Bare soil or 'beaten earth' and Japanese Gardens

castorpJune 15, 2006

Hi, everyone,

I've been looking at some reproductions of Japanese prints and noticing that many of the gardens depicted seem to have extensive areas of bare soil--swept very clean. It's something I don't see so often in photographs of Japanese gardens, which seem to be mostly moss, gravel, and stone.

I remember Plantfreak mentioning in another thread that in gardens in Japan there are many areas of bare earth.

In my garden (not really a Japanese garden, but influenced) I'm experimenting with some bare earth areas, actually in the Deep South tradition of "swept yards." I'm using a rake rather than the traditional twig broom.

I only began several months ago, so my earth (really sand here) is still not as clean and neat as I hope it will be with more "sweeping."

My main concerns have been wind and water erosion. So far, these have not been a problem.

Anyway, I was wondering if any of you had bare earth areas in your gardens, how you maintained them. If anyone can recommend a book on Japanese gardening with photos/information on the use of bare earth in the garden, I'd be very interested in that, too.

Thank you,


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Hello Bill,
You really need to find out about what the soils are in Japan. From what little I have googled the soils appear to be a combination of decomposed organic materials and volcanic materials creating brown and black soils in the forests. Sands are probably alluvials that accumulate in the streams and of course on the shores. Apart from gardens of the royalty I would speculate that most use natural earth paths or possibly include some gravel in the wetter spots.
The kind of gardens you are referring to are considered to be meditative gardens where sweeping patterns of raking act as lines of focus moving along and between objects as though the raked earth was a stream flowing about rocks and stumps in its path.
With sand you may want to add some clay that can give the sand more body and make it easier to shape and have a shape that will retain some structure. If clay is unavailable try a bag of Kellogg's Patio Plus and see how that works.

    Bookmark   June 16, 2006 at 2:55AM
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Thanks for the information. I was wondering about what sort of earth/soil they have in Japan. Mine, as I said, is pretty much pure fine sand--"sugar sand" it's called here. I like the clay idea, but wouldn't it make it sticky when it rains? I do use these bare earth areas as a walking surface. I'm also concerned about erosion. The sand does not erode badly, but some of the old swept yards I saw up in Georgia were clay and erosion was a problem--or sort of a problem. Whoever was taking care of the garden would just sweep the eroded areas smooth again when it stopped raining.

I do love raking the sand and especially sitting in garden after I've raked it. After a two or three days, it's all covered with footprints, fallen leaves, etc. The wind or rain has smoothed out the rake marks, but then I just rake it again, and it's neat. So far it's actually fairly low maintenance--compared to my lawn.

In the prints I'm thinking about though the sand does not look raked. It looks like earth swept smooth

    Bookmark   June 16, 2006 at 8:39AM
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This is really interesting. I have been trying it in one little "garden room". So far its not as clean as Id like it either. The other day I wondered if every time I was raking it, I wasnt keeping it friable. It was clean of leaves, but little bits of gravle loosend up and rolled out. I was also thinking of the southern swept earth tradidtion. So I switched to a soft kitchen broom, a cheepie from the dime store, with synthetic bristles. There was an imediate improvement. Not very zen, but no one has to see it. As for the clay soil, I dont have it, I have river loam that the privious owners incorporated gravel to in thier quest for the ultimate huge cheep drive way. At my moms there is lots of clay in the soil. Her packed, old established paths never grow weeds, and short of going out and trying to use it as a slip'n slide, or tromping over and over to provoke a mucky mess, its not bad. She runs the wheel barrow and mower through there every time she uses them, and its held so far. That garden has been in pretty much the same path configuration since the orrigional owner layed it the "bones" of the garden in the early '30s so I guess it could take a while. :)

    Bookmark   June 16, 2006 at 2:28PM
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Does rain get to your bare earth? Don't you have a problem with weeds? And when you pull the weeds, you destroy the smooth surface? Of course it can be swept again but I suspect pulling weeds comes close to being analogous to tilling which means any long term effect of smoothing the earth is gone.

I was wondering if you did the lasagna garden thing first for those of use who are worried about weeds, i.e. spread cardboard or newspaper and then put clay and then sand on top? Maybe still get weeds in the clay. I don't know but the bare earth idea appeals to me too.

I'm a newbie, it probably has been mentioned here before but I just am getting the fact that the primary element of Japanese gardens is emptiness. Dealing with and/or designing with the emptiness (which could be in the form of bare earth) is the real technique of Japanese gardens from what I can see.

Thanks for posting.

    Bookmark   July 9, 2006 at 3:43PM
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