Category Archives: Japanese Gardens

The Art of Borrowed Scenery

Reading The Garden of Evening Mists has awakened my interest in the art of Japanese traditional gardens. Does it have any relevance to my garden? A stark landscape of carefully raked sand and carefully placed boulders wouldn’t do it for me. But maybe there is some wisdom in this centuries-old tradition that will make my garden more beautiful, more tranquil. I’ll take a look.

The novel emphasizes one element of Japanese garden design described as the “borrowed view.” Elements outside the garden are considered part of the garden and should be incorporated.  It’s good to remember that most Japanese private gardens are enclosed.  Borrowed elements could be the sky, trees, hills or water. They are appropriated from outside to enhance the inside of the garden. Openings are created to view them. Examples would be an open gate, an arbor or an opening in a hedge. Okay, I want to highlight my view of water; I don’t want to dwell on the view of my neighbor’s air conditioning unit.

 The Japanese garden imitates nature; seasons are important. In spring the soft colors of new bulbs appear even as the branches are still bare. Summer in Japanese gardens is not so much for the brightness of flowers but for the coolness of greenery as a respite from the hot weather. I can see that but I wouldn’t want to do away with lilies and black eyed Susan’s and coreopsis. Fall needs a color change to represent the bounty of the growing season’s end. Yes, bring on the mums and orange pumpkins and golden squash.  Winter plays up the structure of plants. Snow may even give definition to the grace of bare branches. Each season does have its own beauty. It’s worth remembering to consider all seasons when planning what to plant.

Proportion is important in Japanese garden thinking. A large shade tree is out of proportion in the average home landscape. It belongs in a park or public garden where its size is in scale with larger spaces. I never thought of it before but the elements in a private garden should be in proportion to the human body. Maybe that’s why I like my dwarf Alberta spruce. The spaced apart two in my front yard feel comfortable. The two in my side yard that, of necessity, I turned into topiaries and under-planted with astilbe make me smile.

I’m planning a deck and patio and am glad to bump into this wisdom on the importance of scale before it’s too late. Too big or too small will forever be jarring with no chance of a do-over. Pruning the shrubs is doable; it’s even therapeutic. No pruning the patio.

The view is what a Japanese gardener is looking for. That’s the view from inside. Large windows are a big help. And, foundation planting is purposeless as it can’t be seen when small and obstructs the view when big. So the shrubs go from mid garden to back garden and will help create a sense of depth in the garden

Setting out a pagoda in an eastern shore garden may not look authentic. But considering native plants for each season may be. Installing a koi pond in blue heron fly-over country may not be smart, but creating a water feature may subtly inspire peacefulness.