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Creating Japanese Gardens in Tiny Spaces

If you have a really tiny bit of garden space, it’s often hard to know what to do with it. But creating a Japanese garden can be the perfect solution. In fact, there’s a great tradition in Japanese gardening of creating gardens in tiny spaces.

It’s called tsubo-niwa. ‘Niwa’ means ‘garden’, and a tsubo is an area the size of two tatami mats. Tatami mats are used to cover the floors in traditional Japanese houses, and they’re about 6 foot by 3 foot, so a tsubo is very small.

Tsubo-niwa is a great and ancient tradition in Japan. The Japanese create tsubo-niwa in even the tiniest spaces – not just courtyards, but in the narrow spaces between buildings and along paths. Sometimes these tiny gardens are entirely surrounded by buildings, so that they feel almost as if they’re part of the house.

Tsubo-niwa can be planted or dry, or a bit of both, which means that they can be really very easy to maintain if time is an issue. Here are some common features of these tiny gardens.

As Tsubo-niwa are often very shaded, by virtue of being surrounded by buildings, they often contain shade-loving plants. If you’re in a moist climate, ferns and mosses can be perfect, also bamboos if you have space. If you’re in a dry climate, you can find other kinds of ground cover, such as dwarf thyme.

Stones and gravel are often used to great effect in these gardens, and have the advantage of needing no watering!

Finally, a carefully selected Japanese garden ornament can really set the tone. Make sure to choose small ones – they shouldn’t dominate the space – and choose something that seems to have a natural purpose in the location. Favourites are stone lanterns, and stone basins where a visitor might wash their hands.

For example, the owners of a Japanese restaurant may create a tiny garden by the side of the path which runs down the edge of their building. This is a very long and narrow space. So they might make a path of large flat stepping stones surrounded by gravel. They might places a narrow area of cobblestones all the way along the side, the edge between the cobblestones and the gravel undulating, to make the space feel larger. A a few stalks of bamboo here and there in that area add greenery, and a stone lantern by the door gives light to guests.

If you have a wider space which is likely to be seen mostly from one direction – such as a tiny back garden which is seen through patio doors – then you could create a ‘shukkei’ style garden. This is a tiny representation of a landscape – a few large rocks or boulders suggesting mountains are bedded in mossy mounds, suggesting islands, surrounded by gravel representing an ocean. You could plant an azalea or boxwood and clip it into hill-like shapes. Bamboo fencing will create the perfect backdrop for the scene.

If your space is truly tiny – perhaps just a few square feet – a tsukubai is a lovely idea. This is an arrangement consisting of a stone basin filled with water, usually with a bamboo pipe and ladle, and some moss and ferns to soften the edges.

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