Traditional Japanese Plants For Your Backyard Zen Garden

Do you want plants to recreate the harmonic peace of a traditional Japanese garden in your own back yard? Japanese gardens have a long tradition.

They look perfectly stylish, natural but at the same time perfectly manicured. They are balanced and they have clear elements, rules and some plants are better than others.

Some plants are naturally good for Japanese gardens because of some factors. They are evergreen perennials; they have an overall harmonic shape, or harmonic shapes of trunk and branches; they have stylish foliage or flowers; they are slow growers; they have a peaceful presence. These elements make them fit in with the overall concept of Japanese gardens.

If growing a Japanese garden is an art that appeals to you, look no further, because this is the article that will teach you the basics of traditional Japanese gardening and give you some of the best plants you can grow to make your backyard Zen garden look beautiful and realistic.

But before we meet these perfect plants for a Japanese garden, let’s see the 12 basic principles of Japanese gardens.

12 Core Principles of Japanese Gardening

12 Core Principles of Japanese Gardening

Understanding the core principles of Japanese gardening will help you make the best of the plants you choose. In fact, Japanese philosophy and mindset are very precise…

What goes where is very important for their aesthetic principles, in painting as well as in gardening.

So here are the key “rules”  for designing a Japanese-inspired garden:

  • Japanese gardens aim to bring a sense of harmony, peace and serenity. They are meant to convey and at the same time represent an emotional state, one of a meditative and harmonious nature.
  • Japanese gardens aim to achieve balance and proportion. You will never find a huge tree next to a very small bush… Every change of size and shape needs to be gradual. So…
  • There are some things to avoid at all costs. No dramatic contrasts, no harsh lines and shapes, no sudden changes of size and mood, no aggression towards the viewer whatsoever. Instead everything has to be balanced. If you use red, make sure there is plenty of green around it.
  • Japanese gardens need to look natural but very well kept. The shapes of trees, beds etc. all need to be soft, natural looking. They must look as if they were sculpted by wind and water. But at the same time, they need to represent a stylized version of what you find in Nature. So, they are all well shaped and trimmed.
  • A western person may look at a Japanese garden as “an improvement of a natural landscape”. An eastern person will look it as “a service to Nature”. Meditate on this!
  • Human intervention must be as invisible as possible in a Japanese garden. You need to shape trees and bushes, clean, trim, rake the gravel etc… But your impact must look like you don’t want to impose yourself on Nature. Look at it like walking on sand without leaving footprints. It is virtually impossible. But leave the smallest footprint ever and that quality in a Japanese garden.
  • Japanese gardens have 4 essential elements, or “ingredients”: plants, water, rocks (gravel) and human structures. You need to use all 4 to have a realistic and balanced garden.
  • In a Japanese garden, these 4 “ingredients” need to be balanced. None must be “dominant” and no element must look out of place. So…
  • Human structures need to be fully integrated in the landscape. Typical structures in Japanese gardens are doors and gates, pagoda pillars, statues and other artistic features. Make them of a size that fits in with the planting etc. But also put them where they look like they have always been there.
  • Incorporate or exclude the external landscape. Choose the views that fit in with your garden and incorporate them. Conversely, exclude any modern, harsh discordant view like blocks of flats, factories etc…
  • Japanese gardens do not use flowers the same way as Western gardens. We have big showy flower beds and borders flooded with flowers. Most of a Japanese garden instead is foliage. On the other hand, when flowers come, they come like a tsunami – the “cherry blossom effect”…
  • Finally, use lots of evergreens! Have you ever noticed that Japanese gardens are packed with them?

Here are the rules you will have to use to make your plants look “at home” in your Japanese garden.

So now let’s meet the protagonists of this articles: great plants for a Japanese garden!

