Creating a Zen Garden of Rock and Stone

stone lantern zen garden
stone lantern zen garden

Here in San Francisco, we have lots of hills, boulders, rocks; it’s all a part of the natural landscape. -And yet, not of lot of that natural landscape is incorporated into our gardens. It’s like we want to force the natural beauty of this land to transform into something else – maybe something tropical or southern. Maybe we want it to look like the vineyards of Napa Valley or something.

Yet, there’s much to be said for hills and boulders and rocks. You can do a lot with them. You can even create a Japanese Zen garden…

Japanese Garden Design: The Dry Zen Garden

When you think of “garden”, you probably picture big, green, leafy plants with bright flower petals standing proudly. The Japanese understood that there is more to life than greenery, and a place for every natural thing. Zen gardens reflect that, by reflecting nature.


Karetaki, literally means “dry waterfall”. Think of it as a water feature without the water. In short, you create the semblance of a waterfall with stone, sand and gravel.

Now, when I say “stone,” this could mean anything from small river rock to large boulders. What you use depends on the space available. You could even use a slate retaining wall as the backdrop and build from there.


Karenagare, or “raked sand”, is a common part of Zen gardens, with or without the waterfall. In a dry garden, the sand is raked to reflect the movement of water. If stones are included, the sand is raked around the stone to look like ripples in a pond. This is one of the most recognize aspects of a Zen garden, even being available in table-top miniatures with tiny rakes.


This brings us to Karesansui, or “rock sculptures”. Rock sculptures are stones of many sizes and shapes. Some are uniform, some are not so uniform. Whether you choose rounded, jagged, rectangular, prismatic or something else depends on the affect you’re trying to achieve and what your sculptures represent.

Pulling Your Zen Garden Together

A dry Zen garden doesn’t necessarily mean no water or greenery. Your Japanese landscape can include all three. The key is balance. When designing your Zen garden in conjunction with a water feature or green plants, consider how they should flow from one point to another.

Japanese gardens are built to be viewed from a single spot for perfection. As you pick your viewing spot, consider how your eye will move from one area to another.

Remember – Zen gardens are a reflection of nature and balance.

How to Choose the Right Fish for Your Japanese Koi Pond

Japanese Koi fish swimming in the pond
Japanese Koi fish swimming in the pond

Water features are a common addition to most Japanese garden designs, whether that water feature is a trickling fountain, a tiny stream, or a mini Japanese Koi pond. As one of the five elements, water represents the flowing, fluid things in nature and constant renewal. It’s part of Onmyōdō: the Yin to stone’s Yang, creating a balanced landscape.

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The Number One Secret Behind Japanese Garden Design

Japanese garden design

What is it that makes Japanese gardens seem so peaceful and serene? Is it the delicate flowers? The small, yet stately boulders? The obligatory stone lanterns? Or is it something more?

In Japanese garden design, you have to take several things into account. What flowers would grow best, how to lay it out so the minds’ eye flows from place to place, water feature or no water feature. -But the number one thing that makes the most difference is enclosure.

Designing Your Secret Japanese Garden

There are many types of gardens: tea gardens, Zen gardens, stroll gardens, and so on. However, most Japanese gardens hold one thing in common. Each garden has either fencing or natural objects to enclose the place in quietude. The garden is for serene thoughtfulness and meditation, of drawing the minds’ eye to the beauty of nature – in other words, peaceful activities.


Example of stone background, common in Japanese garden design

Most backyards in San Francisco have fencing anyway, but what kind of fencing is it? Natural colors and elements are best. In other words, a stone wall would be a good background. This water feature installation is a good example of a natural stone background. Notice how the stone stands behind the water feature and plants as a solid, quiet statement. It doesn’t stand out; instead it pulls the foreground together.

That’s the purpose of the chosen background, whether stone or wood. Wood should also be natural – not painted, but stained so that it’s color remains whether it’s redwood, pine or other wood type.


Mexican Feather Grass - Stipa Tenuissima

Fencing isn’t the only way to enclose your place of quiet thought. Ground cover, bushes and trees can also be used to effect the way a garden feels. For example, moss is used quite often in Japanese garden design – mainly for the exact reason we’re discussing. Moss has a tendency to act like snow; causing a muting effect on sound. With the softer moss for sound to bounce off of rather than hard surfaces, it doesn’t travel quite so far.

Thick bushes have the same benefit, such as Japanese boxwood. When pruned, the Japanese boxwood has the rounded look so familiar to the Japanese garden lover. Even the taller grasses, such as Mexican feather grass, can have the muting effect.

