The Kyoto Garden – a hidden London gem and winter inspiration for the garden



The Kyoto Garden, Holland Park

It was really quite a dull January day by the time I walked through Holland Park in West London yesterday afternoon. The skies really had clouded over and in the trees in seemed quite dark. I had stopped by to have a look at the The Kyoto Garden, a japanese garden I had read about as one of London’s best ‘secret gardens’. I wasn’t disappointed – it is a hidden gem that is well worth a visit.

I would have got there earlier had I not been distracted by a south indian restaurant serving wonderful veg thalis for a fiver on the way (Christmas in India seems a while ago now).

It took me a while to find the japanese garden but I did see some spectacular blossom and beautiful hellebores flowering on the way.













The Kyoto Garden in Holland Park was designed and built by a Japanese Garden designer and his team to celebrate the Japan Festival in London in 1992. It was a co-operative project between the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and the Kyoto Chamber of Commerce in Japan. The garden is in the ‘tour garden’ style, one of the traditional japanese garden styles. This simply means that visitors are encouraged by the paths and features to circulate around the garden.

The centre piece is a three step waterfall, said to symbolise steep mountains and deep gorges whilst the pond depicts a vast ocean: “in this way the entire garden represents, in condensed form, the grandeur of natural landscape”. The waterfall, cascading into the pond (filled with giant carp) is a dramatic centrepiece and is impressive, even on a dark day.

I had my eyes open for inspiration that translate well into contemporary garden design. Japanese gardens may seem to many as an aberration of garden design, with twee features and manicured plants. But I see there being much inspiration to be had from japanese gardens, whether in spirit or specific design features. And there are plenty of ideas to add winter interest to gardens – despite being the middle of January, there was plenty of structure, colour and features to draw the eye. Here are just three ideas:

1. Cloud Pruning: this is a japanese method of training trees and shrubs into shapes resembling clouds and is known as ‘Nawaki’. This again reflects the principle of displaying the essence of the plant in its natural form. We are familiar with topiary where hard lines and specific shapes are sculpted from yew and box. Cloud pruning gives a different look and feel but can still achieve a focal point or structured form that can look very effective in even a small garden. It could look ridiculously twee but it can be done in a way that looks very effective in a contemporary garden. Below is some cloud pruning I saw at West Dean gardens that was so much more eye-catching than a straight clipped hedge would be. This same approach can be used on a small scale with evergreen plants like Lonicera nitida or box. It need not be tricky either, here’s the RHS how-to guide!









2. Feature trees: The trees in The Kyoto Garden stood out yesterday despite the majority being bare and there’s a lesson here for every garden: choose feature trees with interest through the year. Many of the trees are, unsurprisingly, japanese maples (Acers) and cherries (Prunus). The wonderful peeling back of the carefully positioned Prunus serrula (Tibetan Cherry) is visible from a considerable distance and tempts you towards it.  The coral-red branches of the Acer palmatum ‘Sangu-kaku’ glowed in the grey skies. Its young shoots and branches have a vibrant colour and this is clearly made the most of by careful trimming, as is the tradition in japanese gardens to make the most of a tree’s natural form. Take a look at the picture of The Kyoto Garden in the sun – here you can see a variety of Acers standing out with their flame-red or honey-yellow leaves. The combination of trees selected in this garden means there is interest all year round: bark, blossom, leaves and structure.

Prunus serrula taken last year at Anglesey Abbey Winter Garden

The Kyoto Garden, Holland Park (Ian Yarham) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Pink-tinged Acer branches next to a magnificent Mahonia










3. Bamboo: a staple of a japanese garden. I really liked this use of black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra) as semi-opaque screen along one edge of the garden. Bamboo can be used to great effect in a contemporary garden, adding movement and foliage year-round. Imagine these clumps uplit to emphasis the jet black stems and bushy leaves. Carefully positioned, a line of bamboo with gaps can provide screening whilst giving glimpses to the garden beyond. But remember to use root barriers! This bamboo, like many is vigorous and to avoid the clumps spreading into an amorphous mass, it is important to use root barriers to restrict growth.


In doing a bit of research into the Kyoto Garden I came across this regional list of Japanese Gardens which is a useful resource. I’m going to stop by the Brunei Gallery roof garden in Bloomsbury when I get the chance.


Thanks for reading!



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