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Advanced Japanese Garden Design Tips
Expanding your knowledge

While gardening has evolved in many different ways around the planet, and each style has its own unique charms, something about Asian garden style has captured world-wide attention. Perhaps it is the simple lines and minimal look. Perhaps it is the utilization of the natural landscape as the ideal model, intrinsically connecting the viewer to the environment. Perhaps it’s the whimsy of lanterns, bridges and tea houses that captures the imagination. All I know is that I was instantly hooked, and that I needed to know more. And whenever that happens, I start reading, and when I start reading garden books, I usually buy them. There is an entire shelf of my garden bookcase dedicated to Asian garden style and I’ll give you a quick tour to help you choose books on the subject for your own library.

East meets West
Japanese gardens were my introduction to Asian garden style and make up the bulk of my topical collection. Unfortunately I do not speak or read Japanese, so I have had to do all my reading in English. The grandad of English books on Japanese gardening is a book by Josiah Conder titled Landscape Gardening in Japan. Conder was an architect of promise who in 1877, at the age of 25, was invited by the Japanese government to become the first instructor of architecture in the Engineering Department at the Imperial University, and is generally credited as the person who brought Western style to the country. Fortunately for us the exchange was not one way and Conder fell in love with the garden style of his adopted home (you English are pushovers for a good garden). This led to the release of The Flowers of Japan and the Art of Floral Arrangement in 1891 and the treatise being covered here in 1893. Besides being a great historical snapshot of the state of the Japanese garden at the turn of the century, it is still one of the best overviews of the topic, explaining why, after a hundred years, new editions continue to be released. Still the benchmark for all who follow.

The next great English (American, actually) tome on the Japanese Garden was Japanese Garden Construction by Samuel Newscom. Newscom felt that Conder had captured the theoretical aspect of the Japanese garden without presenting the more practical applications (While Newscom’s book is certainly more complete in this respect, it is in many ways beholden to, and some might say derivative of, the earlier work). If I had to choose one (happily, I do not), I would probably give Newscom the nod. He is indeed more technically complete and the inclusion of wood block prints from old Japanese manuscripts makes this a more complete work; in good Japanese tradition the student has surpassed the master…

East meets East
But I have only touched on books from the West and we are talking about an Eastern art form. In fact, the first known book on ornamental garden design was Tachibana No Toshitsuna’s Sakuteiki, written between 1150 and 1184. We now have a fine translation of that work under the title of Sakuteiki: Visions of the Japanese Garden, co-written by Jiro Takei and Marc P. Keane (both esteemed professors in Kyoto). While Conder’s and Newscom’s works deal with the physical aspects of the garden, the spirit of the Japanese Garden is captured in this ancient text.

There is technical detail here in abundance, but the true value of this book is the historical preamble on the subject and even more so in the translation itself; while many of the rules hold little meaning in a modern age, these are easily balanced by the invaluable guidance of others. “If there are stones that “flee”, then there should be stones that “chase” after; if there are stones that lean, then there should be those that lend support; if some proceed then others should acquiesce; if some face up, then others should face down; and to balance with stones that stand upright there should also be those that recline.” A lesson in proper placement of garden stones in a single paragraph; this is a most remarkable book, and Prof.s Takei and Keane should win medals for this book.

Stone setting in the Japanese Garden
Another ancient scroll of knowledge was the Senzui Naraba Ni yagyo no zu (Illustrations for Designing Mountain, Water, and Hillside Field Landscapes) by Zoen Sojo, now recently translated and commentated in David A. Slawson’s Secret Teachings In The Art Of Japanese Gardens. This is another scholarly treatment of an ancient text and you will gain as much information from the preamble as from the translation. But again, it is the spirit of the old masters that imparts the truest wisdoms. Mountain plants in mountain style gardens, seashore plants in seashore gardens… “When you make a landscape garden, maintain an attitude of reverence and respect, giving each aspect your full attention. You should solicit the skills and learning of others, and not simply do what you alone find interesting.” Reading that passage reminded me that Zoen was a Zen priest; it was very reminiscent of Dogen Zenji’s admonishments to his followers on their practice (Zen priests often designed gardens and were known as ishi tate so, or stone-setting priests). This book also introduces us to the 48 garden stones (while the subject is touched on in the preceding tomes, they are cursory on the subject) and gives brief descriptions for most. A favorite of mine for stone-setting…

Japanese garden design book: If you only buy one...
I know some of you are looking for the one good book on the subject to add to the library (as a garden bibliophile, I do not grasp the thinking here, but I will do my best to help out anyway). There are several good books in my library suited to this task. We have covered Prof. Keane’s translation of the Sakuteiki, but his book, Japanese Garden Design is a far more complete treatise on the subject (Marc Keane is no talking head; he has a design company in Kyoto and his work can be viewed at mpkeane.com ).

