Back in the late 14th century, Zen Buddhist priests created their very austere gardens for meditation and appreciation of beauty. Those early gardens had no water features – rather, the priests created a feeling of water with rocks, even raking them to get a ripple-like appearance. Today there are many interpretations of Zen gardens, with enhancements such as ponds, bridges, lighting and art pieces. But they are still rich in Asian traditions and focus on an intrinsic reverence for nature. At first glance, the Zen garden is very simple – yet the depth and complexity unfolds the more one studies the space.
If you want your outdoor space to be a place of calm, simplicity and quiet contemplation, a Zen garden may be for you. Plus, you’ll find that this is a very easy garden to maintain. Whether enjoyed from outdoors, or through windows during inclement weather, its ancient beauty transcends all seasons.
Elements of the Asian Garden
Great stones and boulders are viewed in the Japanese garden as islands. Stone exists in dozens of other applications, from bridges to stepping pads. The role of stone cannot be over-emphasized because it is the structural basis of the hardscape design.
Pebbles in the Asian garden are most often river-rounded and cobble-like from pea size to as large as a potato. They are used to create fields on the ground, offer a base plane for art, and to outline stepping stone pathways.
Sand and fine gravel
In Asian gardens without ponds or streams, sand and finer gravels are used to create a metaphor for water. Whether composed as a dry streambed, or in the great uniform seas that are raked to create a flowing or rippled effect, this is a most common way to cover areas of ground and to serve as the basis for organizing planting.
Bamboo fences and panels
The Japanese art of bamboo fence and gate making has yielded incredibly elaborate creations. From straight rods to brush and thatch lashed into intricate patterns, these functional enclosures become a vital part of the garden’s visual design.
Ponds, streams and waterfalls are beautiful elements in the modern Asian garden. Created in a natural style with rocks and plants often found at water’s edge, these pools are the home of colorful koi fish.
Tea ceremony basin
The Japanese tea garden features a path from the entry gate to the teahouse. Along that pathway, there will be a water basin with its accompanying bamboo utensils for ritual washing. The basins may be naturally hollowed out rock or beautiful containers created from carved stone, ceramic and bronze.
Originally made of carved stone to hold oil lamps or candles, these artistic pagoda-shaped lighting fixtures are at home in Asian gardens. Of concrete or stone, small and squat or tall and elegant, these are the most common man-made features.
Figures of Buddha in all his many cultural forms are the icons of Asian gardens. Featured in contemplative spaces, they are both garden art and a vital part of Eastern spirituality. Whether simple cast concrete or more elaborate carved stone, ceramic or metals – nothing asserts the Asian style more thoughtfully.
How to Create a Zen GardenFirst, define your space. Decide if you want to start with a small corner of your garden or transform your entire yard. Give it rough edges, much like nature would create, rather than the straight lines of a formal garden.Next, sketch out a design. You can get ideas by visiting Asian gardens at a local botanical garden, looking at photos of Zen gardens you like, and searching online for downloadable plans. Once you have the basic bones of the garden defined — hardscape, topography and water — then you’re ready to choose the plants.Remember, a Zen garden is not filled with plants. You’ll want to carefully select some specimen plants that add intrigue, color and texture. The few, well-chosen plants will become the stars of the garden.Plants of the Zen garden reflect the change of seasons. Azaleas and cherry blossoms define the spring, Japanese maples the fall. The rest of the year the gardens are noticeably lacking in flowers, with the emphasis shifted to sculptural evergreens. These evergreens offer year-round beauty with a unique appeal under snowfall. You can still achieve this same garden character with some judiciously placed perennial flowers, which add interest without diverging from the traditional landscape.