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:

Landscape Design Tips for Sedona can also be a list of things to avoid. Sometimes by simply avoiding common mistakes, your landscape will end up appearing more professional and not appear like you did it yourself with questionable results.

Those who live here in Sedona, especially those fortunate to have property with great views or back up to National Forest lands, obviously appreciate the natural landscape that surrounds us.

Development in Sedona is guided by the Land Development Code which serves as an ordinance and a set of guidelines to insure that structures including landscape are sensitive to the natural environment by lessening the impact of development.

Apart from citing regulations and policies, I wanted to share some ideas and things to avoid that I feel are appropriate to consider when creating a new or remodeling an existing landscape or outdoor space.

1) Functional swales vs. decorative dry streams

Many homes have some kind of drainage that flows across their property or from the roof. The use of rock swales is often used to guide the water to the street or existing washes.  If you truly need to control erosion, the use of rip rap Sedona Red rock is much better than using the smooth and rounded river rock. Rip rap will lock into place and do a better job of slowing down the runoff.

Many people use river rock to create a swale from downspouts to the street. These can dominate the landscaped areas and is often not needed if underground drainpipes are used instead. On a relatively flat or gentle grade, using river rock for a swale usually gets filled up with sediment because there is not enough speed to wash the sediment downstream. If you want drainage swales for relatively flat areas, just create a swale and cover with the surrounding gravel. It will function better and not look cluttered or artificial as does river rock when used outside of a true riparian environment.


2) Use Sedona Red crushed native rock to cover disturbed areas

In Sedona, the soil is red and the rock varies from a dark red to light tan. Using decorative gravel that is different than these natural choices can only take away from the intent of blending in with the surrounding area. The use of ‘Madison Gold’ which is very prevalent in the Phoenix area since it does mimic the surrounding desert floor color is not appropriate in the Sedona area in my opinion.

3) Preserve the native trees by designing around them

As a landscape designer, I am frequently at odds with the interests of other professionals including the Sedona fire department, insurance agents, real estate agents who all seem to be more concerned about the threat of fire because the trees are too close to the home or that they block the red rock views. A native tree on your property is valuable. It is unfortunate that so many people do not revere trees but rather see it all as ‘overgrown brush’.  Trees are extremely valuable as elements in a landscape and that is why I view them as sacred.

4) Remove all the ‘green meatballs’ in your yard

When plants are placed in inappropriate locations or the wrong plant is selected without understanding its size at maturity, it becomes overgrown and either should be removed or pruned back. What happens is when a shrub is constantly pruned by giving it a hair cut with hedge trimmers, it ends up as a ‘green meatball.’  Although many people actually like this neat, controlled groomed look, most all landscape professionals abhor the practice.

Shrubs should be ‘selectively’ pruned whereby certain stems and branches are cut back to the trunk or main stem rather than uniformly cutting back everything as in trying to give the shrub some kind of unnatural ‘shape’.

Scrub Oak, Rhus, Barbery, Euyonomous, Cotoneaster and many other species planted around Sedona in a typical front yard are planted in the wrong locations, too close together and have not been replaced with appropriate species. Many people just don’t realize that poor design choices were made in the past and just don’t know what to do to make the garden look more natural.

Summary of Sedona Landscape Design Tips

As a landscape professional, I perhaps am much more sensitive to what I see people doing with their landscapes. Much of the criticisms I have are simply because the owners choose not to prioritize having a decent landscape. Money is also a big factor as many do it yourself gardener designers choose not to employ a professional to do it well. The use of the cheapest material also contributes to the unprofessional look.  The more expensive the home, the more likely the landscaping will be a high priority.


It is not often that I am asked to design a Japanese garden, especially in the hot desert of Phoenix, Arizona. You may wonder how a traditional Japanese garden can be viable in such a climate. You may visualize a dry Zen like garden where there are few plants and no water.

Well it is possible to create a Japanese inspired garden in the desert. You may have visions of what a Japanese garden looks like, but let’s look at the basic fundamental principles that go into the design of a Japanese garden.

1) Reverence for nature;

2) Earth and Water

3) Wabi and Sabi

You will notice that except for the reference to Earth and Water, the qualities of a Japanese garden are felt, not visual. They may be triggered by physical objects, but the aesthetic is the subtle feeling conveyed and the symbolic meaning embodied in the physical layout and elements.

