From grown-up colouring books, to smartphone apps and Paul Martin’s award-winning garden at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show, mindfulness is still very much having a moment. With the brighter weather set to continue, a space for contemplation is our ultimate gardening goal, and this year’s Garden Heaven magazine shares some tips for zen success.
Zen gardens, or rock gardens, aren’t a new concept when it comes to creating a more mindful space. Dating back to Japan’s Muromachi period, zen gardens are steeped in Buddhist tradition. Based on the kanso principle of achieving a harmonious space for reflection, the zen garden is a careful arrangement of raked sand, moss, pruned trees, and rock varieties.
Kyoto’s Ryoan-ji or Temple of the Peaceful Dragon garden – the size of a tennis court – is a powerful example of traditional karesansui design of a Japanese ‘dry landscape’ garden. As it’s waterless, it uses white sand to symbolise the sea, and five large rock outcrops acting as boats, islands and mountains. All this is encompassed by moss, embodying an abstract notion of land. Usually, zen gardens are self-contained by wall or bamboo fencing, leading to an intimate, reflective space, but current designs deviate for convenience. The finished composition is unfussy and easily maintained.
Creating your own zen garden needn’t be as elaborate a job as the Ryoan-ji. Even the smallest garden spaces are more than suited to the minimal, low-maintenance zen approach. Working from a bare garden is easiest, allowing you to build up Oriental intrigue. Work your zen garden to suit the size of your existing space, focusing on texture, colour and surface, without excess ornamentation.
Achieving simple zen begins with a shallow sand box to accommodate a gravel surface. Smooth river gravel is best – easily raked or combed to create the characteristic ridge- and-runnel effect. Given our blustery Irish climate, gravel should be strong enough to withstand harsh weather – softer sand will not hold its shape. Keep colours neutral and calm with greys and whites.
Completing a small zen garden can be done simply by arranging larger stones and moss. This punctuates the lined surface, adding variation and, importantly, encouraging contemplation, according to Buddhist monks. While the traditional Kyoto temple gardens are unplanted and waterless, there are alternative styles. Tea gardens incorporate lanterns, stepping stones and water, giving the space a dramatic Eastern effect.
The Irish National Stud’s Japanese Garden is the perfect example of a strolling zen garden, created with an emphasis on the romantic. Designed by master horticulturist Tassa Eida and his son, Minoru, the garden symbolises the life of man through winding paths, the bridge of life and tearooms. Albeit on a larger scale than anything most could attempt, this is an inspiring zen icon that blends water, vegetation and hard landscaping.
If you’re a hands-on gardener, being overly strict with traditional zen ideals may not float your boat. Powerscourt’s Japanese Gardens are less minimal and quite distinctive. The garden maintains zen values as well as having a transportive effect. Its circular design is symbolic of self-discovery and understanding the world as a whole, while its bridge serves as a supposed portal to paradise. The garden evokes balance and depth with Japanese maple trees, bright flowers and darker-leaved shrubs, suggesting yin and yang – shadow and light. At the garden’s innermost circle, a pagoda acts as a focal point. Powerscourt’s less pared-down design offers aspiring zen masters insight into focal points. Add bridges, replica pagodas and gazebos if there’s room. For smaller areas, mini Buddha sculptures, temples or lanterns make for a bespoke, mindful space.
Finally, for an extra injection of zen, or if you’re not ready to make the garden plunge, try a miniature sandbox for your home or work. Combing the sand and adding your own little garden features is an effective way to de-stress and encourage creativity, right at your desk. Trends may come and go, but zen gardens offer durable and versatile landscape design. Starting off with a stripped-down composition ensures there’s flexibility for growth and change, while still creating a restorative environment.
For more great gardening writing and advice for your own patch, pick up the 2016 Garden Heaven annual in all good newsagents and garden centres.