Besides being a masterful historical overview, a deep insight into the aesthetic, and an excellent study of the design principles and garden archetypes, this is a beautiful book, as Prof. Keane has had the good taste and fortune to use Haruzo Ohashi as his photographer (more on him in a moment). Prof. Keane has condensed an incredibly large and diverse subject into a manageable size without dismissing a single notable point; in fact the treatments of Japanese architectural style and their effect on the garden proper are more complete here than any other book I own. If I had to pick just one book on the subject, this would probably be it. Buy this book.

But wait, there's more!
Another book of value, especially to those who are looking to create their own Japanese garden, would be Creating Japanese Gardens by Philip Cave (again, an award winning designer with a practice in London). It follows much the same format as the previous selection, with a historical overview, commentaries on some of the most famous gardens and insights on design principles, but this one is more focused on the how-to aspect and the line drawings of different features like ponds or waterfalls would be invaluable to first-time garden designers.

Another book that fits this vein would be Teiji Itoh’s The Gardens Of Japan. While not the do-it-yourself manual that Mr. Cave’s book is, this one is full of pictures; indeed every chapter starts with a series of exquisite color plates that set up the text to follow. History, design principle, and technique are all covered here as well, but if pictures are worth a thousand words, then this is the most complete text so far. This book also looks at the modern Japanese garden; the preceding works all address the ancient styles and this book helps fill the void on the more recent stylings in Japan.

If you are looking for a how-to manual that leans heavily into the visual realm, then look no further than A Japanese Touch For Your Garden by Kiyoshi Seike, Masanobu Kudo, and David H. Engel. This is not a big book, but it is so crammed with pictures and photos, all geared for the home gardener, that it takes an honored and often used space on my shelf. This is the best treatment on fences and walls that I have found and worth it for that alone. If you are planning to build your own garden, you should not be without this book.

Show me photos of Japanese gardens
Perhaps all you want are pretty pictures of Japanese gardens. The aforementioned Haruzo Ohashi is generally recognized as the premier photographer of Japanese Gardens (he was also the photographer for the previous book!) and his three photo essays, The Japanese Garden: Islands of Serenity, Japanese Courtyard Gardens, and Japanese Gardens of the Modern Era are stunningly beautiful books. I have learned nearly as much from these books as any of the preceding tomes, and for those who are more visually stimulated, these are the perfect way to view the gardens of Japan without leaving the armchair.

There are a few books in the collection that aren’t strictly Japanese garden books, but certainly touch on the subject. Reflections Of The Spirit by Maggie Oster is certainly in this group; it is a wonderful look at the style and tradition of the Japanese Garden, but the photos are all of gardens here in the States. This book is even more valuable for the lists of plant and ornament sources and another of public gardens throughout the U.S.; one can read all they’d like on the subject, but true understanding can only come through experience (a very Zen take on things), so go visit a Japanese garden near you…

The Book of Tea
Interestingly, the premier book on the tea ceremony was written in English and in Boston! Okakura Kakuzo was the director of the Asian Art Collection at the Boston Museum of Fine Art when he wrote The Book Of Tea; while it touches only briefly on the garden it is still an excellent source on culture in general. To paraphrase an old Japanese saying, to know one art is to know all arts, and this book covers the wide appreciation the Japanese have for culture in general and how that love is brought together in the tea ceremony. Another great book on the minimalist aesthetic of Japan is Leonard Koren’s Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets, & Philosophers. This book is a short yet deep insight into wabi-sabi, the spirit of simplicity that pervades the best Japanese gardens. To go further into it would be to attempt explanation of the concept; too large a task for this article. If you are looking to capture the mystique, the inner spirit of Japanese design principles, this little book is a key to unlocking those secrets.

Trees and the Japanese garden
For those who feel that no Japanese garden is complete without a Japanese maple, J.D. Voorhees classic Japanese Maples is in it’s third edition, with many new cultivars added. Be aware that this is an international book and some of these cultivars may be difficult or impossible to locate in the States.

That said, this is the book for you if you want to know all there is on Japanese maples. For me, there is no surer sign of the Japanese influence as when moss is not attacked with lime and chemicals, but nurtured and cared for as any other garden plant. The only book I have found on the subject is George Schenk’s wonderful book, Moss Gardening: including Lichens, Liverworts and Other Miniatures. This is obviously a labor of love for the author, who covers species, culture and the title-noted relatives in a erudite, yet conversational manner and provides example from his own garden and those of acquaintances; this feels more like getting your info from a knowledgeable friend than a text book on the subject. Lovely book.

Bamboo is another feature that many associate with Asian gardens (it is more often found in the fence than in the garden in the old Japanese gardens, but is more popular today). Bamboos by Christine Recht and Max F. Wetterwald offers a look at the whole family species by species, along with propagation and cultivation information. This book is a must for those looking to introduce bamboo to their garden (doing it without some prior knowledge can lead to garden disaster of epic proportion!).