Japanese gardens are essentially representations of nature in a way that reveres the natural qualities of earth, mountains, oceans, lakes, streams, trees, plants and flowers. Also recognized are the changing qualities of the seasons.

A Japanese garden is not at all a garden or landscaped yard in the typical Western world where there may be a bbq island, outdoor fire pit and a swimming pool. That is why in Western landscapes, we may incorporate Japanese or Asian like gardens within the overall scheme because we do not see our gardens the same way the traditional Japanese garden is designed.

Hardscape or manmade elements only distract from the natural qualities that are revered. It is those natural qualities that give rise to feelings of tranquility, harmony and that foster a purity of heart and mind.

Water is an essential component in a Japanese garden. It may be the real thing or it can be symbolic as in using sand. Mountains represented by boulders are also a key to balancing the energies between the Yin (water) and the Yang (mountains).

The concepts of Wabi Sabi are hard to grasp in terms of understanding the aesthetics not for their outer form, but the essence beyond the form. Such concepts are derived from Buddhist principles and include Impermanence, Incompleteness and Imperfection.

Wabi expresses its aesthetics through simplicity, asymmetry, and austerity. It is the appreciation of the beauty of a falling leaf in autumn. It is the meandering path that seems to lead nowhere in particular. It is the absence of ostentatious elements and showy flower displays.

Sabi is the state of mind beyond the perception of something rustic, imperfect and perhaps shows signs of old age. It is the appreciation for something that is flawed when compared to human standards. It is the crooked trunk of a tree or the crack in a boulder. This idea is sometimes referred to as ‘imperfect beauty’.  There is an aesthetic quality to the naturalness of things. It’s the authenticity that we are attracted to whether it’s what we consider perfect or not.

So with all these so called unseen qualities, how does one go about design a Japanese garden? That would seem difficult since many of the aspects are intangible and can only be felt by someone experiencing the garden. That is the challenge of the garden designer. How does one combine the site, the client and the elements to manifest this concept of Wabi Sabi? It’s all behind the scenes and it goes into the ideas behind the choices made when planning the garden and in the physical arrangement of the boulders, sand, gravel, plants and other elements.

Let’s take a look at my recent project which has yet to get started, but I do have the plan to show and refer to.

Below is a screen shot of the AutoCAD design image:

See my next post which discusses the ideas behind the design titled Scottsdale Japanese Garden Design.

As a landscape designer, I am brought in to help a new owner deal with the existing landscaping that they inherit in the process of buying their new home. Sometimes the landscaping really helps convince buyers to go ahead and purchase the property as they would not have to put a lot of work into making changes.  Other people are not concerned about the landscape or consider it a low priority to address soon after the purchase.

I recently completed a project where the new owner purchased a property and had no intention of keeping the existing courtyard as is.  The landscaping needs much work as the past owners did little to fix some of the inherent problems that the original owner created. Apparently they were do it yourself types and created some issues that from a design standpoint, are difficult to deal with without costly improvements.

The front courtyard had a rather bold structure that the original owner had built himself — a koi pond built of concrete that was about 7 feet deep and a very large biological filter that was about 4 feet above the pond. My clients had no intention of assuming maintenance of the pond and the 36 koi still living in the pond.

They found a new home for all of the koi, but were left with a huge concrete shell that they felt was out of scale for the courtyard. It dominated the space and so it had to be removed.  Sometimes, a homeowner who has a passion for gardening, or in this case raising koi, can lose sight of the impact of creating such a structure. But who knows, they may have had the intention to live there forever. But things change.

My client called me in to help them transform the courtyard into a more low maintenance, useable and pleasant sitting space so they could view the magnificent red rocks to the north. They did want a ‘water feature’ but were not sure about what it would look like. They did want a naturalistic feel and perhaps a hint of Asian influence if that was possible. They also had a set budget and so designing this new courtyard with a fixed amount was easy for me to accommodate their desire for a unique design that they could afford.

Fortunately, the infrastructure of the courtyard was decent. There was a wide expansive walkway leading to the front door and wooden deck as well as a river rock swale that handled most of the drainage from the rear of the property that had to remain.

After we completed the project, we stood out in the courtyard and realized they could have an even better space if the walls forming the courtyard were moved out or modified in some way. Maybe after a few years, they will see the benefit, and want a follow up transformation. But for now, they have what they wanted within budget and are very pleased with the outcome. I hope they find the time to enjoy it as often as they can.

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