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Asian Gardens: Tips for Creating a Tranquil Oasis in Your Garden Space (Complete Guide)

Asian garden style featured image photo with ornamental grass and koi fish pond

Asian gardens are all about peace and tranquility. This garden style focuses on creating a meditative space through natural materials and minimalistic design.

In Asian gardens, plants with soft, fine features are arranged to frame views and create small enclosures within the garden. There are often winding footpaths leading one small space to the next. Stone and water features make up the décor. This blends the garden with the surrounding landscape and gives a sense of harmony and balance.

Asian gardens are simple – less is more in this style.

Japanese, Chinese & Korean gardens make up the Asian garden style. But, in recent years this garden style has gone global! Gardeners in many western countries including Britain and the US have found inspiration in the Asian garden philosophy.

Asian garden park in summer with a beautiful gazebo and flower beds

In this article, I’ll describe Asian gardens (and all of its different types, based on the country of origin). Then, I’ll provide a complete guide for getting this garden style in your space!

And remember, Asian style is just ONE of many different garden styles that you can use to create your dream garden. 

History of Asian Gardens

The very first gardens of Asia date back to China’s Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE). These gardens were symbols of wealth and status. It wasn’t until the Six Dynasties Period (220-589 CE) that gardens became more common in lower-class properties. 

Japan began adopting Chinese gardening practices during the Heian Period (794-1185 CE). At this time, religion played a big part in the function of gardens in Asia. Taoism and Zen Buddhism influenced the practice of using the garden as a place for meditation and prayer.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, European visitors brought ideas of Asian garden design back home with them. Then when trade routes opened up in the 19th century, the influence boomed! 

Today, the rich history and cultural influence of Asian gardens continue to inspire gardeners all over the world.

Types of Asian Gardens (Japanese, Chinese, Korean)

I’m “generalizing” Asian gardens here. There are quite a few differences, though.

Each country provides its own unique inspiration to this overall style.

Isn’t that cool?!

Let’s learn how they all contribute in their own way!

Country of OriginDesign StyleFunctionSymbolismWater FeatureLayout of Space
Japanese GardensMinimalisticMeditationShinto & Zen BuddhismIrregularly shaped & containedSeveral small garden spaces with pathways leading one to the next
Chinese GardensStylized & contemporaryEntertaining & socializingConfucianism & BuddhismLargeA large, opened space
Korean GardensNaturalisticHarmony with natureTaoism, Buddhism & ConfucianismServes as the focal pointReflects the surrounding landscape

I’ll expand on this table a little here in this next section!

Japanese Gardens

Japanese gardens are the most minimalistic in design.

These gardens have a more irregular/natural shape with hills and wandering paths. In fact, it’s believed that a straight path could lead a malevolent spirit directly to the house, while a zigzagging path would confuse and trap them.

I don’t know about you, but I’d definitely want to confuse evil spirits, not welcome them. So that makes sense to me.

Spiritual beliefs of the Japanese also extend to their rock gardens.

Japanese rock gardens are basically several large rocks in a bed of gravel or sand. This is another space that is useful for meditation.

Japanese gardens often feature tea houses and small retreats for meditation and rest. They are usually made from wood or composite decking.

Plant variety is more limited and plants are tightly clipped and pruned. Water features are irregularly shaped and contained, like a trickling stream or pond. There is often lots of Shinto and Zen Buddhist symbolism and decor in Japanese gardens.

Here are a few examples of Japanese gardens:

Japanese rock garden with raked lines
Large rocks are believed to have divine spirits within them. The smooth, soothing lines raked in the sand of this Japanese rock garden represent ripples in water.
Inside of a tea house in Katsura Rikyu garden in Japan
The view from inside the tea house at Katsura Rikyu garden in Japan looks out on the serene garden. Photo by KimonBerlin, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Asian garden style stream with bridge at Kenrokuen, Japan.
Take note of the specific shape of the hedges and shrubs. This is the result of thoughtful pruning and shaping done by the caretakers at Kenrokuen Garden in Kanazawa, Ishikawa, Japan.

Chinese Gardens

Chinese gardens are not as minimalistic.

The Chinese garden design is more for entertaining and socializing. The shape is usually more opened up, maybe square or rectangular. Water features are usually larger than the small streams and ponds of Japanese gardens.

