Garden Photo of the Day

The Small World of a Japanese-Style Courtyard Garden

A gardener tells the story of a courtyard transformation, and how he spotted the space a year before it all began

Japanese style courtyard garden

Hi GPODers! Today we’ve got an incredible garden story from a frequent GPOD contributor that is a demonstration of how magically small our big world can be. Bas Suharto has previously shown off gardens he has designed and built (check out some of those submissions: Building a Garden With Bas and Building a Japanese-Inspired Garden) as well as his own incredible home gardens (Parterre Garden in Ottawa and A Japanese-Style Garden in Ottawa). But the garden in this most recent submission caught Bas’ eye long before he was asked to lend a helping hand the space.

I passed by this garden with an interesting design on the fence 3 years ago, on the way to weekend cycling in Vanier, Ontario, Canada (zone 5b). I stopped just to look from the side street, where I could see a little bit into the square openings of the lattice wood of the fence.

border garden on exterior of fenceHere is the fence from the side street. Along the fence are some newly planted hostas, Karl Foerster grass (Calamagrostis × acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’, Zones 4–10), and some fall sedums.

Two years ago, I received an e-mail, she was a good friend of one of my close friends. She asked if I would help her to do some garden work, and she was the owner of the courtyard garden! Finally, I got to see what was behind that nice fence.

small courtyard garden with a couple overgrown evergreensPhoto of the garden before Bas got to work, sent from the owner.

niwaki pruning of small cedarWe first discussed the overgrown plants/shrubs in this “Japanese style” courtyard garden. I started pruning on the overgrown cedar to make it look like ‘clouds’, as often seen in Japanese gardens.

Japanese style courtyard gardenTo contrast the dark green clouds of the cedar and the ground, I cut and planted branch trimmings of the euonymus which grew under the cedar. I find euonymus is easy to grow from cuttings, and plug them right into rich soil. And this variety, moonshadow wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei ‘Moonshadow’, Zones 4–9) shows its colour when the leaves are exposed to full sun.

trained red Japanese mapleI moved some Karl Foerster grasses to outside the courtyard garden, and replaced them with a red Japanese maple (Acer Palmatum ‘Bloodgood’, Zones 5–8). I installed some bamboo sticks to spread branches of the red maple horizontally. Below it, I planted Japanese sedge grasses (Carex morrowii, Zones 5–9).

Japanese sedge grass under a red mapleJapanese sedge grass under the red maple.

bergenia in front of red mapleAlong the path, in front of the red maple, I planted bergenias (Bergenia crassifolia, Zones 4–7). These were from some of the overgrown bergenia I removed that was covering the LED ground lighting.

another angle of newly pruned and divided plantsThe reduced, once overgrown bergenias. The plant on the right is dwarf Alberta spruce (Picea glauca var. albertiana ‘Conica’, Zones 2–6).

smokebush pruned to be treeNext to the two doors of the courtyard garden, there was a smokebush (Cotinus coggygria, Zones 5–8). I let the smokebush grow higher like a tree, previously it was always trimmed as a short dense shrub. I striped some branches of leaves to show the trunks of the smoke tree. Below it, I planted Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra, Zones 5–9), I want something contrast colour with the dark burgundy of the smoke tree.

natural stone lighting with black pebblesClose to the terrace, there is LED lighting installed in natural stone. Around it were the overgrown bergenias. I removed some of them, which were blocking the light, and I installed black pebbles on an angle around the stone lighting. Next to the bergenias is a Hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa, Zones 4–8).

The view of the garden from the seating area.

The seating area for four people, a beautiful place to enjoy morning breakfast or afternoon coffees.

small, rectangular pond in garden patioThere is seasonal, rectangular pond about 2.5 ft x 7 ft, with a tiered fountain designed by an Ontarian ceramic artist. In the pond there is yellow iris grown in a 2-gallon plastic pot. In fall, the yellow iris gets planted in the ground with its pot for winter. (Photo courtesy of owner)

On a beautiful day, sometimes the Ragdoll Siamese cat will be in the garden to watch birds.

Wow, Bas—what a serendipitous gardening moment that concluded in a completely serene garden! I think it’s safe to say you were absolutely meant to put your touch on this courtyard garden. Thank you for sharing!


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View Comments


  1. btucker9675 07/09/2024

    What a transformation and I love that it's a great blend of Japanese formality and natural beauty. A truly lovely space!

  2. pegmccann 07/09/2024

    What a good idea of a way to rescue and reuse shrubs by artful pruning.

  3. user-7821942 07/09/2024

    I very much enjoyed your post. Explaining your thought process during this transformation was informative and useful. Thanks for taking to time to do so. The "before" and "after" shots are astounding. I love how you trimmed the cedar into a "cloud" formation and limbed up the smokebush into a tree which opened up the area under it for a planting of contrasting color. Well done!

  4. User avater
    treasuresmom 07/09/2024

    So very lovely!

  5. User avater
    simplesue 07/10/2024

    I woke up not feeling particularly inspired to garden today - until I saw your post!
    The little well thought out changes you made caused an amazing transformation in this garden- very impressive!
    So interesting to see how you made horizontal branches on the Japanese Maple Bloodgood, and the raising of the canopy on the Smoke Bush!
    Wow the little unique details you added- the ceramic fountain (what's the artists name?) the unusual LED rock light- all perfection.
    And of course the a garden cat and it's complete!

    1. User avater
      bas_s 07/15/2024

      The artist name who made the standing fountain is Stanley Lake.

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