[Guest Blog] About uncovered soil in Japanese gardens

This is a guest blog by J-Gardens!

When looking at Japanese gardens, whether old or new, traditional or modern, I spot uncovered black soil.

This is a very uncommon sight in a European garden, except during the time of winter and early spring.
Soon, the first bulbs will sprout again and carry beautiful and interesting flowers in early spring.
After them, all the perennials will become green again, covering the soil.

When thinking of creating a Japanese garden, one should start to change the view about how a flower bed should look like.
Black soil can be appealing too! Having space between flowers and shrubs can be a nice opportunity for using flowers, that contrast excellent with black soil!

One example can be seen in the Botanical Garden of Hamburg (Loki-Schmidt-Garten). For years there is one place called “Perennial valley”. It is no Japanese garden, but includes the idea of visible black soil along the small artificial river, flowing through the area.

Now just take a look at pictures of Japanese gardens again.
Watch carefully at courtyard gardens (tsuboniwa) and tea gardens (chatei or roji) and you will find almost only pictures with nice, moss-covered gardens. But what do people in areas where moss is not easily grown do?

In modern garden designs, you now often find gravel used for tsuboniwa.
But the traditional gardens most often did not use it.
There were plants carefully chosen and placed, often together with an ornamental lantern or something like that.
The gardens in the middle of a house, often two or three, had one very important role to manage the climate inside the house.
This was the main function of those gardens.
To make them look nice, and produce the wanted climate, people added plants and features that looked nice from inside the rooms.
The garden was set lower than the rooms. When sitting inside, one would not see the ground. So why bothering with covering the ground with plants?

Although in Kyoto, you will only find blank soil between shrubs.
(This is no example for Roji)

Roji were used in a different way. They are the gardens through which the guests approach the tea ceremony. They have the function to already turn the mood of the guests into the right way before the ceremony begins.
Very important elements of the garden are the water basin (tsukubai) and stepping stones. The garden also should reflect Wabi-Sabi.
Beside the way, leading you from the entrance gate and waiting room via the Tsukubai towards the tee room, you might find, of course, shrubs and trees. But around your stepping stones?

In climate, where moss is not easily grown, you might only find black soil!

Today we have the trend to low maintenance and a nice appearance, so we cover everything up with a weed proving sheet and gravel.
But we also want to have low cost gardens. A nice looking gravel space is not as reasonable as one might think..
After time, there will be appearing weeds. The gravel will change colour and do not look as nice as in the beginning.
Leaves will be brought in by wind.
To make your space looking nice, you might want to bring in some plants and rocks too.
Nice rocks are never cheap (except you buy them at a quarry, get them as present, have the possibility to collect them in nature). Plants need constant maintenance to look always nice in composition with your gravel space.
You see, there might be a lot of hidden costs.

A modern garden where you can find both.
Soil and covering plants.

So what do Japanese do to minimize costs?
A lot of gardens in Japan features shrubs and trees. Some evergreen perennials might also find their way into a Japanese garden, though, but the main elements are trees and shrubs.
When not planted tightly together, but with soil between them, one can easily use a string trimmer to get rid of the weed.
Do this just some times during the year and you are finished with weed-care for only a small amount of money.
Lately, also the European style grew popular in Japan. Using a lot of different evergreen and perennial flowers, covering up the soil completely. With lesser space, also the maintenance got less than before. Sometimes they just let everything grow and call for a gardener once a year, to cut everything again in a nice appearance.
But what about the costs for a gardener? “Can’t be helped.” They would answer.

What looks more appealing to the eye is up to everyone by themselves.
Just take blank soil appearing in the garden in consideration ^_-

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