With the recent burst of gardening enthusiasm sweeping the U.S., Japanese and other Asian-inspired gardens are among the most popular designs sprouting up in backyards everywhere. Picture a tranquil spot filled with lush ferns and cushiony moss, the soft trickle of running water, and ancient-looking miniature trees, and you'll come to appreciate why Japanese-style gardens have been popular for thousands of years.
But what many people don't realize is that Asian-inspired gardens can be among the least expensive and most environmentally friendly gardens to create and maintain. Here's what you need to know to get started.
Nature is the Nurture
Unlike many other landscape styles, Asian gardens are intended to replicate the natural environment. Asian gardens attempt to create the perfect natural setting; what you might see and experience by walking through the deep woods under perfect conditions. Most other types of gardens attempt to create an environment unlike any found in nature, with cascades of constantly flowering annuals, specialized specimen plants not native to the area, and adorned with manmade decorative objects. Because Asian-influenced gardens have their roots in nature, they can be far less expensive to create and care for than other garden styles.
Start with the Plants
Japanese gardens utilize perennials almost exclusively; that is, plants that live year after year, as opposed to annuals that need to be replaced each year. So each plant in your Japanese garden is an investment that should last for many years. Many plants found in Asian-inspired gardens (e.g. ferns, bamboo, irises, ornamental grasses, ground covers, etc.) are inexpensive to purchase and extremely prolific, creating more plants on their own or with a little help. While the plants listed above, for example, will spread naturally, you can also divide them with a spade from time to time and transplant the clumps around the garden to speed up the procreation process. Some plants, like bamboo, can be invasive, so plant and control them carefully. Most of the plants typically used in a Japanese garden require little if any man-supplied water, fertilizers, or pesticides.
Rocks of Ages
Asian-inspired gardens traditionally incorporate stones in various shapes and sizes as their primary ornamentation, again good news for the budget conscious gardener. Garden paths are often covered in pea gravel, a slightly more expensive alternative to wood mulch, but one that, unlike mulch, will last forever. A few well placed large stones, whether round and smooth to calm the inner soul or jagged and sharp to simulate miniature mountain peaks, are the focal point of many Japanese gardens, and can often be scavenged from construction sites or a friend's yard (both with permission, of course). Beds of smaller smooth stones are sometimes used to conjure up the image of a dry stream bed, and beds of very fine gravel or sand can be raked into decorative patterns to create a type of Zen garden known as karesansui.
Just Add Water
While not every Japanese garden has a water feature, most do, as the calming effect of water is undeniable. While a goldfish pond filled with water lilies, lotus, and perhaps a small fountain is ideal and may be less costly than you think, even a small stone or ceramic basin of water in the garden provides a restful moment. Many gardening books contain instructions on how to build a simple water basin or fountain, including models constructed out of salvaged materials like old sinks, barrels or broken pots. Just add water and a couple of 20-cent goldfish from your local pet store, and feel the stress release.
Bonsai on a Budget
When many people think about Japanese gardens, they immediately think of finely sculpted miniature trees or bonsai. Either planted in ornamental pots or simply topiary specimens planted directly in the ground, a bonsai plant or two can really set off your Asian-inspired garden. While professionally cultivated bonsai can easily cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars, with a little practice you can sculpt your own by starting with container-grown nursery plants, particularly those with twisted, old stems, like you find on sale at the end of the season at most nurseries. Thrift stores are a great source for used bonsai pots (thanks to hobbyists lacking in the green thumb department) and other containers suitable for bonsai.
So, if you have a limited budget but want to add some tranquility and beauty to your yard, consider an economical, eco-friendly, Asian-inspired garden.
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