The Illusionary Beauty of Japanese Courtyard Gardens

The Japanese courtyard garden is not a garden that is actually entered and used… it is built specifically for visual enjoyment from inside the house. Using very small areas consisting of no more than 50 to 100 square feet, courtyard gardens are ideal for backyards that are tiny with surrounding walls, for rooftop gardens, indoor areas, and atriums.

The Japanese are masters of creating space through illusion and this type of design is a good example of this. The feeling you get while gazing out into the garden is one of spaciousness with its uncluttered and clean design.

These gardens came about after the advent of Zen Buddhism, but not until there was a rise in the prosperity of the middle class. As some commoners actually gained more wealth than their superiors, it became necessary to hide their wealth. Needless to say, hill/pond designs and stroll gardens were out of the question. By designing a courtyard garden, they insured privacy while still being able to enjoy nature.

Japanese courtyard gardens were developed after the invention of tea gardens. They actually borrowed three of the elements found in all tea gardens – a stone lantern, a stone water basin, and stepping stones. However, these three features are purely ornamental in the courtyard design, unlike the tea garden where they are part of the tea ceremony ritual.

The landscaping consists of very simple arrangements of gravel, rocks and some plants. Because they are often found in walled-in areas, most use shade-tolerant plants, shrubs and small trees. However, there are still a variety of ways a courtyard garden can be built. For example, you can create a dry stream bed and use a small wooden bridge as an ornamental feature, with moss covered rocks, stone lantern, a tall tree, and a few smaller plants. Some gardeners cover ugly brick walls with bamboo fencing and add plants of varying heights, plus a small water feature. Others use the space to create a Zen garden with rocks, gravel and moss.

There is one principle, however, that is important with this particular design and that is that everything must be full-sized. In the designing of a tea garden, hill/pond garden or dry landscape garden, the idea is to miniaturize nature to scale. But in a courtyard garden, this would actually emphasize the small space, when you really want to make the area appear to be larger than it is. An illusion of space is what makes this garden work so well. It is also important that you keep the area tidy and maintained. Clutter is quickly obvious in such a small space, and it is quite unappealing.

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