Hardscaping and architecture play a bigger role in Chinese gardens than in Japanese or Korean, and plant variety is usually much wider.

The religious symbolism usually aligns more with Taoism, Confucianism or Buddhism. The idea of Chinese gardens is to create a “mini Oriental landscape” that reflects their philosophical and spiritual beliefs.

Here are a few examples of Chinese gardens:

Photo of symmetrical pathways, evergreen trees and bamboo fencing from The Lingering Garden in Suzhou, China.
The Lingering Garden in Suzhou, China uses symmetrical pathways and bamboo fencing to create a stylized and contemporary look.
Large pond and Chinese architecture from The Classical Gardens in Suzhou, China.
The large pond and Chinese architecture are a great focus of the Suzhou Classical Gardens in China. SteFou! from Lübeck, Germany, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Korean Gardens

The main difference in Korean gardens is the planting style.

Korean gardens take on a naturalistic approach by reflecting and incorporating the surrounding landscape. Plants are selected for their beauty as well as their ability to thrive in the local climate. 

Aside from pagodas or lanterns, decor is very minimal.

Religious symbolism is usually naturalistic. Boulders and rocks represent stability and strength, while water symbolizes vitality. The water feature in a Korean garden usually serves as the focal point. 

The common theme of all of these garden styles is to create a peaceful, relaxing space. Whether it’s to meditate or to entertain, the specifics are up to you!

Entryway to Changdeokgung Palace in Korea with fallen leaves
The naturalistic planting style sees beauty in all the stages of plant life: from birth to bloom, bloom to death & death to decay.
Photo of the peaceful pond and gazebo in Changdeokgung Palace, Korea. A UNESCO World Heritage Site
The large pond at Changdeokgung Palace, Korea winds along with the natural lay of the land. Joycekim77, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

An Overview of Asian Gardens

These are the main characteristics of Asian style gardens:

  • Plants with finely textured foliage
  • Winding pathways
  • Natural decor like rocks/boulders
  • A water feature of some kind – whether it’s a large pond, a trickling stream or a bubbling fountain
  • Architectural elements like bridges, pergolas and arbors
  • Asian-style plants that will work well in your climate (see more in the “plants” section below!)
  • Art and/or symbolism to represent Asian culture and beliefs

Maintenance Needs of Asian Gardens

The level of maintenance for an Asian style garden depends a lot on the features of the garden itself. But, in general this garden style is medium-level maintenance.

In clean-clipped Japanese gardens, plant pruning and clearing pathways can be especially labor-some. The serene Japanese rock gardens with carefully combed gravel/sand also require extra care.

Water features will add a level of maintenance, though again how much maintenance depends mostly on the feature itself.

There’s no such thing as a “no maintenance” garden. However, it’s definitely possible to design your Asian style garden to be more low maintenance!

Incorporating the naturalistic planting style of Korean gardens can alleviate some maintenance.

The easiest plants to maintain are ones that are well suited for the conditions of your garden (whether that’s sun, soil type or geographical location). So, make sure you do your research before planting!

You can also incorporate natural elements like rocks and sand to take the place of some plants. 

Quick Tip: There are so many ways to create a low maintenance landscape, no matter what style of garden you have!

Color Palette for Asian Gardens

plant variety and color range by garden style
Depending on the garden style, the color variety can vary from limited to unlimited! I for one prefer to bend the rules of the different styles sometimes, so I use a “sliding scale” as a visual aid. Illustration by Pretty Purple Door.

Whether you’re looking at the gardens of Japan, Korea or China – these gardens all lean toward the modern style end of the spectrum. This means a pretty limited color palette

The main color you’ll see is green, from foliage of course – with the occasional pop of red from a Japanese Maple tree or an architectural structure. 

Did you know that in Chinese cultures, red is believed to bring good fortune? 

Gold is another “lucky” color, and also adds a touch of elegance to the garden.

When adding accent colors, choose one or two complementing colors. Repeat the same colors many times throughout the garden to add more interest while keeping the palette minimalistic.

Just don’t use white. Many Asian cultures associate white flowers with funerals.