12 Plants To Create Your Japanese Zen Garden

Here are the 12 traditional Japanese garden plants and flowers that meet the core principles you use in a backyard Zen Garden:

1. Buddha belly bamboo
2. Japanese maple
3. Japanese boxwood
4. Japanese sedge
5. Sawara cypress
6. Black bamboo
7. Japanese wisteria
8. Chinese elm
9. Painted lady fern
10. Garden juniper
11. Japanese cobra lily
12. Japanese quince

1. Buddha Belly Bamboo (Bambusa Ventricosa)

1.	Buddha Belly Bamboo (Bambusa ventricosa)

There is no Japanese garden without bamboo, and Buddha belly bamboo is both traditional and original. If any bamboo will do, let me show you Buddha belly and you will understand why it is special…

The bamboo stems (called “culms”)  of Buddha belly are fairly thick, about 1 inch wide (2.5 cm). They are rich emerald green and very glossy. But they also are divided into segments which form round rings, like bellies all the way up to the top of the plant. Sure you can see how sculptural this plant is.

On top of the Buddhist reference, this bamboo will also grow very tall. It will start with an upright habit, but the culms will bend under the weight of the foliage. The effect is very harmonic and peaceful.

The leaves themselves are long, up to 7 inches (18 cm) and very lush. It is also a fast growing plant so it is ideal to cover unsightly views and as a backdrop to a lovely “room” in your Japanese garden.

And yes, it does shake in the wind making that lovely whispering sound!

  • Hardiness: Buddha belly bamboo is hardy to USDA zones 9 to 12.
  • Light exposure: full Sun or partial shade.
  • Size: 40 to 50 feet tall (12 to 15 meters) and 30 to 40 feet in spread (9 to 12 meters).
  • Soil requirements: it will need a rich, well drained and fertile loam based soil. You will need to keep it humid at all times. It prefers acidic soil, with pH between 5.5 and 6.5, but it will adapt to neutral soil and tolerate slightly alkaline soil too.

2. Japanese Maple (Acer Palmatum)

2.	Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum)

Another plant that cannot moss from a Japanese garden is Japanese maple. This is a small, elegant deciduous tree with beautiful palmate leaves and a very stylish, growth habit.

The trunk in fact trends to grow to the side (but sometimes upright). Then the branches grow horizontally and arch a bit. Basically it is a natural ideal Japanese tree.

There are many varieties and cultivars to choose from, changing mainly in size and leaf color, but also in the shape of the leaves. Laceleaf varieties have segmented leaves. This makes them lighter and more elegant.

So ‘Sango Kaku’ has yellow leaves and red branches; ‘Orangeola’ is a laceleaf variety with warm brown purple leaves; ‘Shaina’’s leaves are deep purple, almost dark violet. And then there are green ones like laceleaf ‘Seiryu’ and red ones like laceleaf ‘Crimson Queen’ (flaming red), but also brown, orange etc.

You can see how a Japanese maple can really “make” your Japanese garden. So, choose well, choose wisely, but definitely choose one!

  • Hardiness: Japanese maples are usually hardy to USDA zones 5 to 8.
  • Light exposure: partial shade or full Sun.
  • Size: they vary from 2 to 30 feet in height and spread (60 cm to 9 meters).
  • Soil requirements: they adapt to well drained loam, chalk, clay or sandy soil with pH from acidic to neutral, ideally between 5.5 and 6.5. They are not drought resistant so water them regularly.

3. Japanese Boxwood (Buxus Microphylla Var. Japonica)

3.	Japanese Boxwood (Buxus microphylla var. japonica)

Japanese boxwood is a small to medium evergreen shrub with a compact habit and it is very useful for Japanese gardens. It has small but glossy, round and thick green leaves that will keep your garden lush even in winter.

But there is more; this plant, with a natural round or oval shape and dense foliage is perfect to “close gaps” in a Japanese garden.

Especially those at medium to low height. Many Western gardens have low beds next to tall trees with trunks in sight. That is no way acceptable in a Japanese garden.

It is also very adaptable to most types of soil and to full shade places…

Planted among other shrubs and small plants with more striking shapes, it will provide a sense of continuity and harmony while hiding those embarrassing “middle range gaps” we in the West keep not noticing…

  • Hardiness: Japanese boxwood is hardy to USDA zones 6 to 9.
  • Light exposure: full Sun, partial shade and full shade.
  • Size: 3 to 5 feet tall and in spread (90 to 150 cm).
  • Soil requirements: it is very adaptable to virtually any well drained soil. It grows in loa, clay, chalk or sandy soils with pH from fairly acidic to fairly alkaline. It is also drought resistant.