Now, consider China
We have concentrated on the Japanese garden so far, but this is an Asian garden article, so we head across the Sea of Japan to China. While this is not a long suit of my collection, I do have a few good books on the subject. First among them is a newer book from an established expert. Peter Valder is already known to you Aussies and Kiwis from the telly, if I’m not mistaken; I already knew his award winning book Garden Plants of China, but his latest one, Gardens in China is a new favorite. Although the history tends to be a little Anglo-centric, this is more than compensated for by the regional garden listings, each area of the country covered for general regional style and then a city by city, garden by garden tour of the chosen district.

It is in these descriptions of the individual gardens that give us the truer, native history of each of them, and where Valder’s real understanding of the subject becomes apparent. It is true that the garden came to Japan from China (by way of Korea), but the similarities are long gone. I would say the most obvious difference I can see between the styles is that the Chinese garden not only shows the hand of man in an obvious way, but the garden is a place for him to occupy, to live in, whereas the Japanese garden is a place to view, where the hand of man is implied, but muted, and nature is always the chief occupant (this IS an editorial comment and does not necessarily reflect the views of… oh, wait, yes it does…). But I digress. Peter Valder is a national treasure for you folks down under, and I’d love to visit Nooroo sometime and talk Asian gardens. Buy this book…

If you want the history of the Chinese garden, the essential work is now in its third edition. Maggie Keswick’s 1978 The Chinese Garden: History, Art and Architecture was many peoples first glimpse into the world of Chinese gardens and I feel still remains the benchmark work on the subject (there goes the invite to Nooroo). This is the book that captures the spirit of the Chinese garden and its place in the life of her people. The later editions get better and better with the additions of new photos and text by her husband and others; unfortunately Maggie is no longer with us. A great loss to the tribe of Garden, but her legacy will live on for generations to come.

And for those looking to create a Chinese garden for themselves, David H. Engels Creating a Chinese Garden (out of print) is an excellent choice for the budding enthusiast. This book touches only briefly on history and concentrates on design concepts and principles. While the other two books were very informative and entertaining, this is the one that made me feel I was beginning to understand the Chinese garden. Truly a must for the Chinese garden enthusiast.

No discussion of the Chinese garden would be complete without some books on the greatest contribution of the Chinese to the world of design; feng shui. Mt first two offerings in this vein apply specifically to the garden. The Feng Shui Garden by Gill Hale is a good overview for beginners on a very complex subject (I am always amused when TV designers start to crow about the feng shui room they are going to design, and then they simply paint everything red and gold, as if that was all there was to it). It gives a good synopsis of the different energies and then a section in the back to provide likely cures for any problems identified. Our next book is a little more advanced in scope and content. Lillian Too is an internationally acknowledged expert in the field, and her book Feng Shui For Gardens is an excellent indicator of just why that is. In her second publication (her first, The Complete Illustrated Guide to Feng Shui bears looking at as well), she delves into the deeper intricacies of the science, but in a matter-of-fact, easy to read manner that doesn’t confuse or obfuscate the topic. Packed with information, charts and lists, this is the book to put your garden (this all applies indoors, too) in auspicious order.

My final book on the subject is R.D. Chin’s Feng Shui Revealed. While not specifically a garden book (there is a chapter on that topic), this is the book that revealed the spirit of the art to me. Covering the science only briefly, he then dives directly into case studies from his own consulting business (in New York), and shows not just cause and effect, or cures for ills, but how to incorporate feng shui into a living area. The final section is all about feng shui cures and where to use them along with a problem and solution section I find particularly useful. A wonderful book for even the dabblers out there.

The rest of Asia
While Japan and China are well covered by gardening books, little seems available about the gardens of the rest of the continent. One man however is trying to right that wrong single-handedly. Lucca Invernizzi Tettoni has photographed and penned 5 books on just that subject. The Balinese Garden covers the gardens of that country in a garden by garden manner, Sarawak Style reviews the gardens of that region in the same manner, and my favorite, Thai Garden Style (with William Warren), is a treatment of that nation’s gardens in the same format.

The Tropical Garden and the newer Tropical Asian Style both take a multi-cultural tour of the region and may be the perfect books for those looking for a single book on the topic. These are all dazzling books; the photography could only be surpassed by the beauty of its subject and anyone who reads these books and doesn’t long for instantaneous transportation should have their sanity called to question. Wonderful works from a true professional; it makes me wonder what I was thinking when I chose to be a designer, when tropical garden photographer was one of the other choices!

This brings my particular list to a close; again, this is a list of personal favorites and is not meant to be a complete listing (any tomes of knowledge you feel I have left hanging should be brought to my attention by contacting us at the website). I hope I have inspired you to read up on this fascinating aspect of gardening and to add to your own library. At the very least, I hope I was helpful…

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