Japanese gardens -- characterized by stones, water, unusual plants and minimal amounts of color -- are traditionally designed to promote inner peace and serenity. Here's how Diane Hunter from Barrington, Illinois, created a Japanese garden in her backyard.
Diane became interested in Japanese gardens about 20 years ago because of the "wonderful feeling" she found in them. She wanted to create her own so she could feel that way every day. Her desire for deeper understanding led her to visit more than 80 gardens during four trips to Japan. Now, all she has to do is step out her back door for comfort.
"Whenever I've been troubled, I come here and get new insights," Diane says. "Some of my most joyful times have been during moments in my garden where I feel calm, protected."
A retired biological sciences professor, Diane dedicates most of her time to her quarter-acre garden. Diane selected and placed each stone of the dry streambed (left).
"Japanese gardens are traditionally small," Diane says. To make a section look larger, Diane places smaller rocks at the back of an area and larger ones in the foreground. This creates the illusion of distance.
Because traditional Japanese gardens are metaphorical and signify spiritual lessons, finding the perfect spot for a single rock has, at times, taken Diane as long as two weeks. "I'm out at five in the morning, seeing how the light hits it," she says. "Moving a few inches in any direction could reveal quite a different view."
Curving, pebbled paths in Diane's garden enhance the sense of discovery.
"Early Japanese designers -- 1,500 years ago -- created gardens as places where we can experience the most profound personal insights about our short lives," Diane says. "But Western eyes have to be guided."
One way to open your mind to get into these deeper thoughts, she says, is to simply focus on details and live in the moment. "Focusing on the details of one pebble is a very different experience from looking at 50 pebbles," Diane says.
This idea, she says, applies to problems: Ask yourself if you're seeing all parts of the situation.
Each item in a Japanese garden, whether it's a full yard or just the corner of one, is deliberately planned and placed to create a serene feeling conducive to meditation. Most Japanese gardens use four elements: stones, plants, color and water. See the next slides for ideas on incorporating these elements into a garden.
By relying on structure and texture instead of color, you can meditate in a Japanese garden any time of the day or year. Bold color is rarely used, and comes only from seasonal changes in perennials and shrubs such as hydrangeas. In Diane's garden, seasonal color includes the bright red of Japanese maple 'Bloodgood' (left).
Water, in Japanese gardens, can either be real or imagined. Fountains, like this tiered stone one in Diane's garden, can enhance the feeling of calm through the sound of water. But even without water, perfect placement of rocks can create the illusion of a flowing stream. "While viewers imagine water, they're free of worry," Diane says. "Their brain gets a rest, and that rest period could be called meditation."
Japanese gardens use plants that look unusual or show special character to suggest a metaphor for meditation. The kinds of plants you use are not as important as harmonious placement. Easy-to-grow plants include ornamental grasses, evergreens and deciduous trees such as Japanese maples. Pictured: White fir Abies concolor 'Select'.
In a traditional Japanese garden, stones are selected for their shape, color and personality and carry specific meanings, so the placement of each is crucial. However, you may just place them where you think they look most pleasing. Smaller rocks at the back of an area and larger ones in the foreground create the illusion of distance. Larger rocks can represent strength when vertical, or passivity when horizontal.
A dwarf Scots pine's gnarled branches represent endurance. Diane encourages visitors to sharpen their senses and focus on details like shape. Diane prepares guests for the experience of her stroll garden, but, as she puts it, what happens during the visit is up to the viewer. Japanese gardens, she says, can encourage insights about how to live our lives; about fears; about recognizing a core of beauty in everything.
Pruning is a form of meditation for Diane, whose garden has given her countless hours of serenity. "We can only have one thought at a time," she says. "So if we imagine we're among the mountains, enjoying them, we can't think about some problem that has been swirling around in our heads, causing a headache. Most things are beyond our control. When we try to control things we can't, that's when we really start suffering. In the garden, we can let go and change our attitude."
Illinois gardener Diane Hunter's travels to Japan inspired her landscape. If you'd like to travel through the Heartland for inspiration, the Midwest offers plenty of public gardens with Japanese influence.
Illinois: Anderson Japanese Gardens in Rockford; Chicago Botanic Garden Sansho-En (Garden of Three Islands) in Glencoe.
Indiana: Shiojiri Niwa in Mishawaka.
Iowa: Dubuque Arboretum Japanese garden in Dubuque.
Michigan: The Japanese Cultural Center and Tea House in Saginaw.
Minnesota: Carleton College Garden of Quiet Listening in Northwood; The Japanese Garden in Bloomington; Minnesota Landscape Arboretum Seisui Tei (Garden of Pure Water) in Chanhassen.
Missouri: Missouri Botanical Garden Seiwa-En in St. Louis.
Ohio:Cleveland Botanical Garden Gan Ryuu Tei in Cleveland; Dawes Arboretum Japanese garden in Newark.
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® May/June 2008.)
Shiojiri Niwa 
Dubuque Arboretum 
The Japanese Garden 
Dawes Arboretum