Oriental Landscape Design

Oriental gardens are gardens with a purpose. They are gardens filled with symbolism; they attempt to create a peaceful ambience, often through simplicity of design. They frequently avoid clutter, and consciously avoid using an excessive variety of materials. The number of plant varieties is often limited. Cultivars are often planted in mass, to create an effect. A courtyard may contain an area of gravel with only one or a few rocks – the effect is more dramatic when the number of rocks is limited.

Oriental gardens strive to create harmony and balance, often by imitating nature but rarely through the use of symmetry in the design. As a person moves through an Oriental garden, a series of “pictures” or “images” should unfold. For this reason it is important that the design creates a sense of enclosure.

In a western garden, we think of creating the hard landscape, then adding the plants. But in Oriental gardening, the plants and hard landscape components are thought of as inseparable. Natural components such as rock, water, timber and sand or gravel are important, but may often be used in a stylised or symbolic way.

The style of Oriental gardens has been maintained for centuries. Consequently they tend to be timeless and free of fads and styles. Home gardeners can learn a great deal about the principles of garden design through a study of Oriental gardens.



Chinese gardening began long before the time of Christ. There is a strong underlying pre-occupation with ethics and philosophy in Chinese gardening. This involves concentration on the unity of creation, harmony and order being developed to highlight nature through symbolic representation in a way that is not very common in western gardening.

The principles of Feng Shui are applied in Chinese garden design. Elements of the garden are positioned to bring good luck and provide the balance represented by the principles of yin and yang.

Pure Chinese gardens lack lawns, symmetrical design, and artificial manipulation of water. These things however are common in Western gardens. European gardeners tend to appreciate and select plants for their function or beauty; but Chinese gardeners will often choose to use a plant for the same reason that they choose to use any other component – for its symbolism.

For example, the Chinese see bamboo as representing an honourable man, because it bends in the wind, and does not break. The peony represents wealth and elegance. The peach represents immortality.

The chrysanthemum, a symbol of autumn, was amongst the earliest commonly grown plants in China. Because it flowers in autumn and winter, it came to symbolise longevity. Records from the 12th century AD list 35 varieties of chrysanthemum being cultivated.

In China, water rather than lawn is used to provide the peaceful surface for a large open area in the garden. A European garden might be built to surround a lawn; but a Chinese garden is more likely to be built to surround a lake or large pond. The shape of the water feature is determined by how it interacts with the other components of the design.

The symbolism of the various elements in the Chinese garden is an important part of the design. Rocks are an important component because they symbolise permanency. Aged trees reveal qualities of strength, lengthy contemplation and grandeur. As Confucius said, “the wise find pleasure in water; the virtuous find pleasure in hills”.



Japanese gardens are influenced strongly by the Chinese style; and yet, they can be different.

Japanese gardens are meant to be representative of scenery in the countryside. Often, a favourite location from real life can be a model for the design, though it may be in miniature.

Compared with Chinese gardens, a Japanese garden can sometimes be more contrived, with greater attention given to ornamentation. It may require a higher level of maintenance, even to the point of being finely manicured.

The Japanese prefer common plants, with the use of unfamiliar exotic plants being seen as vulgar. Favoured plants in the Japanese garden include the spring–flowering Cherry Blossom with its promise of warmer weather, azaleas, mosses, and clipped conifers.

Many of their gardens use weathered, mossy rocks and raised earthworks to symbolise mountains and mountain ranges.

The Japanese favour the use of ornaments such as lanterns, water bowls, bamboo water spouts.

One particular style of Japanese garden is the tea garden. These gardens are designed to prepare the visitor as they make their way in to the tea ceremony. A particular feature of tea gardens is stepping stones. Not merely placed to keep your feet out of the mud, these pavers are carefully positioned to direct your feet and your eye as you enter the tea house. Similarly, the spacing between the stones determines how quickly the visitor moves through the landscape.

There are examples of Japanese gardens that are absent of plants. Some gardens consist of nothing but carefully positioned rocks surrounded by sand. The sand is then raked into symbolically significant shapes to create a striking dramatic effect.

Other Japanese gardens have been designed for viewing in the moonlight. In this situation, colour becomes unimportant and form, shape and shadow become the most important components of the garden design.


Traditional Oriental Garden Plants

Flowering Cherry (Prunus serrulata)



Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum)

Sacred Bamboo (Nandina domestica)

Peony (Paeonia)


Mondo Grass (Ophiopogon japonicus)

Japanese Water Iris (Iris laevigata)


Water in the Oriental Garden

Water is a very important feature of Oriental gardens:

ponds, streams and waterfalls are designed to be as natural as possible

weathered rocks are placed around the pond and partly submerged in the water

stepping stones and simple timber bridges are used even in small ponds

water bowls are used in smaller gardens

ornaments for ponds include bamboo water spouts, statues and miniature buildings

dry gravel beds are sometimes used to symbolise natural water courses

waterside plantings are simple and restrained

Want to learn more about Oriental and other Landscape Styles.

Enrol in our Landscape Styles Course

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