Absolutely NAIL Your Favorite Garden Style (Free Lookbook)

Garden Style Lookbooks

Download my FREE Garden Style Lookbook for 2-page summaries of EACH garden style, including naturalistic, cottage, traditional and modern. 

Easy to print out and reference as you create your “uniquely you” dream garden!

What to Plant in an Asian Style Garden

Now that you know all about how to make your garden peaceful and meditative, let’s talk plants!

Before going to the nursery and adding all these plants to your cart, it’s important to know the condition of your garden. You’ll want to know:

  • Your planting zone
  • How much sun your yard gets (are there some spots that get more sun and some spots that stay mostly shady?)
  • How well your soil drains
  • The type of soil you have – clay, sandy or somewhere in-between

Don’t know the answers to these questions? Don’t freak out, I got you covered! I have a whole beginners article to help with this stuff if you’re just getting started. 

If you know your conditions and you’re ready to pick out some botanicals – here are the most iconic plants and trees featured in the Asian gardens!

Quick Tip: Miniature trees are VERY common in Asian style gardens!

Japanese Black Pine (Pinus thunbergii, zones 5-8). This is a slow-growing evergreen tree that is commonly used in Japanese garden design, often pruned into intricate shapes. Mature size is 20’-60’ H x 12’-20’ W.
Slender Hinoki False Cypress
Hinoki Cypress tree (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Gracilis’, zones 4-8) is a very structural tree with a upright growth habit. Plant several to create restful repetition. The slender variety is great for smaller garden spaces!
Eldarica Pine (Pinus eldarica, zones 6-10). This pine is a great low maintenance, drought tolerant tree that will last generations. The pyramidal shape will grow up to 3’ a year. Mature size is anywhere from 30’-80’ H x 15’-25’ W.
autumn amethyst encore azalea
Azalea bushes (Rhododendron spp., zones 6-10). This flowering shrub is a popular choice in Japanese gardens, with its vibrant blooms and compact growth habit. I like Encore Azaleas because they bloom multiple times a year. Mature size depends on the species, but can be anywhere from 2’-5’ H x 2’-5’ W.
Ostrich fern, University of Helsinki botanical garden
Ferns (Azolla spp., zones 3-11) are a low-maintenance, shade-tolerant plant that is often used as a ground cover in Japanese gardens. Fern types are very versatile and there are species for any zone from 3-11! Mature size will vary depending on the species, anywhere from 1’-12’ H x 1’-8’ W. Vzb83 (CC BY-SA 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons
Pink Bonanza Camellia Shrub in Bloom
Camellia (Camellia japonica, zones 6-10). An evergreen shrub with glossy leaves and showy flowers that is commonly used in both Chinese and Japanese gardens. Mature size depends on species, from 4’-12’ H x 3’-10’ W. Andy Mabbett, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Cherry Blossom (Prunus spp., zones 4-9). This iconic tree is a symbol of Japanese culture and is often used in Japanese garden design for its stunning spring blooms. There are so many gorgeous varieties to choose from. Mature size depends greatly on the species you choose, the smallest being 8’-15’ H x 6’-8’ W and the largest being 45’-50’ H x 25’-40’ W. 
Peony (Paeonia spp., zones 2-9) – A classic Chinese garden plant with large, showy blooms that come in a variety of colors. These gorgeous flowers are widely adaptable to a variety of conditions like soil and climate. Mature size varies on species, anywhere from 1’-4’ H x 2’-5’ W.

Note: The following plants have MANY invasive varieties.

While these plants ARE quintessential to Asian gardens, I think it’s important to note these particular plants are native to Asia. So, many species of these plants are NOT recommended for the US or other regions:

photo of bamboo stalks

Bamboo (Bambusa spp., zones 4-9) is a fast-growing, low-maintenance plant that can be used to create screens or as a background plant.

Many varieties of bamboo are invasive in the US. There are some forms of clumping bamboo that are easier to manage, although the clumps will still spread. I do not really recommend this for new/amateur gardeners.

You can also consider bamboo decor or hardscaping as a way to incorporate this quintessential Asian plant.

Wisteria (Wisteria spp., zones 5-8) is a flowering vine that is often trained to grow over arbors or trellises in Chinese garden design. 

Chinese Wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) is an invasive species in the US. It is widely used in the gardens of Asia, because that’s where it’s native to.

