Over the years, the word “zen” has been slapped on everything from New Age drinks to rock album titles, so much so that its true meaning—a particular strain of Buddhist philosophy—has become a bit obscured. Still, even in its current amorphous version, “Zen” correctly connotes tranquility, harmony with the world, and a deceptively simple complexity.
Within popular culture, the Zen garden has come to typify this vision of Eastern serenity, and rightly so. And for those of us who seek a harbor from the mania of the outside world, a zen garden is not only possible, but very affordable. Here are the basics you’ll need to establish your haven of meditation and safety.
A textured interplay of rocks and sand is the core of a Zen garden. Using two-by-fours, split rails, or any slats of rustic-looking wood, create “pools” of sand in shapes that accommodate your yard space. (Essentially, you’re building one or more shallow sandboxes.) Ideally, you should use the most pristine white sand you can find, but fine gravel is an adequate substitute.
Once you’ve leveled out your sand, the rest is up to your imagination, but traditionally you should place at least a few rocks of various sized and even textures throughout the garden. Boulders or even large balls of marble are a great way to start, followed by smaller pieces to lay out shapes and patterns. Finally, as part of the Zen garden philosophy is to mimic the tranquility of water within rocks and sand, use a wide-tined rake to raw ripple-like patterns: concentric circles, waves, or even freestyle effects are all common.
Although a traditional Zen garden stops with rocks and sand, expanded tradition has made plants an essential part of the mix. Ideal candidates for the job are bonsai plants, succulents, and the complexly-hued Japanese maple. While this can be more of a logistical challenge, planting flora within the sand and rocks creates a powerful counterpoint of the living and the inanimate, but plants can also be used to accentuate borders.
The secret is to strike a balance between the wildness of nature and the orderliness of human design, so avoid plotting plants along sharp lines, and make sure not to crowd any elements, so as to emphasize the negative space around the plants.
Another addition to the classic Zen mold, water can be a powerful way to create tranquility in your space, whether still or running. Outdoor water features can run the gamut of the simple and inexpensive to the grandiose and costly, so it’s up to your budget and level of commitment. A massive koi pond incorporating water plants is classic if you have the space.
If you’re working on a smaller scale, self-contained fountains and multi-tiered waterfalls are not only manageable, but they also add the most Zen of effects: the sound of gently cascading water.
Like larger rocks, statues can be used to punctuate the space of your garden, either in the midst of your sand tableaux, throughout foliage, or along pathways. Laughing Buddhas or proud dragons are obvious choices, but don’t feel limited by Asian themes. In fact, you might be more faithful to the spirit of Zen by using more minimal, abstract pieces. A Jewish artist in New York, for example, sculpted a set of large marble dreidels to reside in a large indoor Zen garden, to stunning effect.
These are just the basics—and given the austere aesthetics of a Zen garden, you can begin and end with the basics if you so choose. Accessories can of course be woven into your design, from Chinese paper lanterns to wind chimes, but be sure not to overdo it. An organic harmony, simplicity, and stillness should all be your guiding principles, so if your garden begins to feel busy, you know you’ve gone too far. After all, minimalism should not max out your budget.
Marcela De Vivo is a freelance writer in Southern California. She enjoys spending time outdoors and hopes to incorporate her love of nature and home improvement by creating her own Zen garden at home. Follow her on Twitter today!
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