4. Japanese Sedge (Carex Oshimensis)

4.	Japanese Sedge (Carex oshimensis)

You will never see a Japanese garden without Japanese sedge. Its architectural, long and pointed leaves often of two colors, are a must next to gravel gardens or ponds…

While they add a dynamic and sculptural dimension to your peaceful garden, these plants also have a very balanced, harmonic overall shape. In fact, it is fairly round, and the stripes and lines within it find a solution in it.

There are also different varieties, like ‘Evercream’ with a central stripe of a light but rich green shade and the two lateral stripes are cream yellow to cream white.

Instead, Japanese sedge ‘Everest’ has a dark but glossy hunter green central stripe and snow white lateral ones for a stronger contrast. ‘Eversheen’ instead has a bright yellow central stripe and emerald green lateral ones…

  • Hardiness: Japanese sedge is hardy to USDA zones 5 to 9.
  • Light exposure: full Sun or partial shade.
  • Size: 10 inches to 2 feet tall and in spread (20 to 60 cm).
  • Soil requirements: it adapts to well drained loam, chalk, clay or sandy soil with pH between slightly alkaline to slightly acidic.

5. Sawara Cypress (Chamaecyparis Pisifera)

5.	Sawara Cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera)

This evergreen shrubby conifer is another essential plant for a Japanese garden. It adds depth of texture and color all year round and it has a very elegant and harmonious shape. In fact, unlike other cypresses it tends to produce short and proportioned cones.

It will provide constant green foliage at middle to middle high level in your garden and it requires little maintenance.

There are many varieties, like the classical award winner ‘Curly Tops’, dark silver green to steel blue with curled tips.

It is actually soft to touch… ‘Soft Serve Gold’ has green to yellow foliage instead. And ‘Golden Mop’ has drooping foliage with yellow gold reflexes.

  • Hardiness: Sawara Cypress is hardy to USDA zones 4 to 8.
  • Light exposure: full Sun to partial shade.
  • Size: 1 to 5 feet tall and in spread (30 to 150 cm).
  • Soil requirements: it needs well drained loa, chalk, clay or sandy soil bit on the acidic to neutral side, not above 6.5 preferably. Keep the soil humid with regular watering.

6. Black Bamboo (Phyllostachys Nigra)

6.	Black Bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra)

Black bamboo will add elegant dark vertical lines and thin see-through foliage to your Japanese garden. There are many types of bamboo you can choose for this type of gardens, but black bamboo has a special edge.

It looks exotic and unusual while being sophisticated and classy at the same time. Its culms (stems) are very dark with long segments. So you cannot miss them, and they sand out from a green backdrop.

Similarly, the foliage is beautiful but it allows you to see past it.

You can use it to partly mask or cover plants, trees or features beyond it, creating a very natural “forest like” look and a sense of mystery and intrigue.

  • Hardiness: black bamboo is hardy to USDA zones 7 to 11.
  • Light exposure: full Sun to partial shade.
  • Size: 15 to 27 feet tall (4.5 to 7.5 meters) and 8 to 15 feet in spread (2.4 to 4.5 meters).
  • Soil requirements: black bamboo wants rich and well drained soil. Loam is ideal but it is not fussy about the pH, which can be slightly acidic to slightly alkaline. Do keep it moist with regular watering though.

7. Japanese Wisteria (Wisteria Floribunda)

7.	Japanese Wisteria (Wisteria floribunda)

As a flowering plant, Japanese wisteria is perfect for gardens inspired by the Land of the Rising Sun.

Note that Japanese gardens do not have many scattered flowers here and there, like English garden borders… They use flowers in a different way…

And this is the way of wisteria: loads of flowers of the same type all at the same time. Just to take your breath away.

This is what we see with cherry blossoms and famous Japanese flower gardens… Vast monochrome blooms that spread to the horizon.

Of course wisteria is one of the most magnificent flowering plants ever, and you can choose among a series of colors. There are classical lavender, light magenta, white, blue, violet flowers.