You can swap this for American Wisteria (Wisteria frutescens, zones 5-9). This species is still very vigorous-growing and high maintenance but doesn’t have the invasive qualities of Chinese wisteria.

If planting this, it should be away from structures (like homes and garages). Wisteria is a very thick and vigorous vine that can pull down structures. 

Hardscaping for Asian Gardens

Plants aren’t the only way to solidify your garden style! Hardscaping is a very important aspect of landscape design.

“Hardscaping” refers to the permanent features of your garden. This means things like the pathways, arbors, fences and bridges. 

These are the most characteristic hardscaping elements of Asian gardens:

  • Pathways made of gravel or stepping stones
  • Water features – anything from streams to waterfalls to fountains – adds to the tranquility and the meditative atmosphere of Asian gardens 
  • Bridges are often featured in Asian style gardens, especially alongside a water feature.
  • Tea houses – especially in Japanese gardens, small retreats for tea and meditation are common.

Furniture & Décor for Asian Gardens

Check out some gorgeous Asian garden decor!

A pagoda lantern statue is sure to boost the Asian themes through your garden. Place one (or a few) along a pathway or near a water feature for added ambiance.
Add benches to promote relaxation and leisure! This bamboo bench is a perfect way to incorporate the iconic Asian plant into a garden where bamboo would otherwise be invasive.
Wooden bridges are VERY common in Asian gardens. They can be used to connect one small vignette of the garden to the next and encourage guests to keep exploring.
This wooden bistro set would complement the natural elements of Asian gardens. This would be a perfect place to sit for a cup of tea and a quiet, meditative moment.
An Asian style garden would simply not be complete without a water feature! The sound of water adds so much peace and tranquility to any garden space. This Asian-inspired fountain features stone, bamboo AND a lantern! A total trifecta of Asian-style features.

Tips for Creating an Asian Garden at Home

Here’s a handy bullet-list of Asian garden ideas!

  • Look for plants that are soft and finely textured
  • Use natural materials like rocks/stones as decor
  • Add a water feature – bonus points if it makes relaxing, ambient sound!
  • Create small resting spaces throughout your garden and add ways to encourage guests to meander through. Footpaths and bridges will lead your guests along!
  • Add art and symbolism to celebrate the wisdom of Asian culture. 
  • Keep the planting design minimalistic. Remember, less is more. Limit plant variety and color palette to keep the atmosphere calming.
  • Add architectural elements like a bridge or an arbor.

Combining Asian Style with Other Garden Styles

It’s important to remember that you don’t need to limit yourself to just one garden style. The “rules” of the different styles are helpful as a guide, but making the garden uniquely yours is what’s going to bring you the most joy!

Consider checking out all of the other garden styles and see which ones call out to you! 

Then check out my Garden Style Mood Board workshop – I created a fun way to pin down your style and to get you started designing that garden you’ve always dreamed of.

When combining more than one style, I recommend keeping it simple at first. 

Check out the planting style of one and the hardscaping style of another and see if you can combine them in a way that’s pleasing to you.

For example: if you love the decor and hardscaping of the Asian style, take a few elements – like a bridge and a water feature – and use the clipped boxwood hedges of the traditional garden style to create a much more formal look to your space!

Or, to go more casual, check out the naturalistic style for plantings. You can create a mini ecosystem in your backyard and add a small bistro set for teatime and meditation!

The possibilities are literally endless and you’re just scratching the surface of all the fun it is to design a garden. 

Wrapping Up

The big focus of Asian gardens – from Japan to China to Korea – is to create a peaceful oriental landscape. This is done through minimalistic design and the use of Asian art and symbolism. Using soft-featured plants and tranquil water features will create a restful garden space.

Whether that space is used for meditation or socialization, it’s up to you!

collage of items for garden mood board.

If you enjoyed learning about Asian gardens, I invite you to check out my Garden Style Mood Board Workshop. Not only will you learn more about garden styles, I’ll show you how to flip these styles completely on their head to make a totally unique and inspiring space that you love!!

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Co-Authored by Kady Volpe

Kady is a pro-gardener-in-training. She’s in the process of learning all of Pretty Purple Door’s frameworks and landscape design techniques.

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