflecting Japanese simplicity. There are statues, rocks, small self-contained water features, a bamboo water flute, square and round steppingstones and millstones, a round brick patio with a raked gravel edge and fire pit in the center, stands holding bonsai, and a stone bridge.

The site’s amenities and plants are incorporated into the garden on the ground, and on vertical and overhead planes. There is a maturing blue atlas cedar that appears to be wired and propped up bonsai style, and a weeping willow pruned to control the canopy. Edges at ground level are softened with hakone grass, acorus and satsuki azaleas. Big-leafed tropical plants in variegated and green forms brush your hand as you enter the house.

One of the most interesting aspects of the garden’s evolution was that it started with a drainage problem the landscape designers were called upon to fix. This house had endured flooding from virtually every heavy rain for decades, but the owners have had no water problems since the garden was completed.

The designers approached the problem with the understanding and common sense of diverting storm water downhill and away from the house. That’s the purpose of the dry streambed.


Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md., and author of “Anyone Can Landscape”(Ball 2001). Contact him through his website, www.gardenlerner.com.