The plants are very elegant too. With their twisting branches and drooping blooms and foliage, they too look naturally perfect in a Japanese garden setting.

  • Hardiness: Japanese wisteria is hardy to USDA zones 5 to 9.
  • Light exposure: full Sun and absolutely in a south facing direction.
  • Blooming season: late spring to early summer. Sometimes they produce smaller blooms later on.
  • Size: 13 to 30 feet tall (4 to 9 meters) and 13 to 25 feet in spread (4 to 7.5 meters).
  • Soil requirements: it wants well drained and fertile, organically rich soil, like loam based soil (loam, sandy loam or loamy clay).The ideal pH is between 6.0 and 7.0 – slightly acidic to neutral.

8. Chinese Elm (Ulmus Pavifolia)

8.	Chinese Elm (Ulmus pavifolia)

Chinese elm is a dwarf deciduous tree often used in bonsai. Why? It just firs perfectly into that aesthetic shape of clear, bending a slightly twisting branches and trunk that end, on horizontal lines, with isolated tufts of foliage, like clouds.

And this is exactly what the “archetypal” tree in a Japanese garden looks like.

Because it is small, you can easily grow it in limited spaces, and you do no need a whole park like for other elms.

It is also very common for large rock gardens. But maybe you could mix its shape and size and grow it in a large, decorative stone container with a classical Asian shape?

  • Hardiness: Chinese elm is hardy to USDA zones 4 to 9.
  • Light exposure: full Sun.
  • Blooming season: late summer. But the flowers are small, reddish green and inconspicuous.
  • Size: 2 to 10 feet tall and in spread (60 cm to 3 meters).
  • Soil requirements: it adapts to all well drained types of soil. Loam, clay, chalk or sandy soil with pH between slightly acidic and slightly alkaline.

9. JapanesePaintedFern (Athyrium Niponicum)

9.	Painted Lady Fern (Athyrium niponicum)

Native of Eastern Asia, lady fern has an essential quality to reproduce the original habitat that inspires Japanese gardens.

Few other plants in fact hit that balance between being exotic and temperate forest looking at the same time. And Japan is just that: a range of mountains in the Pacific Ocean…

The fronds of the Japanese Athyrium (as scientists call it) are triangular in overall shape and amazingly elegant and beautiful on the textural side.

Lace like bipinnate leaflets are arranged very regularly along the stems of the rosette shaping fronds.

The color too is elegant and striking at the same time: it hoes from silver green to light silvery burgundy purple.

You have to grow it on the sides of your Japanese garden’s path, under the twisting branches of trees or. If you can get one, on the banks if your pond with goldfish!

  • Hardiness: painted lady fern is hardy to USDA zones 5 to 8.
  • Light exposure: partial shade or full shade.
  • Size: 1 to 2 feet tall and in spread (30 to 60 cm).
  • Soil requirements: it needs constantly humid but well drained loam, clay or sandy loam with pH between acidic and neutral.

10. Garden Juniper (Juniperus Procumbens ‘Nana’)

10.	Garden Juniper (Juniperus procumbens ‘Nana’)

Garden juniper will give your Japanese garden that horizontal green layers it needs. No Japanese garden in fact would leave the space between paving stones or nicely placed outcrops empty.

And so you need an evergreen carpeting plant with a beautiful texture. And one that forms natural shapes on the ground or partly covers your decking or paving stones in the way Mother Nature would… And this is just what garden juniper does.

So, grow its beautiful blue to green needles to crate an amazing carpet: your Japanese garden will look more welcoming, more fertile and even more credible.

  • Hardiness: garden juniper is hardy to USDA zones 4 to 9.
  • Light exposure: full Sun.
  • Size: 6 to 12 inches tall (15 to 30 cm) and 5 to 6 feet in spread (150 to 180 cm).
  • Soil requirements: it is adaptable to most types of soil as long as well drained. Loam, clay, chalk or sandy soil with pH between slightly alkaline to fairly acidic. It is drought resistant and rocky soil tolerant too.

