Short on space? Take inspiration from Japan’s courtyard gardens | Gardening advice

The Japanese tsubo-niwa, or courtyard garden, became popular in the early Edo period (an era akin to our English Renaissance) of town planning. It was a little outdoor space – often not more than a corridor within the wings of a building – that became a hidden gem inside the home. A garden for looking on rather than being in, a place of contemplation. The best tsubo gardens are poised, breathtakingly beautiful spaces.

The tsubo garden has strict rules about the layering of elements: water, plants, sky and stone, all influenced by the constraints of space: these are small gardens. Some of the most striking examples are reduced to the essentials: a single clump of bamboo, a water basin, a rock.

Every now and again this idea pops up in contemporary, western spaces, often in large corporate buildings. But many of our homes have corners not too dissimilar: side returns, slivers of front garden, basement entrances and courtyards that all could welcome a design flourish.

I’m not suggesting stone lanterns and water lavers, as these are likely to sit at odds with our architectural vernacular of bricks and mortar, but a more edited space – a single, beautiful specimen in an elegant pot that demands a little contemplation when you catch it – is no bad thing.

Many architectural foliage plants can hold their own in such spaces and won’t mind the shade that often comes with such a corner. Cryptomeria japonica “Globosa Nana” is a dwarf version of a Japanese conifer that is very slow-growing, so doesn’t mind life in a large pot. It forms a dense, round, shaggy, almost fluffy shape that is immensely pleasing. In spring it is vibrant yellow-green and by winter has turned blue-green.

A more seasonal interest is Mahonia eurybracteata subsp. ganpinensis “Soft Caress”. It is the aristocrat of the mahonias, with soft, fern-like evergreen foliage in bright green, followed by fragrant yellow flowers in late summer and dark purple berries in autumn. It is hardy, unfussy about shade and rarely requires pruning.

If you want to screen something off – perhaps a neighbour’s kitchen extension that overlooks your garden – and you have only a narrow space to plant, invest in a Temple bamboo, Semiarundinaria fastuosa. The canes grow up to five metres tall, but its habit is very upright and narrow. This is a clump-forming bamboo and easy enough to keep in its space by rhizome pruning, but it is not fast growing. It will tolerate semi-shade, but in the sun the leaves will flush purple with age. It is also very tolerant of maritime climates and windy sites. The form “Viridis” keeps its green stems all year round.