Adding Zen to your garden is easier than you think

Tsukubais, like this one in the garden in front of the Prairie Village home of Fran Lemery, an honorary consul general of Japan, are for washing and purification before entering Japanese homes.
Tsukubais, like this one in the garden in front of the Prairie Village home of Fran Lemery, an honorary consul general of Japan, are for washing and purification before entering Japanese homes. The Kansas City Star

Entering a Japanese garden is a peaceful and relaxing experience. And even with Kansas City’s blazing summers and bone-chilling winters, we can enjoy this Far East design that gives year-round pleasure.

Fran Lemery of Prairie Village is an honorary consul general of Japan and a local guru for everything Japanese. In 1995 his wife suggested they add a small Japanese garden to their backyard landscape. So they hired Ben Oki, a bonsai master from California, to design one that exudes serenity and harmony.

Approach Lemery’s garden today, and you are met with boulders, neatly edged azalea beds and a traditional water basin. Beyond large Redwood doors, you are transported to another world. An impressive array of evergreens, including Japanese red pines and Hinoki cypress trees, are pruned into artful shapes and lead you along sweeping paths from one area to the next.

This garden — Lemery’s main garden — is a combination of two of five traditional Japanese garden styles: stroll and Karesansui. He also has a courtyard garden closer to his house. The other two traditional styles are tea gardens, and hill and pond gardens.

Lemery’s garden illustrates just how beautiful the Japanese aesthetic is year-round as well as how easy it is to incorporate just a little bit of it into any landscape.

Artfully dotted along the way in his garden are lanterns and a large stone pagoda that sit harmoniously among the Japanese maple and dramatic weeping cherry trees in full spring bloom. Even a nontraditional shrub like a mature Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick has a place here with curious contorted branches and showy-yellow catkins.

Stroll farther in, and you will come upon a grouping of large stones among gravel, raked into serene patterns — a Karesansui garden. The boulders have great significance, and the gravel replicates water rippling around islands of stone.

“These were used for meditation,” Lemery says. “The monks would sit for hours and meditate.”

Lemery’s garden looks good year-round. There is no bleak wintery landscape, as the skillfully pruned evergreens and sweeping, stone-lined paths can be seen from the warmth of his home on a cold winter’s day. And a dusting of snow makes it all the prettier by highlighting the lanterns and shapely branches.

Aristocratic spaces

Originating in the 700s A.D., the earliest style of Japanese garden was called hill and pond. Emperors and military leaders created them for guests to enjoy from comfortable seating areas.

This style evolved into one that is used in larger gardens today called stroll gardens. Not only are stroll gardens beautiful from the outside, but they are meant for guests to meander along pathways, enjoying the garden from within.

“The emperor or shogun would invite their friends into the stroll garden and entertain lakeside or on their personal boats,” Lemery says.

When the Japanese merchant class started to gain wealth, its members emulated the gardens of the aristocracy. But their spaces were limited and usually inside their homes. This is where the Japanese courtyard garden was born. It’s the easiest style to try in Kansas City.

Lemery suggests starting simply: “You can have a lantern, some of the evergreens, iris and azaleas. In a lot of the courtyard gardens, you may or may not need greenery, just stones.”

The last style of Japanese garden that emerged is the tea garden.

“Tea gardens are very plain, and when you enter one you just feel relaxed,” Lemery says. “People start getting quiet and calmed down.”

Loose Park contains Kansas City’s most famous tea garden. In 2006, Kurashaki, Kansas City’s sister city in Japan, dedicated a tea room to Kansas City to celebrate the 30-year anniversary of their sisterhood. Lemery volunteers with the Heart of America Japan-American Society to maintain the evergreens and groundcover leading into the tea room.

Bonsai style

Today, local Japanese gardening expert Koji Morimoto assists Lemery with pruning.

Masters of Japanese gardening often spend a lifetime perfecting the craft of pruning in the specimen style, which is similar to bonsai, only for larger trees in a landscape. Bonsai is for smaller, potted plants.

“When the Japanese trim pines in the bonsai style, they like to leave a space between the limbs that a robin can fly through, land on the branch and then fly off,” says Buck Buchan, of midtown’s Buck Buchan Landscape Design. “There are times for tight shearing, when they create many balls of azaleas, and then there are also times for a light and airy look.”