11. Japanese Cobra Lily (Arisaema Thumbergii Supsp. Urashima)

11.	Japanese Cobra Lily (Arisaema thumbergii supsp. urashima)

Japanese gardens also need an exotic touch and Japanese cobra lily is just perfect for this.

Yes, because rather than looking exotic on a large and glaring scale (with big palms and strangely shaped plants etc.) they prefer the smaller exotic treasure hidden among the fronds…

Looking like cobra heads with a strange proboscis or elephant trunk dropping from their noses, these light green and dark brown tropical plants hide perfectly well next to statues, behind rocks or under bamboo clumps waiting for you to walk by and be surprised.

And if you have a pond or river bank, just grow a few next to it…

This allows your garden to maintain that sense of peace, balance and harmony while at the same time offering an interesting and unusual group of plants.

  • Hardiness: Japanese cobra lily is hardy to USDA zones 5 to 9.
  • Light exposure: partial shade or full shade.
  • Blooming season: from mid spring to summer.
  • Size: 1 to 2 feet tall and in spread (30 to 60 cm).
  • Soil requirements: it adapts well to wet soil, as long as well drained. It will grow in loam, chalk or sand with pH from fairly acidic to slightly alkaline.

12. Japanese Quince (Chaenomeles Japonica, Chaenomeles Speciosa And Chenomeles  Superba)

12.	Japanese Quince (Chaenomeles japonica, Chaenomeles speciosa and Chenomeles  superba)

For a beautiful flush of color in your Japanese garden every spring, one of the many varieties of Japanese quince is perfect.

These shrubs in fact fill with round, sweet looking flowers that literally cover all their branches when the leaves are very small. This gives you a “cherry blossom effect” that is so typical of Japan.

But these blooms will last far longer than cherry blossoms, and you can grow many plants even in a fairly small garden, as they are medium small shrubs. And what is more, you have a wide range of colors to choose from…

The many varieties in fact have lots of interesting flower color shades… ‘Geisha Girl’ is deep rose; ‘Kinshiden’ is green, a rare color for flowers; ‘Tokyo Nishiki’ is white with a light pink undertone; ‘Nicoline’ is scarlet red and ‘Lemon and Lime’ is of a light lime yellow hue.

They are excellent also to grow a magnificent and natural looking hedge all around your Japanese garden.

  • Hardiness: Japanese quince is hardy to USDA zones 5 to 9.
  • Light exposure: full Sun or partial shade.
  • Blooming season: spring.
  • Size: 5 to 6 feet tall (150 to 180 cm) and 8 to 10 feet in spread (240 to 300 cm).
  • Soil requirements: it is very adaptable to most types of soil, as long as well drained. Loam, clay, chalk or sandy soil with pH from fairly acidic to fairly alkaline. It is heavy clay tolerant and drought resistant too.

A Final Tip for Your Japanese Garden

12 Core Principles of Japanese Gardening

Now all you need to do is look at the land you want to turn into a Japanese garden and apply the basic rules while picking and choosing the best plants to make your vision come true…

Do spend time planning your Japanese garden… Lots of drawing and slow thinking are necessary.

But as a very final tip…Grow lots of moss? Count this as literally the thirteenth plant on the list. Between paving stones, between rocks, in the crannies of tree barks, and – don’t forget – on statues and features all Japanese gardens have lots of moss!

It makes them look natural, fresh, lush but also, true, very soft and peaceful and it mixes all the elements together in a harmonic way.

Don’t forget to Pin It!

12 Key Plants To Grow In A Japanese-Inspired Garden
Adriano Bulla

Written By

Adriano Bulla

After many years as an academic in London, Adriano Bulla became a writer, publishing books like A History of Gardening, Organic Gardening and Elements of Garden Design; he then decided to become a gardener, following his childhood dream, and has been following his dream writing and gardening professionally in Southern Europe, where he has specialized in new and innovative organic gardening fields and techniques, like permaculture, regenerative agriculture, food forests and hydroponics.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

One Comment

  1. Really helpful if you could ad some links to where these can be purchased. I’m in Canada and have been trying to find a place to get a certain breed of bamboo for over a decade without any luck and anything else, (like Japanese boxwood) I go to garden centers and just get a confused look and a shrug.