Asian Gardens Archives

Raked Sand Garden in West Sedona

Raked Sand Garden in West Sedona

Just finished an Asian inspired garden for a backyard landscape renovation in West Sedona. The client had a large backyard with a lot of trees mostly evergreen conifers and several fruit trees. The rest of the land was dying grass and weeds, so it was a good starting point since it was nearly a half acre to work with.

She wanted a “Japanese Garden” but not the traditional style you would typically see with a pond, bridge, lanterns, etc. So it was a bit of a challenge for me to design it with an Asian influence, yet not obviously Asian. Hence I call it an Asian inspired garden rather than a type of Japanese garden.

My basic concept was to create a strolling garden making use of the large area so as to make the garden conducive to experiencing within rather than simply viewing it from the back porch. And since she wanted to have some grass, I created a large island of plantings around which the grass would symbolize a lake.

I also incorporated a Karesansui garden (dry Zen garden) of raked sand and boulders to contrast the otherwise “wet” strolling garden and make it a destination for the pathway. As a transition from the existing fence enclosed patio, I designed a Torii gate which has its own symbolism of separating heaven and earth or man and spirit.

This is not the first Asian inspired garden I have designed and built in Sedona. In fact there are several others I have yet to blog about. Each property and client is unique, so each Asian inspired garden is not the same, however, I do use several common elements that help to give it that Asian influence.

An Asian inspired garden not only consists of elements that are visually evident, but the unseen elements or symbolism that creates a subtle influence. The re-creation of the natural environment using earth, stone and water is the essence of a Japanese or Chinese garden. Variations on the basic theme are how the different styles came about. However, when Buddhism was brought to Japan from China, Buddhist principles were weaved into the early gardens. I have written about these different styles of Asian gardens as well as what constitutes a “Spiritual Garden”.

You can also view before and after pictures of this project at my Fliker page.

What exactly is a Feng Shui garden? What does a typical Feng Shui garden look like? The same elements that are essential to good design are the same used in designing a Feng Shui garden.  Feng Shui principles are as subtle as basic design principles. They don’t jump out at you with overly thematic elements. Let’s look at a case study of a remodel of the front entrance of a contemporary southwest custom built home that was in need of some curb appeal. Or, contemporary southwest meets Feng Shui in the garden.

The subject property was built about 15 years ago and as such, the front entry evolved to fit with the needs of the owners. Recently, a large native pine tree that graced the entrance died and was removed leaving a large empty spot near the front entry. Not only did it soften the architecture of the home it gave the entry a woodsy feeling – the type of energy recognized in Feng Shui as that coming from living creatures including trees and shrubs. A form of good Chi, or beneficial energy.

Without that tree, the entrance felt bare and lost its vitality. Focus was also shifted to what remained – a 6 foot high iron fence that was installed to keep deer out of the owner’s small collection of roses. But now the fence seemed more like an afterthought, certainly not intended when the home was initially designed. The area inside the fence was rather small, filled up with a mixture of shrubs that became overgrown, further affecting the flow of Chi.

The owners knew their front entrance needed some help. They agreed the fence took away from the potential of a newly remodeled entry and were willing to see it go away. They also wanted to be able to sit out and enjoy perhaps a small fountain. I was then called in to prepare a design. With that background and basic criteria, I began to further study the front yard area. My criteria however, is a stealth one, that is, to blend in Feng Shui principles into all of my designs whether or not the owners request it. Of course, I knew in the end, the new entrance would not “look” like a Feng Shui garden, but would have that certain attractiveness that is hard to put into words.

In addition to creating a more Feng Shui friendly entrance, the secondary focus was to create a remodeled entrance that did not appear as an addition, but rather, that it resembled the original architectural design and features. The result is a more inviting entrance, with excitement and drama, a small patio space to sit and enjoy and a mix of native and low water use plants that are not as attractive to deer and wildlife.

With the fence out of the picture, I could literally open up the entrance and let the Chi pour into the front door and circulate around the entry, the sitting area and the new plantings. Here was my approach:

1) Remove the psychological barrier of the uninviting fence.
2) Use deer resistant and native plants that obviate the need for a barrier to wildlife.
3) Add a fountain to improve the flow of Chi and prosperity and abundance to the entrance and the occupants. Also serves as a focal point and a reason to pause and admire the space before entering the home.
4) Remove a portion of the existing concrete and replace with paver stones to delineate the entrance area from the driveway and to allow for more useable space.

5) Create a small patio space to enjoy the view from the north side of the house, previously where there was simply a walkway.

6) Use the Chinese 5-Elements Theory to create a balance among the elements.

The vision was a low key, low profile contemporary style fountain that was based on the strong strip-stone style flagstone used on the veneer of the house. I created a two tiered set of pedestals that were elongated and set perpendicular to each other, each with a wok bowl style fountain that created a double series of pouring scuppers. The lower wok bowl poured into a submerged basin covered with red polished river stones.

