Japanese Effects for Small Gardens

published Sept 1910 in The Craftsman

[In the earliest years of the 20th century, as Craftsman style and bungalow architecture swept the country, a collateral phenomenon was also occurring. Though many Asian countries had traded with the West for centuries, Japan had been effectively isolated from Western culture. Americans literally pushed their way into Japan demanding a trade agreement and threatening to use force. What followed was the Meiji Restoration. Japan in the latter half of the 19th century was both alien and seductive. Arts were profoundly influenced on both sides of the Pacific. Crafts, designs, and techniques traveled both directions. Examples of this influence may be found the Art Nouveau works of the European continent as well as in the works of the Arts and Crafts Movement. The Japanese Pavilion at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair has been noted as one of the seminal influences on the work of Frank Lloyd Wright.

The following article appeared in The Craftsman, September 1910. The Craftsman magazine, published by Gustav Stickley, was one of the more prominent publications to promote the Arts & Crafts Movement, and its simpler, healthier lifestyle. The article was written by Florence Dixon, one of the many writers who contributed to the publication during its lifespan from 1901 to 1916.

We have preserved the content but illustrated Ms. Dixon's words with current images of Japanese gardens, which we hope will prove inspirational to our readers. Ed.]

The special value of the Japanese garden in this country lies in its availability for small areas. Nowadays, when a man wants a garden, he plans for some definite landscape effect. Often the size of his lot precludes the possibility of an Italian garden or a naturalistic treatment after the English-American plan. But a Japanese garden may be had in all completeness in a space where one would have said there was scarcely room for a flower bed. The Japanese garden adapts itself to lack of space. Other systems copy nature on only one set of terms, those of life-size, but the japanese method, while it can be and often is developed on a large scale, may also be reduced from natural size through all stages to a tiny miniature.

Japanese rock pool

If you have a nine-foot square of ground you can have an artistically perfect and complete Japanese garden, while the opportunity offered by a city lot would be all that an expert gardener would demand for an elaborate production. Lafcadio Hearn describes a garden not over thirty yards square which, seen through a window shutting out the surrounding country, seemed an actual natural landscape viewed from a distance.

Aside from this great advantage, the Japanese garden has other qualities which make it valuable for adaptation by American gardeners. It furnishes a new note for those seeking original treatment of their places. It has a beauty which grows upon acquaintance, and there is no kind of garden which has about it a richer amount of sentiment and tradition than the Japanese. Every hill, tree, rock, and flower has its own special meaning and place in the picture, and although the religious significance which attaches to these things must of necessity be lost, the charm of the symbolism still remains.

In laying out a Japanese garden the maker should not only aim to copy nature, but to reproduce a particular aspect or mood of nature. Such an end is essentially artistic and does something no other garden attempts.

A Japanese garden may be the only garden of a place, or, in the case of a large country estate, some part of it is usually set off and developed on the Japanese plan. For instance, Central Park is, of course, primarily a naturalistic park, but a section is treated in Japanese style.

Once a Japanese garden has been determined upon, the method of treatment under Japanese rules must be decided. The flat and the hilly are the two main types of Japanese gardens. For the hilly type, which offers the best possibilities for varied development, it must be remembered, it is not necessary to have natural life-sized hills. A hill may be a hill, a large hillock, a good sized mound, or perhaps a rock with shrubs planted about it, or even a shrub cut in the shape of a hill. A hill garden would imitate a mountain scene or some other aspect of nature in which rocky or broken country predominates. Recognized types are the Rocky Ocean, imitating an ocean inlet; Wide River, in which a stream issuing from behind a hill runs into a lake; Reed Marsh style, which copies a marshy pool overgrown with rushes, set among low, rounded sand dunes, bordering on a moor. An essential for the hilly type is a mountain or a hill plus water in some form. For a flat garden the gardener has the floor of a mountain valley, a moor or some rural scene for a model.

Water, a Japanese would declare, is an absolute necessity in a Japanese garden. What the lawn is to the American system, water is to the Japanese. Around it, as the central object, are grouped the other features. Having imposed this inflexible condition, and while one is wonder what effect of water one can manage on a suburban lot and if every Japanese dwelling is equipped with a lake or stream, the Japanese removes the difficulty with Oriental ease. There being no natural water, gravel or sand may be raked and spread to imitate any desired body of water. This gravel stream flows about rocks in its course and must be spanned by a bridge or crossed by stepping stones. But more to be preferred and not necessarily costly is the creation of water effects by artificial means. Water must never be dead; that is, it must have an outlet and an inlet visible.

Japanese lantern

In regular Japanese gardens the open spaces, those unoccupied by trees, water etc., are rarely covered with turf. Sand that is kept damp and raked in patterns takes the place of turf. To protect this from footmarks, stepping-stones are placed at crossing places. These must never be regular in shape or placed at regular intervals, for this would not be copying nature. Various flat shapes and sizes, as would happen if chance put them in their places, are always used. Turf is, however, often used in American adaptation of the Japanese garden.

Trees assume great importance in the Japanese system, but they are seldom planted in groups, except where the group itself is considered a unit. Each tree is taken by itself. Full-sized trees may be used in large gardens, but dwarf trees trained to picturesque individuality are needed for the smaller scale.

There is usually a main tree, which occupies the center of the landscape. Symmetrical development is not the measure of perfection for a tree in Japanese eyes. Typical qualities are desired and a perfect Japanese tree would be called picturesque by Occidental taste. An absolutely characteristic specimen is the type required. Conifers or evergreen trees are favorites, with pines at the head of the list and dwarf varieties most used. Pine, retinospora, umbrella pines, cedars, California oaks, and the many special Japanese varieties of trees and shrubs offer a large list to choose from.

Ferns are also largely used, and flowers, after the Japanese method of arrangement. Single specimens are grown rather than beds of flowers. Flowers distinctly Japanese in association should be chosen such as iris and chrysanthemums.

Like the Italian garden, the Japanese has certain architectural features which are important, if not indispensable. They are quaint wooden bridges, stepping stones, stone lanterns, stone or bronze deer, lions, and cranes. Each of these has special significance. Stone lamps are set up at various times as thank offerings for the recovery from sickness of members of the family. The statues are for good luck or to ward off evil, as is the Devil's Shrine, found always at the northeastern corner of the garden.

Rocks and stones of various shapes and sizes are always set about in irregular positions in the Japanese garden. Aside from their value in setting off the vegetation and providing variety of outline they also have sentimental interest. Many are brought from distant spots of sacred or historical interest, while others are placed in the garden for special purposes. Each stone has a name denoting its office. The Guardian Stone, Stone of Two Deities, and the Stone of Worship must have a place in every garden; while others, the View Stone, Idling Stone, Waiting Stone and Seat-of-Honor Stone tell by their quaint names the reason for their position and presence.

A tea house or pagoda in Japanese style is always a pleasant addition. These architectural details must be bought or made by the maker of a Japanese garden. The stepping-stones and other rocks usually may be had without difficulty, and for nothing. Roughness and individuality of shape should be sought in the different stones. Bridges can be made by the home carpenter. The stone lanterns may be bought a large Japanese shops. At the best shop of this kind in New York, real stone lanterns imported from Japan cost from twenty-five to one hundred and fifty dollars. Copies of recognized types in concrete could be made to order for much cheaper.

Stone lions carved would cost about seventy-five dollars, while bronzed figures are more costly, a pair of bronzed cranes being listed at one hundred and thirty-five dollars.


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