This column is the first in a series of articles to take us strolling along some garden paths. Hopefully, along the way, we will come across some good ideas for our own patch of greenery, whether that is a garden, containers on a balcony, or just a few potted plants on the kitchen window.

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Winter is a wonderful season for visiting gardens. The air is clear and the very sparseness of the scenery can be both beautiful and inspiring. With few leaves or flowers to catch the eye, the basic structure of a garden leaps into focus. And without a good structure, even the finest collection of plants will fall into a muddle.

As the English architect Edwin Lutyens once said: "Every garden scheme should have a backbone, a central idea beautifully phrased. Every wall, path, stone and flower should have its relationship to the central idea."

That might sound rather daunting, but to see a garden with a fine "backbone," I can recommend the Toshima-kuritsu Mejiro Teien Garden in Tokyo, a short walk from JR Mejiro Station. This is a small landscape garden it would be easy to zip around in five minutes -- but you're likely to linger much longer, taking your time to discover the surprising variety of scenes packed into this gem.

The garden piques our interest as soon as we enter through the traditional wooden gateway, from where it offers an inviting view of a miniature lake backed by "hills." A group of small, spindly trees cleverly frame the view and, like an unwinding picture scroll, paths invite us to step into the scene.

If it seems natural to take the right-hand path, it is because we are actually being drawn to do so by the first of several focal points: an eye-catching pavilion that is cantilevered over the water. How it invites us to sit awhile, and watch reflections or listen to the breeze.

But if others have beaten you to it, more seats are dotted further along the path. For my taste, there is a little too much concrete on the opposite shore, but then, compared to the average city "park," this is a drop in the ocean.

As we continue, large stones piling up ahead warn that something is about to happen. And it does. The path dips dramatically and tips us onto stepping-stones in a rushing stream. And as if that were not enough -- well, I will leave at least one surprise!

The importance of space

If we continue on the stepping-stones, there is a fine view of a pine tree by the shore, which is reflected in the water and framed by a tall, noble stone. In winter, the focal point is even more artistic because of the elegant yuki-zuri (snow-ropes) fanning out over the tree.

Alternatively, climbing the hill reveals to view a small, open lawn. It is now as dry and crisp as a cornflake, of course, but this blank space is important. Rather like a pause in music, this space is a small "rest" in the garden's melody, and it encourages us to stop and look around. And what do we see? A single stone, beckoning us toward another view of the lake.

Pausing here, we can appreciate some of the features that make this garden interesting. First, the changes of level from waterside to hilltop. Then, the play of different textures, and the movement from water that tumbles, ripples and lingers in calm pools. There is change of scale, too, from small stones by the "shore" to rugged boulders that connect the earth and sky. Similarly, contrasts continue in the planting. The large, glossy evergreen leaves of the yatsude shrub (Japanese aralia; Fatsia japonica)> on the upper lawn make an appealing contrast with the nearby plum trees, which are now a maze of black twigs dotted with red and white buds. Yet no single feature of the garden dominates, and the result is harmony.

After all this "backbone," you might want to just look at the planting. Some details I particularly liked were the occasional bright-red flowers of the boke (quince; Chaenomeles japonica), which stood out against a background of dark trees, as well as the cheerful red berries of the evergreen manryo (coralberry; Ardisia crenata) that greet you near the entrance. Appealing, too, is the way plants such as kuma-zasa (kuma bamboo grass; Sasa veitchii) have been used to form "cushions" around the stone benches to soften the effect. This dwarf bamboo is frost-hardy, and most handsome in winter when its green leaves are edged in creamy white.

A final surprise: This garden was created for Toshima Ward just 12 years ago by the landscape gardener Kunie Ito -- and entrance is free. If only more public parks were like this, the quality of city life would be vastly improved.

The great poet and nature lover Samuel Taylor Coleridge blessed his child, saying: "All seasons shall be sweet to thee." Well, a fine garden reveals the sweetness of every season, including winter.

So, suitably inspired by the "sweetness" of Mejiro Teien, perhaps we will look again at our own winter gardens or balconies. Is there a focal point, apart from the air-conditioner? Can the level be changed, even by adding a tall bamboo or trailing ivy? Is there some texture to stir the imagination, perhaps the grainy bark of a tree or soft moss growing on a stone? Happy gardening.