 Here are the solutions that incorporate the 5 Elements Theory:

Earth: Use of low profile horizonal lines, natural flagstone stripstone

Water: A flowing fountain

Fire: Red Sedona flagstone colors, spiky grasses, Agave

Wood: The proportional use of plants to balance the hardscape.

Metal: Steel agave sculpture and the circular shape of the wok bowls


This contemporary style front entry landscape remodel shows that you don’t have to create an Asian style garden when using Feng Shui principles. So we now have an example where  contemporary southwest meets Feng Shui in the garden.

Photograph contributed by client (name withheld for privacy)

Note: I want to give credit to the client/owner for many contributions and inputs that went into the details of this project including the idea and selection of the steel agave and planter and its night lighting, the off setting of the pedestal walls to reflect the angle of the home, the color of the basin pebbles, the choice of pavers and the styles of the planters in the background.


The Japanese Tea Garden is now completed and I shot a short video to walk you through and hopefully can see some of the design intentions. Although I prefer to come back to my projects after the plants have had some decent growth, I had to document this upon completion to conclude my series of posts about its construction.

The clients are very pleased and especially remarked about how surreal it looked while lighted at night. They can now play around with raking the sand and experience it from within by walking the path, sitting in the Koshikake Machiai or viewing it from within the Tea House.

The clients have much to learn about conducting an authentic Japanese Tea Ceremony and they plan on opening the Tea House and garden to local experts who may want to give talks or lead a Tea Ceremony where the clients can learn from others and share the space at the same time.

The whole point of creating such a garden is to tap into the essence of its underlying meaning and to experience those subtle feelings that are contained within the intent of the objects and the overall design. It is a hard thing to describe to someone what they are supposed to understand while experiencing such a special garden space. The simplest way is to show them the various elements of symbolism used to evoke certain messages, principles or aesthetic.

I will return to this garden to take a follow up video and see how it is evolving. Hopefully the clients will also evolve inspired by having such a thoughtful garden in which to grow their appreciation of Japanese culture.

Or if you would like to see a nice photostream on Flickr, go to this link:

Japanese Garden “after” pictures


Japanese Tea Garden in the Desert

Day After Construction of a Japanese Tea Garden

In previous posts I have set up the background  of the project, describing  the site, the existing elements and  my design criteria and overall approach. Now that the project is completed in terms of the installation, I wanted to reflect on the evolution from design to completion.

Being a design & build landscape designer and contractor, I get the reward of actually seeing my designs installed. In this case, the design was a separate process for which I did charge a fee to my clients. Of course, a design that sits in a folder and never gets built is just an exercise. Knowing this, I always give my clients an incentive to contract with me to build each fee based design by giving a partial credit towards construction.

Here is the final design that I used as a guideline to build the project.

PDF of Japanese Tea Garden Design

I specifically use the term ‘guideline’ because anybody who has experience with placement and arrangement realizes that a two dimensional plan is only one way of perceiving the space in which you are working. The real 3 dimensional physical space of the site changes how things are perceived and should be the overriding factor for implementing the design of most Japanese Gardens.

Overall, the design is rather simple. The purpose of this garden is to emulate the traditional aspects of an authentic Japanese Tea Garden.  It functions as a transitional garden setting for the enjoyment of the Tea ceremony guests.

In this case, we had the benefit of working with existing structures including the Tea House itself (the destination), an entrance gateway (the Torii), a free standing covered waiting area (Koshikake Machiai) and a wooden bridge.  Having these structures in place, it was rather straightforward to create a pathway (Roji) from the main entrance to the Tea House. The challenge was to create a certain experience imbued with symbolism and ambiance in keeping with the principles of Japanese Garden design.

Perhaps the video clips will give you an idea of the space and the ambiance. Although these images were taken immediately after project completion, they show much of what I am describing.

There is no single focal point, but rather a series of  views that capture some unique element or feeling as one walks along the stepping stone path.  Adjacent to the waiting area, the old river rock retention basin was converted into a dry pond or lake with boulders forming steep cliffs.  A section of the pond has a gently sloped area where river rock simulates a beach effect and serves to leads one’s eye down the stepping stone path. The stone lantern is situated at this transitional point along the path overlooking the pond and beach pebbles.

The one design feature that I would consider remarkable is the addition of the ‘formal Karesansui garden’ as I call it. Inspired by the Ryo-anji garden in Kyoto, Japan, I located the 12′ x 20′ garden in an area that could be directly viewed from within the Tea House looking across the river rock swale.

Thus it was not so much a focal point from within the exterior setting of the Tea Garden, but from the inside of the Tea House.  Although it could be considered to be the highlight of one’s journey along the stepping stone path when you start from the Torii around the corner of the house as it is not visible until you reach the area of the stone lantern.

Go to this page to see a series of before and after pictures of the garden.

And below see a slide show of all the pics I took upon completion:



Design Concept for a Scottsdale Japanese Tea Garden

My clients purchased a home in Scottsdale, Arizona that included an authentic Japanese Tea House built as an addition and attached to the existing architecture. The Tea House is authentic on the inside, but the outside looks no different than the rest of the exterior walls.