You don’t have to import a Japanese gardener or have a formal tea or stroll garden to integrate a Japanese flair into your garden.

For starters, most local nurseries carry evergreens pruned in specimen style. Incorporate one or two with boulders and gravel for year-round interest.

Buchan finds great pleasure in using these permanent elements of Japanese design in client’s gardens because of their longevity.

“In spring we have blooms, in fall the leaves change, and in winter the leaves are no longer there,” he says. “But time does not wear down the permanent elements. They are immortal. They are the backbone of the Japanese garden.”

One of Buchan’s most visible gardens, called the Tiger Stroll Garden, was designed for clients on Ward Parkway. Its focal point is a Karesansui garden surrounding Tiger Island, five large stones assembled to look like a reclining tiger swimming in the ocean. The surrounding gravel is raked to resemble the ripples that would appear in the water from this tiger’s playful strokes.

“The ripples go out, and they are like good deeds,” Buck says. “If we do a good deed, those ripples go out and touch other people too.”

Get started now

If you want to enjoy the benefits of a tranquil Japanese garden, right now is the time to get started. You don’t need to jump in head first with a major stroll garden or add a tea house.

A simple water basin can represent water in a smaller garden. Larger gardens can incorporate a simple, low-maintenance dry waterfall that consists of long, pale stones stood upright with a dry riverbed below. Buddhists believe that waterfalls are the gateway to enlightenment.

Stone and water combined with other natural elements like wooden fences, bridges, lanterns and plants laid out in a harmonious way promote relaxation and meditation.

When Ben Chu, horticulture supervisor of the Japanese Garden at Missouri Botanic Garden in St. Louis, chooses where to place plants and garden elements, he aims toward simplification.

“This design principle is where the garden designer and builder attempt to reduce the complexities of nature and capture the essence of that favorite place,” Chu says. “This idealized version of nature requires those who view the garden to see the garden with their mind’s eye as well as their eyes.”

Chu’s advice for Kansas City gardeners who want to try elements and principles of Japanese garden design on their own is to “study the site and understand the sun exposure, water runoff patterns and from where the garden will be viewed. I always try to design gardens so the house is to my back and can be enjoyed while inside or outside.”

Chu also suggests studying the beautiful gardens of Japan through travel, photographs in books or on the Internet. Figure out exactly what is inspiring you and try to capture that element in your own garden.

“It becomes their own personal oasis where they can relax and find peace,” he says.


In Japanese garden design, plants are all about texture. There are evergreen trees and mounding shrubs that will create a meditative oasis to ease your soul and bring nature into your world.

▪ Pine trees: Scots pine and Austrian pine are both evergreen trees that boast an attractive bark. They will also give the garden that needed color and texture in the wintertime with their glossy, green needles. These evergreens can be left natural or pruned into bonsai forms.

▪ Boxwood: This evergreen has leaves instead of needles. There are many varieties of boxwood that will fit into any Kansas City garden. They are great for gardeners wanting to easily create shapes that are pleasing to the eye.

▪ Azaleas: Azaleas are shade-tolerant springtime blooming shrubs. They are also one of the few flowering plants that are usually found in Japanese gardens. Azaleas are so popular in Japan that many cities hold yearly festivals to celebrate their bright, cheerful colors.

▪ Iris: Iris are an excellent perennial choice for Japanese gardens in Kansas City. They come in infinite colors and are highly tolerant of its hot and sunny summers. When they aren’t in bloom, iris give the garden spiky textures and soft blue-green shades. Japanese iris is the traditional choice, but many Siberian varieties will give a similar look and are easier to grow in the Midwest.

▪ Chrysanthemums: A popular flower in Japan, the chrysanthemum can be left to loosely grow towards the sun or pruned into attractive mounds. They are one of the few flowering plants that could add traditional color to a Japanese garden. These nectar-rich flowers attract bees and butterflies. They can be found in many shapes and almost every color of the rainbow.

▪ Groundcover: Pachysandra and Mondo Grass are popular in Japanese garden design. Depending on your personal style, there are low-growing plants that have rounded edges where others have spiky, glossy textures. By using groundcovers, you can skip the mulch.

Related stories from Kansas City Star