Japanese garden with water feature and lantern

Trees are also often used to create the feeling of seclusion. One of the things we often do to add to the idea that you’re in a quiet, enclosed space is to use natural fencing and then plant trees and larger bushes against or near the fencing. As you can see in the image, it doesn’t hide the wood of the fence completely, but does further close off the garden.

Incorporating Serenity Into Your Japanese Garden Design

It doesn’t take much to turn a San Francisco backyard into a Japanese garden. In fact, when it takes more, it’s just not the same. Once you have how you’re going to design the backdrop, as mentioned above, the secret it’s enclosing gets easier to see.

Here are a few tips to help you create an oasis of serenity in the midst of San Francisco’s busyness:

Less really is more.

Many picture the strolling gardens in Japan when they picture Japanese gardens, but private gardens seldom hold so many plants and features. In fact, if you were to scale down the strolling gardens, you’d find that the ratio of plant-to-space is about the same. In others words, choose your features – plants, water, stone, lantern, bridge, pagoda – carefully. Thoughtfully.

Arrangement is everything.

Japanese Garden example with several features

Yes, it’s possible to have a water feature, pagoda, lantern and plants all in one small San Francisco backyard. We’ve done it. But if you want all of those features, how will you put them together to create something pleasing, rather than something that looks jumbled together?

Creating illusions can help

Better yet, if you want these features but don’t have the space, what’s the best way to create the illusion of these things? In fact, the Japanese often use smaller elements to represent larger ones. You might see a large boulder with a few smaller boulders around to represent a mountainside. Or stones in a pond to represent ships. If you can’t fit the actual feature, how can you scale it down to retain an element?

Understated, not overrated

Cherry trees shown as part of part of a Japanese garden
Cherry Blossoms in spring season

As a final tip, remember that Japanese garden design shouldn’t include a riot of color. It’s not supposed to shock the eye, but instead, should slowly pull you in and embrace you. That’s not to say you can’t have color –
Hydrangeas, for example, are a beautiful addition to many Japanese gardens. Ornamental cherry trees are another example. But again, carefully choose the plants you have, so that they compliment the landscape you’re building.

If you need help designing your garden, contact Tamate Landscaping. Japanese garden design is our specialty. We look forward to discussing your project!

Native and Exotic Plants for Your Next San Francisco Landscape Project

colorful flower garden

As a San Francisco landscape contractor, we’re often asked which plants are best for our Mediterranean climate, cool winds and foggy skies. There is a huge array of potted plants, flowering shrubs and large trees that do well in our backyards.  Today, we’ll cover just a few of them that would flourish here. Whether you’re in North Beach, Visitacion Valley, Parkmerced, Outer Richmond or anywhere in between, there’s a plant for you.

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5 Elements Used in Japanese Gardens

Japanese Garden
Japanese Garden

Not everyone can have a Japanese Tea Garden outside of their home, with its Drum Bridge and five elemental stone lanterns. -And the Hayward Japanese Gardens in the Bay Area may be small (only a measly 1.2 acres), but they’re still bigger than most home lots in San Francisco. San Mateo’s Japanese Garden is modest, but still, its miniature landscape would overflow from your backyard into the streets of Glenn Park.

Many are fascinated by Japanese gardens such as those described above, and why not? Pagodas overlook places of serenity: peaceful landscapes that can’t help but embrace the natural world wherever it’s located. But what creates that atmosphere that seems to be in almost every Asian-inspired garden, no matter how big or small?

Let’s look at some of the features of a Japanese garden. As you come up with ideas, remember that you aren’t trying to recreate and authentic Japanese garden; you’re trying to recreate the feeling of peace and serenity.

Scenery Within the Japanese Landscape

Landscaping Project: After, Recirculating Cascade

Japanese gardens are more than a bunch of plants from Japan. You can’t just throw a few camellias and magnolias into your garden and call it good. The elements used are meant to create a scene. For example, the large, smooth boulders might represent mountains, while the ponds would represent the ocean.

These gardens are carefully crafted, and always with a “less is more” mentality. One might lean down, pick up a hand-sized pebble and realize that the pebble was the last piece to ruin the serenity of the scene. Removal of the pebble could mean the declaration of the finished project.


Close up of Asian accent, stone lantern and green accents in a bed of river pebbles

Speaking of stones, you’ll find that many Japanese gardens include them. They’re often the anchor of the garden, reaching down into the earth as a symbol of duration. As mentioned above, they can be used to relieve the landscape of “only” greenery, or “only” sand, as they reach up above the ground line to create hills, valleys and character.

It’s hard to tell whether the size and style of the garden dictates the stone used or vice versa, but the two (garden and stone) influence each other. Often, stones are laid out as male and female contrast, in pairs, and in careful spaces in the garden.


