Think small, dream big: Japanese-style gardens have long been popular in Britain, but creating that authentic pared-down look is harder than it seems, warns Anna Pavord

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Gardens made in the authentic Japanese style are rare in Britain. Most of the gardens we think of as Japanese are English gardens talking with a Japanese accent. The superficial accessories - the stone lantern, the bridge, the maple tree - stand in for the real thing. You can't buy Zen off the shelf at the garden centre.

Japanese gardens are popular now because they fit well into small spaces. And they are perceived as being low-maintenance. That's not strictly true. A proper Japanese garden is rather demanding on its keeper. Leaves have to be swept up every day. Blades of grass must be picked out from the moss, sand raked into cool rippling patterns of water breaking round rocks. Trees must be clipped and pruned and tweaked to conform to a particular vision.

Our gardens are mostly attempts to escape from images of the blasted heath and the rocky promontory. We like flowers, colour, smells, profusion. In the main, we are not good at paring down to essentials. In Shinto, the ancient nature religion of Japan, the garden with its carefully arranged ponds, rocks ( iwakura) and trees, evolved as a way to entice the gods from the tops of their mountains down into the more lowly human world. The palette of plants is limited: most are Japanese natives such as acer, camellia, cherry, osmanthus, pieris and pines such as the Japanese black pine ( Pinus thunbergii) and red pine ( Pinus densiflora).

Perhaps garden makers of the 18th century could get closer than us to understanding an authentic Japanese garden. They wouldn't have found it any easier than we do to grapple with the philosophical underpinning, but someone like Capability Brown would have been in complete sympathy with the principle of tweaking nature. It was what he was doing in landscape parks all over Britain. He borrowed distant landscapes in exactly the way that Japanese master gardeners did. They called it shakkei. He called it a vista.

Garden owners in the 18th century were still tuned in to the classical past. They could still imagine gods in stones and nymphs in streams. Reverence for nature, the oooh-aaah of chasms and waterfalls and mountain peaks was mirrored in the way they laid out their idealised landscape parks. They understood, too, how gardens should reflect and enhance the spirit of a place.

But the big vogue for making Japanese gardens in England arrived much later, at the beginning of the 20th century. It was the tail-end of the mania for all things Japanese that Gilbert and Sullivan pilloried in The Mikado. By then, though, it was a style thing rather than a philosophical thing, although several garden owners in search of authenticity, such as Louis Greville at Heale House in Wiltshire, imported Japanese gardeners as well as bridges, tea houses and stone lanterns. Japan in tea-garden mode appealed to British taste rather more than the austere rock/sand landscapes of the purist Zen style.

Louis Greville had been Second Secretary at the British Embassy in Tokyo in the late 1880s and on his return to England in 1901 laid out a Japanese garden on the banks of the river Avon that flows through the ravishingly beautiful grounds of Heale House. A red lacquer bridge (a smaller version of the famous Nikko bridge in Japan) straddles the stream and an authentic Japanese tea house, with rice paper walls and grass tatami mats, was put up by Japanese carpenters. The screen walls slide open to reveal superb views up and down the river.

Greville's Japanese gardeners channelled the two streams here to make complex patterns of still and running water, with more bridges linking small islands in the streams. The planting was simpler then than it is now, though some of the original trees remain: acers, Japanese flowering cherries and a superb cercidiphyllum. It is my favourite English/ Japanese garden.

In Ireland between 1906-10, Lord Wavertree was doing the same sort of thing on his estate at Tully, Co Kildare. He brought over a Japanese garden master called Tasa Eida and his son, Meiroru, who, with an army of Irish labourers, laid out a garden symbolising man's journey through life. I'd like to have eavesdropped on the comments that came out of that culture clash.

The Japanese gardens laid out in Edwardian times were mostly incidents in much larger garden schemes. Now they are popular with owners of small gardens because more than any other garden style, a Japanese garden makes a small space seem big. But it's still difficult to get hold of the right essentials. Lanterns and bamboo gismos are everywhere. Good rock nurseries, the first port of call for a Japanese garden designer, are not. We don't have any serious equivalent to a Japanese rock nursery, one step on from a quarry, where rocks are displayed almost as art objects and chosen for particular purposes in the overall layout.

It's also difficult, if you are making a garden in the Japanese style, to imagine the plants you put in it grown to their proper proportions around the rocks. In Japan, the few key plants (most of them by nature slow-growing) are generally brought in at vast expense as mature specimens, root pruned, branch pruned and already shaped in the form in which they will be kept until they die. We've finally caught up with cloud-pruned Ilex crenata in this country, but at a price. There are some fabulous examples in the plant centre at Wisley but one I looked at cost £995, the other £1,295.

There's a practical difficulty, too, in creating the Japanese look in a town garden. Even a relatively modest rock still weighs more than a tonne. Where there's room, they can be swung roughly into position with slings and cranes, but the finesse of the design depends on the exact alignment of one rock with the next. That can only be done by hand. And an exquisitely trained eye. Professor Fukuhara, who created a superb Japanese garden at Chelsea in 2001, made it look almost too easy.

The plants they use are familiar, but we don't normally grow them in a Japanese way. Evergreen azaleas in a Japanese garden are often clipped into rounded shapes to look like groups of boulders. Pines, too, are trained, not left to go their woolly, wild way. Acers are essential. So is moss. Garden centres in Japan sell turves of moss the way we buy grass. We don't appreciate moss the way they do. Perhaps that could be a way of getting to the point of Japanese gardens. Zen through moss.

Enthusiasts can join the Japanese Garden Society, which aims to record, conserve and encourage the making of gardens in the Japanese style. Membership is £25 a year. Contact Ann Dobson on 0845 094 4584, e-mail enquiries@jgsorguk or check out the website at www.jgsorguk. On Wednesday, Colin Ellis, a member of both The Japan Society and the Japanese Garden Society (he's also chairman of the oldest bonsai club in Europe), will be speaking about the Japanese garden as part of the Garden History Society's winter lecture series. The talk at The Gallery, 70 Cowcross Street, London EC1, starts at 6.30pm and tickets cost £8. For more information, or to book, call 020-7490 2974.

The best Japanese gardens in Britain are at Heale House, Middle Woodford, Nr Salisbury, Wilts SP4 6NT, open Wed-Sun (10am-5pm), £4; Batsford Park, Moreton-in-Marsh, Glos GL56 9QB, open daily from mid Feb (10am-5pm), £5; Tatton Park, Knutsford, Cheshire WA16 6QN, open Tues-Sun (11am-4pm), £3.50; the Kyoto Garden in Holland Park, London W14, open daily (7.30am-sunset), 020-7602 9483; Nicky Macpherson's newly installed Japanese garden at Attadale, Strathcarron, Wester Ross, Ross-shire IV54 8YX, open April-Oct,Mon-Sat (10am-5.30pm), £3. In Ireland: Tully, Co Kildare is now owned by the Irish National Stud. The Japanese gardens there are open daily (9.30am-6pm) from 12 Feb-12 Oct, €10. For more information call 00 353 45 521617 or check out