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Why this Garden Works - Lan Su Chinese Garden

Lan Su Chinese Garden, USA

In this second design article on 'Why this Garden Works' we'll look at a traditional Chinese garden. Unfortunately not in China but, nonetheless, authentically built by Chinese artisans in Portland, Oregon.

Lan Su (www.lansugarden.org) is a great example of urban garden design. Its whole purpose is to help people relax and to inspire creativity by connecting with nature, even in the centre of town. Although it is modelled after a 16th century city garden, Lan Su's design tips are just as relevant today.

Boundaries and Views

Like some of the earliest Middle Eastern gardens, the classical Chinese garden is enclosed by walls. High, whitewashed walls hide the city streets with additional walls and screens dividing up the space within. This doesn't sound too different from a prison but the garden manages to feel more like a secluded oasis.

Design Tips:

1. Feature your boundaries. Painting boundary walls bright white goes against the strategy of densely planting up garden boundaries and painting them dark to try to make the garden look bigger. The idea behind the white walls is that they act like the paper in a landscape painting – the garden scene is artfully arranged in front. Warning: your planting design has to be pretty awesome to pull this off.

2. Add transparency to your divides. Openings in Lan Su's walls help to avoid the claustrophobic feeling of a totally enclosed space. You can always see out and through. Walls have decorative windows and circular moon gates. Screens are rarely solid. Trees are pruned to lift their canopies so that you can peek between the trunks. Creating these multiple vertical layers makes a small space look bigger and more tempting to explore.

3. Draw the eye away from bad views. Most urban gardens have views that you want to hide: overlooking properties, power lines, a neighbour's shed. Even if you can't totally screen views outside the garden you can encourage people to look within the garden. A good distraction is amazing paving, or indeed, anything low down and interesting. My eye is instantly drawn to the ground plane in the Lan Su garden where I find it really hard to stop looking at those beautiful pebble paths.


The Lan Su garden is centred around a large pond, circled by buildings and courtyards. Hardscaping and planting are highly symbolic. There are meanings behind almost every rock and tree - very different to most western gardens.

Design Tips:

1. Question the lawn. There is no lawn in a traditional Chinese garden. The centre of the garden is usually a large pond rather than the typical western lawn. But it serves the same purpose. Gardens can feel more relaxing if you balance flat, open spaces with enclosed spaces such as structures and planting. The open space can be lawn, water, paving or even sand. In some small Chinese gardens the pond was replaced by an area of white sand, which looked like water in the moonlight. In time this became the Japanese zen garden.

2. Include space to rest. We often design for activity in the garden: trampolines to bounce on, terraces for entertaining, vegetable gardens to tend. We can neglect areas designed for peaceful stillness. The Lan Su garden contains dedicated areas for really connecting with nature: a space for contemplating plum blossoms, one for listening to rain fall on large leaves, another for feeling the wind through the bamboo. It would be hard to convince most of our clients to dedicate areas in the garden for such esoteric pursuits but it's always worth asking them when or where they feel most peaceful and happy in the garden. Even if they can't answer this question, try to design in as many seating areas as possible to encourage clients to simply sit down and rest.

3. Don't show everything at once. As well as helping people to relax, the traditional Chinese garden also aims to inspire creativity. To do this the garden has to be interesting and tantalising. It's hard for a garden to be interesting when you can see all of it at once. It was impossible for me to take a photo of the entire Lan Su garden even through it is a relatively small space. Paths are curved or zig-zagged. There's always something screened or just out of sight, tempting you to explore further. This labyrinthian design is very different from the long views of many European gardens – a sculpture at the end of a straight path or double-herbaceous borders.

Planting Design

Plants have been very carefully selected in the Lan Su Garden to fit into small spaces and to reflect the four seasons. I've been to the garden twice now - in January and in June. The garden looked just as fully-planted in the winter as in the summer.

Design Tips:

1. Design with your nose. Looking through the plant list for the garden I'm struck by the high proportion of plants chosen for their scent - especially their winter and night-time fragrance. Winter gardens can often focus on the look of the plant: red stems, peeling bark, evergreens. But small, urban gardens are perfect places for scented plants.

2. Try new plants. There are quite a number of lovely plants on Lan Su's list that are unfamiliar to me. I know that Portland's climate is very similar climate to much of the UK so I'm going to search out these plants. It's easy to get into the habit of just planting whatever you can easily find at your favourite nursery, assuming nothing else will grow locally. Better to try out at least one new plant each time you design a planting scheme – some might fail but others could be a spectacular success.

3. Shrubs are back. How many perennials can you see in these photos? Not so many, yet there is year-round interest from trees, shrubs and grasses. These are not your stereotypical 'heavy' shrub borders with clashing conifers and dark rhododendrons. There there are a large number of evergreens but only a few conifers with the exception of pines. The borders have a light feel and are restful to the eye. The main colour is mid-green with subtle pops of colour here and there. There is a lot more focus on leaf shape and plant height. A few high-canopy trees, a mix of shrubs (some large but mostly small), and a lot of lower ground cover – especially swathes of evergreen grasses.

The Lan Su Garden is very different to gardens many of us are used to and has pushed my own ideas about garden design. It's one of the few gardens I've genuinely enjoyed wandering around in the winter. As the festive season draws near, I hope that you will be able to find your own little space to be creative, connect with nature and, most of all, rest. Merry Christmas!

Articles in the Why this Garden Works series:

About the author

Tracy Rich is a landscape designer based in Stirling, Scotland.

Tracy provides a full range of garden design services for private residences and community spaces.


Landscape Juice is the UKs leading online site for landscaping and horticulture news and information.


  • Thanks very much Tracey, that's a lovely garden and I liked your comments on it.  It made me think about pruning trees to provide some transparency and look at different levels. I'm not sure about the beautiful pebble mosaics in that organic-looking garden as they distract from the beautiful trees and white walls.. but I haven't seen the actual garden.  It looks well worth visiting.


    • PRO
      Thanks Jane. The garden is definitely worth visiting at any time of year - nice tea shop too!
  • Thanks Tracy , very interesting and analytical article.  I'm relieved to hear that shrubs are back too!!!!

    • PRO

      Yes, shrubs are 'trending' (apparently)!

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