8 stages of building a contemporary Japanese garden

8 stages of building a contemporary Japanese garden

We returned to Debden after creating some contemporary planters to liven up this large site in the middle of the Essex countryside for a London client. Now we were faced with a great challenge: to design a Japanese garden, in an exposed site and build it during a very wet winter. The design is contemporary – our interpretation of the client’s images from a recent trip to Japan, whilst unifying the 3 buildings which surround the space with a 3-dimensional design. A lower area resembles a temple garden with basalt steps and chippings with minimalist planting and rocks. Granite and sandstone surround the lower level with a water feature, a stone back wall, a deck and hedging. Here we tell the story of building this contemporary design during its 3 months of construction.

1. Finished garden 2. Rock craning 3. Wall building 4. Slab lifting 5. Concrete drilling 6. Foundation laying 7. Excavations 8. Design

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We’ve used 10 different types of natural stones, rocks and pebbles to create the narrative. The angles in the design vary to connect the 3 buildings surrounding the area of the garden, which in turn give a contemporary, sharp outline. The sequence of large granite rocks progress through a diagonal line, in which the rocks decrease in size to symbolise the family – culminating in a 3-tonne tall rock in the background and a low rock in the foreground turned into a water feature set in the deck. Most of the plants used are Japanese species such as Japanese maple, Camellia, Japanese holly cloud topiary, ferns, a multi-stem flowering Cherry, miniature grasses set in lines in the deck and bamboo. Two floating decks are set in the lower gravel area as viewing platforms from within the garden to give views across to the countryside beyond.

Japanese garden


It is certainly not easy to find large granite rocks in the UK. We were lucky to find a supplier and after a long visit trying to match the best 6 rocks to create the design, the green-red stone was deemed perfect for the site – the whole 10 tonnes of them. A small mobile crane was required in order to lift them over the existing perimeter wall. We had an approximate idea of where we wanted them to be situated. One by one they were lowered into dug-out areas and propped up. We then tweaked the final positioning with the client. The rocks were then supported with concrete and left un-cleaned to encourage moss growth.

Japanese garden rocks


The various techniques used to build the walls of this garden involved ingenuity, skill and improvisation. The paths connecting the floating decks inside the lower area were built in reclaimed Yorkstone. The stone was split by hand to form the sides then cut by machine and laid randomly as the top layer giving a contrast in finish. The granite wall which provides the main backdrop to the garden and hides the rear access gates was built in the same grey and black material used for the paving. It is randomly laid with some pieces protruding to give a three-dimensional effect. Needless to say, working in the midst of winter required a lot of artificial lighting to keep the momentum.

Japanese garden walls


With the basalt kerbs used for the steps weighing over 150kg each, a vacuum slab lifter machine was used to handle the stone. We have lowered the main temple area by 30cm to create a transition, which required 2 steps. Two L-shaped lines of basalt steps define the entire lower area and in turn provide the edge detail flush with the granite paving at the top area.

Japanese garden slab lifting


In order to bring in 60 tonnes of new materials into the site, 50 tonnes of earth and rubble had to be excavated and removed. We hired a digger to do the main digging and the spoil was moved to an area outside the garden and collected by a truck. Some very persistent areas of concrete and clay had to be handled using a hydraulic drill.  

Japanese garden building


Due to the nature of progressing the design with on-site tweaks and repositioning of certain elements such as the large rocks, concrete foundations were poured by hand. For each phase of the project, along 3 months, we fine-tuned certain outlines for a best fit and only poured concrete for this phase. This helped in negotiating the difficult varying angles between the buildings and gave us flexibility.  

Japanese garden foundations


The bulk of the excavations were carried out using a small digger. The spoil was loaded onto a mini-skip, which was driven a short distance to an area outside the site and piled up. In turn, a grab lorry would then load the rubble.  

Japanese garden digging

  8. DESIGN.

At least 90% of the original design was retained after 3 months of intense building. The paths connecting the floating decks were not created using solid blocks of stone but in horizontal segments. The Pine for the lower temple garden was substituted with a Japanese Holly as recent import issues were affecting the availability of pines due to disease. WE changed the detail of the back wall, used less bamboo and no Zebra grasses. We ended up with more rocks and as they were larger than drawn their impact much more imposing giving a great presence. The edge detail of the floating decks was changed too by using a steel frame underneath which gave them their levitating appearance.

Japanese garden design

Being our third project with the client and having known the site for almost a while, the tricky task of linking the out buildings with this garden was less daunting. We tend to spend a lot of time on-site with the client, understanding their needs, taking notes and photographing. We then leave it for a while and when we feel the time is right, we sketch out a layout of the site and do a rough outline of the design.

This was even more important here, considering the garden is far larger than the London plots we are used to used to, very exposed east to west and bounded by 6 different site angles. The initial sketch remained the executed plan. Yet the main difference had been the 3 months of building it, intensely modifying details and improving the finished result on site – with a great dedicated crew.

amir   Written and posted by Amir Schlezinger.

contemporary Japanese garden design

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10 garden benches 10 garden lighting 10 paving stones
10 garden decking 7 garden screens 10 garden seating

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