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How to Create an Oriental Garden

How to Create an Oriental Garden

The Far East – we’re not in Benoni anymore!

Gardening style has developed in many ways around the world, and while every style has its own appeal, there’s something about an Asian-style garden that captures the imagination of all. Oriental style gardens have become very popular. With a long history of many thousands of years and tradition, it can be very difficult for most other people around the world to create an authentic oriental garden design. Many elements of an oriental garden are based on oriental symbols, history, religion and its rituals. While you may want your garden to have an oriental influence, we wouldn’t recommend trying to create an authentic oriental garden, unless you are willing to hire a landscaper who specialises in this area. But follow a few guidelines and you can create the look and feel of a Zen space.

Simplifying the Space

Common plants are used in oriental gardens quite sparingly by Western standards, and usually have symbolic importance. Chrysanthemum, bamboo, ferns and pines are used, any plants that add to the simplicity of the space. Whereas Western gardens tend to separate plants and hard landscaping, oriental gardeners see them as inseparable.

Balance in your garden

Balance is the key to successful oriental design. All the elements within the garden must achieve balance with each other from all viewpoints. While the garden is artificially created it must also be in harmony with its surroundings, the natural landscape and the buildings with which it is associated.

Pathways that begin and end at a gateway lead the eye around the garden and can vary in width, direction and surface quality. The gateway, like the fence, is usually a visual barrier to whatever is outside and is a feature in and of itself. It becomes the portal to another world, the world outside the garden.  

Incorporating simple lines and a minimalist look with whimsical touches of dragons and myths allows you to create a place where East meets West. With Oriental flair and African touches, an innovative garden design will encompass a suburban dynamic, while creating a feeling of mysticism in the garden.

Features for your Oriental Garden

An Oriental gazebo and meditation space will give you a place to sit and contemplate nature’s bounty while reflecting on the world outside. It is in an Eastern garden that one can find the key to the soul of the people who inhabit it. Water features are integral to this style of garden design, providing significant interest and excitement to your space, while reminding us of the relentless passage of time. The gentle burble of water sliding down mirrored water walls in the background drowns out unwanted noise, adding a calming effect to the area. 

Water is an indispensable element in Eastern gardens, but to have a waterwise interpretation calls for creativity. A Zen garden is a dry representation of a body of water imitating ripples and waves in sand and gravel. 

At the same time, they create a sense of enclosure – another key ingredient in an Oriental garden – giving much needed insulation from the outside world - an absolute must if you’re creating a retreat in which you can meditate. Steam being generated from a hot tub can give a feel of fire, of smoke being blown out of the dragon’s nose, which is enhanced by dramatic plant material.

The Art of Garden Feng Shui

Many oriental garden designs are the result of ancient and complex Oriental thought processes, including feng shui, an ancient art and science developed over 3 000 years ago in China. Feng means ‘wind’ and shui means ‘water’. In Chinese culture wind and water are associated with good health, thus good feng shui came to mean good fortune. It is a complex body of knowledge that reveals how to balance the energies of any given space to assure health and good fortune for people inhabiting it, and far too intricate and detailed to go into here – but if you want to create good feng shui in your garden, there are many skilled practitioners you can consult who will help you get it right.

Typical Chinese gardens are enclosed by walls and will have an assortment of halls and pavilions within the garden, connected by winding paths, one or more ponds, rock works, trees and flowers. By moving from place to place through a pair of ornamental trees leading into a small courtyard, then through another outdoor room by way of a labyrinth, you could view a series of carefully placed scenes, unrolling like a scroll of landscape paintings. Chinese gardening is oriental gardening at its simplest, although an overall impression of tidiness and precision rarely strikes the visitor to a Chinese garden. Unlike its Japanese counterpart, the Chinese garden is enjoyed for its apparent disorder. Most gardens try to incorporate aspects of ‘un-polishedness’ and artlessness inbuilt in nature. 

In the Japanese style, nature was to be ‘controlled’, so those gardens are more highly ritualised, manicured, clipped and severely pruned. (The art of bonsai, while cloaked in the mists of the past, is believed to have come from a desire to replicate nature in miniature – and to totally control nature!) They’re also likely to have more ornamentation and decorative features too, such as tea-houses, lanterns, stone basins, and bamboo deer-scarers (known as shishi odoshi). The Japanese also took rock garden design one step further, using dry landscapes of sand, gravel, cobbles and rocks to represent water – the Zen garden.

What to plant in your Oriental Garden

Subtle shades of green foliage that is dark and textured set a calming backdrop although the passing seasons are marked with spring blossom, fragrant flowers and brilliant autumn colours. Evergreen shrubs screen away the outside world and draw attention toward focal points. Plant form is important with an emphasis on weeping habits and trees and shrubs heavily sculpted or turned into bonsai. Different conifers, bamboos and mosses feature prominently.

You can also use cycads in an oriental garden, as they have a long history in gardens in several parts of Asia. Cycas revoluta is the favoured species and is most frequently seen, although cycads that occur naturally in other areas have also been used in many places. 

Planting can include strong architectural species in the form of cycads (Encephalartos species) and the dragon tree (Dracaena draco), with punctuations of Agave attenuata, Pachypodium and elephant’s toothpicks (Sanseviera cyclindrica). The backdrop is completed with black bamboo (Phyllostachys negra) which adds to and enhances the oriental feel. Under-planting can consist of Phormium ‘Red Fountain’, Asparagus ‘Mazeppa’ , Ajuga ‘Black Scallop’, Kalanchoe species and Gardenia radicans, which create a contrasting yet restful colour palette of smoky purples and greys, green and white. 
Other great suggestions for plants are Japanese pine, cherry, maple, azalea, evergreen trees and irises beautifully blend green colour with bold accents, creating harmonious and balanced oriental garden design. Moss can be used to cover the ground or create original and decorative accents with rocks. Sacred bamboo (Nandina domestica), bamboos, lotus lillies, pine trees, ophiopogon grass, coprosmas, junipers, hostas, camellias and gingko biloba are must have plants and Zoysia tenuifolia is one plant which can be used as a moss substitute, especially down at the coast. Ferns, birch trees and paper bark iris are also excellent plants for oriental garden designs.

Some final Tips and Tricks

1.    Screen away the outside world

2.    Focus on different shades of green foliage

3.    Choose trees with spring blossom or autumn colour

4.    Avoid rows and evenly spaced planting

5.    Avoid plants of the same size

6.    Arrange plants in groups of an odd number

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