Water brook with stones

an ancient pond / a frog jumps in / the splash of water

Matsuo Bashō

Water has a special place in the heart of the Japanese garden designer. Symbolizing renewal and continuity, the quiet trickle of a small water flow has the magical properties of damping down background noise, somehow closing the area off from the outside world. Clear, circulating water has the added benefit of helping to keep the air fresh in the summer, and a few carp swimming around – living flowers – brighten the landscape.


Basalt Bridge

Bridges give a person the ability to stop and linger over the beauty of the landscape from an elevated position. Shape and material are less important than that the bridge remain in harmony with the natural surroundings.

While a bridge may not make sense in your Asian-inspired garden, there are various ways the element can be incorporated. A small bamboo step over a miniature koi pond, for example.


Large Japanese Lantern

Providing light during late night entertaining hours and the beauty of carved stone during the daylight, lanterns are often used in Japanese gardens. Architecturally, it stands out from the natural elements of the garden, while also being a part of it.


japanese landscaping plants

While water can sometimes be replaced by gravel or sand, as in the case of a Zen garden, plants are always a necessity, and the right plants make all the difference. Plants and flowers are an outward expression of the landscape designer; as each plant is produced and grows, an elaborate symbolism starts to manifest.

The Carefully Cultivated Garden

As you think about what you’d like to have in your Japanese garden, remember that these gardens are carefully crafted. Things like how the sun sets or rises on the landscape are taken into account, as to bring the best light on each feature. It’s gardening feng shui to the next level.

An Asian-inspired garden is more than the sum of its parts; its created by seeing how each individual part interacts peacefully with the rest. No clashing bright flowers or jarring landscapes. It’s the bonsai of the garden world, carefully cultivated to bring a sense of peace, beauty and serenity to all who pass by.

If you’d like to turn your landscape into a Japanese garden, or need help adding an Asian flare to your space, contact Tamate Landscaping. We specialize in creating beautiful outdoor spaces with Asian flavor.

How to Turn Your San Francisco Backyard into a Japanese Garden Paradise

Napa Valley fieldstones surround this idyllic water feature.
By On February 13, 2019 In Japanese Gardens With No Comments Permanent Link to How to Turn Your San Francisco Backyard into a Japanese Garden ParadisePermalink

Japanese gardens have been a major part of culture in America for nearly a century and a half. However, they still remain a mystery for most people. Japanese gardens are among the most beautiful in the world. This is because these gardens start with the intent to induce a particular feeling. Today, landscape professionals design these amazing gardens around principles and guidelines that date back more than a thousand years. 

Some of those guidelines include natural patterns of rock formations, natural growing plants, and asymmetrical designs. Some gardens arouse feelings of being near a forest stream or wetland. There are also designs patterned after rolling hills. When designing your own beautiful Japanese garden paradise, consider the following facts and tips. 

1. Keep in mind that basics consist of plants, water, and rocks. You can find rocks most anywhere. Stones and pebbles can arrange to create the appearance of flowing water. Additional elements for consideration can include stone lanterns, bridges, arbors, and water basins. Plants, set carefully, can help create an illusion of depth where the designer places large plants in front, and smaller ones in back. 

2. Your garden’s purpose is to reflect nature’s perfect balance. Rocks and stones represent islands. Waterfalls represent a state of purity and serenity. Stone or wooden bridges imply immortality and a pathway to paradise. Stairs and intriguing pathways provide a journey for the soul. Lanterns represent the inner light that a person can discover within. 

3. Lay the stones first to design your path or walkway. This is the path you can take to enjoy your garden’s beauty. Larger stones imply stillness and rest. 

4. Surround the stones with trees, plants that flower, or shrubs. Without much space, formatting your yard is critical. You will also have to decide how formal, or not, you want the garden to be. Select your plants or trees for seasons and colors. 

5. A water feature adds the perfect touch. A simple water pond can use bamboo, or some other material, and operate using very simple and inexpensive mechanics. 

6. Decorations can include lanterns or authentic Japanese furniture. Just keep things to a minimum. Your goal is to achieve a natural look and not make your garden look like a museum filled with artifacts. On the other hand, some empty spaces are okay since empty portions are key Zen garden elements. 

Japan, the Land of the Rising Sun, is famous for its beautiful gardens. In fact, every year, millions of people travel to Japan to visit the country’s gardens, but you can have a Japanese garden in your own back yard, even in the midst of bustling San Francisco.

We specialize in creating Japanese gardens. Contact Tamate Landscaping to help you build the beautiful oasis of your dreams.