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4 Zen Plants to Grow Your Own Japanese-Style Garden

Textures, forms, pruning and placement are all important elements in choosing plants for a Japanese-inspired garden. Get started with these recommendations by Ben Schrepf, garden curator at Phoenix’s own Japanese Friendship Garden (

Compact Myrtle  

(Myrtus communis ‘Compacta’) 

• Shrub n White flowers; summer • 2′-4’H by 2′-4’W • Moist, well-drained soil • Zones 8-10 • Full to partial sun • Medium water; low maintenance • Attracts: Birds

Also known as dwarf myrtle, this compact evergreen shrub is a native of Europe, where its small, highly aromatic leaves have long been used as a culinary spice. Due to its small size and showy summer flowers, it makes a great choice for edging in garden beds or planting in containers in bonsai form.

WHY WE LIKE IT:  “We love to use this plant because of its fine texture and the ease with which we can rejuvenate it,” Schrepf says. “Cut it back hard and it grows back quickly; timing, however, is extremely important for this task. We prune our compact myrtle into tamamono (dome-shaped) and karikomi (organic-shaped) shrubs.


(Lippia nodiflora) 

• Perennial • White flowers; spring through fall • 1″-3″H by 1′-6’W • Sandy, loamy soil • Zones 7B-13B  • Full sun • Low water; low maintenance • Attracts: Bees, butterflies

Native to Japan, this evergreen ground cover makes a good lawn substitute, with a bonus of long-lasting tiny white flowers from spring through fall. Because kurapia does not produce seed, it’s typically sold as plugs to be planted 18 inches apart and will quickly fill in any gaps within a few months.

WHY WE LIKE IT: “Because moss is so difficult to grow in Arizona, we use kurapia as our primary ground cover. It is drought-tolerant, low-growing and holds up well to some foot traffic,” Shrepf says. “Throughout the summer our kurapia is trimmed and mowed to maintain the tight habit.”

Aleppo Pine  

(Pinus halepensis) 

• Evergreen tree 20′-50’H by 10′-20’W • Sandy, loamy soils • Zones 9-11 • Full sun • Low water; low maintenance • Attracts: Birds

Native to the Mediterranean region, the resin of Aleppo pine is used to flavor the Greek wine, retsina, while the pine nuts are used in puddinglike desserts. This ornamental tree is highly heat- and drought-tolerant and is best for larger yards due to its size, but can also be grown in bonsai form if placed outdoors.

WHY WE LIKE IT: “This pine has a spreading habit and is conducive to Japanese-style pruning. We shape them in the same style one might prune a black pine in Japan. Pruning must be done in early spring or fall,” Schrepf notes.

Anacacho Orchid Tree  

(Bauhinia lunarioides) 

• Shrub, small tree • White flowers; spring • 11′-15’H by 6′-10’W • Sandy soils • Zones 8-11 • Full to partial sun • Low water; low maintenance • Attracts: Bees, birds, butterflies

Named for the Anacacho Mountains in southern Texas, this ornamental deciduous shrub can be pruned and trained to look more like a tree. Its gray-green leaves are twin-lobed in a butterfly-like form.

WHY WE LIKE IT: “This plant is an excellent small-to-medium-sized tree that is drought tolerant and has fine, textured leaves,” Schrepf observes. “We appreciate the prolific white blossoms that, as a bonus, also smell quite nice. Japanese gardens utilize many flowering trees, and this is one of our favorites for holding up well in our climate.”


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