There are also separate exterior structures including a Torii and Koshikake Machiai, but the grounds were largely bare with nothing more than a retention area and river rock swale. It appears there was a lawn comprising most of the open areas, but long gone. The structure for a Japanese Tea Garden is there, but whatever was initially planted has died and the majority of the space appears neglected by the previous owner.

Existing Setting and Elements

The garden setting is adjacent to an existing Tea House. Other elements consist of a covered Koshikake Machiai ( waiting area). At the far end of the side yard is a Torii (gateway). There is also another crudely built Torii at the north end of the space, but looks more like a ranch gateway rather than distinctively Asian.

A river rock swale extending from the opposite end of the backyard, end in a retention basin also lined with river rock. A crude stacked stone waterfall is situated against the walls in the southwest corner.

Scottsdale Japanese Tea Garden existing site 2

West facing main space includes a traditional Koshikake Machiai (waiting area) and bridge over a dry stream.

There is also a small pond feature close to the shoji screen opening to the Chashitsu (Tea house) and is enclosed with dilapidated bamboo fencing/trellis and Lady Banks climbing roses.

There are virtually no plants in this area except for two Texas sages and a Carolina jessamine vine on a trellis along the south wall. Several other bare wooden trellises are mounted to the stucco walls every 20 feet or so.

Scottsdale Japanese Tea Garden existing site

Existing south facing side yard with Torii at the far end

Design Concept

The Tea House was designed and built in traditional style and architectural elements except for its outward appearance. Apparently, a Japanese architect designed and built the existing structures and it shows upon close examination. One wonders why the outside space is so bare compared to the other landscaped parts of the yard.

The presence of the Torii, Koshikake machiai and Chashitsu provide the framework and architectural integration to create the actual Chaniwa (Tea Garden) and associated components.

In keeping with the traditional Tea Ceremony experience, the guests enter through the Torii at the far end of the side yard; here they pass from the mundane physical world into the spiritual realm, in anticipation of the Tea Ceremony and to experience the garden itself.  A traditional Roji, or stone pathway, leads one through the side yard which has a dry stream bed and small bridge. In the area of the retention basin, a modified pond is suggested, which could be either dry or contain water.

The stone path leads around the perimeter of the pond to the Koshikake machiai (waiting area). From there, summoned by the Tea Master or hosts, the guests cross the existing 14’ long wooden bridge and before entering the Tea House, the guests are presented with a Tsukubai situated adjacent to the existing small pond. The water basin would be outfitted with a Shishi Odoshi (Boar Scarer) to add a fountain element appropriate to the scale of the Tsukubai.

From inside the Tea House, looking across the small pond, a Karesansui style garden would be the exterior background scene. This would loosely be based on the Ryoan-ji garden in Kyoto. A bamboo fencing material would cover the existing stucco block wall to create a more distinctive Asian feel and texture.

Plant Material

Due to the low desert climate, plant materials cannot reproduce a traditional Japanese garden plant palette. The use of Japanese maples, Azaleas, Camellias, Black Pine, Ferns, Moss and other classic plant species will not survive in the Phoenix climate.

Alternative plant materials that mimic or are similar in form and appearance can be used. The full plant palette is developed after the preliminary design is approved. Because this site is fully exposed to the south and west with no existing shade, trees were a necessity to provide a suitable environment not only for the shrubs, but for people as well.

Inert Materials

Native river rock would be used for the pond banks and swale/streams. Native Surface Select Granite boulders would be brought in to form the essence of the garden. Water whether real or symbolic cannot be without a strong Yang earth element that balances the Yin water element.

The stepping stone path will salvage existing Quartzite stepping stones, but would be enhanced with the use of selective pieces of river rock having a flat or other suitable surface to make the path wider than a single stepping stone

In around the boulders, river rock and plant material will be ¼” minus granite. The Karasansui garden will also contain ¼” minus granite as this is conducive to making ripple patterns in the symbolic ‘ocean’.

The use of natural materials is in keeping with an authentic style Japanese garden. Manmade materials are not traditional and only distract from the concepts of Wabi, Sabi and Shibui. Therefore any man made materials such as the existing concrete dry stack retaining wall and concrete borders would not be included as a construction material.


My approach to the design of the space was to honor the existing Tea Garden theme that has been established and to create an outdoor setting that provides an extension of the ambience contained within the Chashitsu. The level of detail and symbolism therefore should be consistent.

Because of the existing Torii at the far end of the side yard, it was important to create an experience of walking the Roji and to make full use of this odd shaped side yard space.

Once at the Koshikake Machiai, this became a seating area where one could view the pond, the Tsukubai and the Karesansui garden. The entire space would have an enhanced sense of enclosure using new trees along the south wall. The north part of the yard would remain separated by modifying the existing Torii fence/gate, further reinforcing the separation and sacred qualities of the Chaniwa.

Here’s a video shot during the second day of construction:

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