Ask someone what Zen means, and you're likely to get a unique answer. Zen is shorthand for Zen Buddhism, but it's also become a go-to word to describe anything that's calming and centering. There's some historical truth to this when it comes to the tenants of Buddhism. The teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, call for quiet, peaceful meditation that can lead to intuitive understanding. Japanese rock gardens, also known as Zen gardens, are popular no matter what your religion. In this hectic world, everyone is looking to add a little Zen to their lives. Japanese-influenced gardens are a great way to turn your backyard into a calming slice of the Far East. From sand to moss and rock, we'll walk you through our Zen garden. These 10 tips will inspire you to relax, reflect and "Zen out" right in your own backyard.
Lighting is essential when setting the mood anywhere, but especially in a Zen-style garden. You may have to shop online to find exactly what you need, but these days, even big-box hardware and outdoor stores sell lighting with a Japanese influence. Many of these lights evoke natural wick lanterns, with the benefits of running on electricity. These, or solar powered versions, are good for the area surrounding your seating area and walkways. Hanging your lanterns from posts or tree branches adds a nice element. For more intimate table lighting, there's no substitute for the calming effect of a real candle. Try out an Asian-inspired tabletop candle lantern or candle arrangement for maximum ambiance and tranquility.
In an authentic karesansui, or Zen garden, sand plays a crucial role. To keep this tradition alive in your own Zen-inspired garden, set aside an area for your sand garden. This can be as large or as small as you like. You can even buy or build a small tabletop sand garden as an interesting and calming centerpiece. Your sand garden can contain river rocks, gravel and even grass, but they typically don't have any plants. For this reason, it's known as a dry garden. Once you have your box in place and full of crushed granite sand, you'll need a rake -- an essential aspect of the sand garden. The rakes are plain and wooden, each prong made from a small wooden dowel spaced several inches apart.
There's some real meaning behind how you place your rocks, but if you're simply going for a Japanese influence, arrange them however it pleases you aesthetically. Once you have your rocks and sand in place, with a rake in hand, gently pull straight lines, waves and circles through your sand and wait for the relaxation to begin. Use this time for quiet reflection.
Rocks are an essential element to Japanese-inspired gardens. River rocks and gravel are the most common types of rock used. Small river rocks can rest underfoot as your pathways. Larger rocks can be arranged and stacked pretty much anywhere in your garden. Like all aspects of the Japanese garden, minimalism is important. So don't overdo it with the rock arrangements; they should be sparse and eye-catching. A raised bed with some well-placed rocks and plants can make for a great garden centerpiece. If you have a sand garden, the gravel is meant to represent the ocean, and the river rocks symbolize the islands of Japan. They can also represent a mother tiger and her cubs. When placing your rock garden, try to keep with Japanese tradition and have it face directly north and south.
Even if you think your Zen garden is the ultimate in relaxation, if it doesn't have a water feature, you aren't quite finished. You have a several options here, from tabletop fountains you can purchase in a store or online, to a full-sized waterfall or koi pond. Incorporating a waterfall into a pond is another traditional way to get the best of both worlds. You can spend some money having a water feature installed, or you can save some money and try to do it yourself. There are all kinds of DIY pond kits available online and in your local garden center. These generally require a lot of digging, the installation of a rubber skirt and a recalculating pump to make everything work. The edges of the rubber skirt are then cleverly covered up with plants and rocks. Building or buying a water feature is well worth the investment if you're looking for maximum tranquility.
Moss is a common plant found in Japanese-style gardens. It can be incorporated in small containers for a side or coffee table, or used in larger amounts for a striking effect. For a hearty grower and a deep green look, go with fern moss, rock cap moss or cushion moss. You can also combine other elements of your Zen-style garden along with your moss. Use sand and river rocks with moss in a container garden. Try adding a fern or two to a raised bed of moss and gravel. Leave the arrangements sparse and minimal to achieve the look you're going for in a Japanese influence. Moss is also good to use as a barrier for your walkway or water feature. Moss is low-maintenance once it's established, and all it needs to take root is an area cleaned of rocks and debris. Once it's growing strong, it will actually grow well on top of your rocks. Shade and moisture make the ideal environment for moss to thrive.
Seating in a traditional Japanese style garden typically consists of artful, handcrafted wooden benches. Like most things in Japan, there's some meaning behind the designs. Seat backs can be intricately carved to represent such things as the sun or moon over a landscape. Zen-style garden benches can have backs or no backs and can be made from a variety of wood from bamboo to teak. You can also buy heavy stone benches if you don't mind spending more money. Single seats are an option, or your bench can seat up to four people. For your main congregating area, you may want to include some cushions for comfort. Try adding a backless two-seater bench along a pathway or beside your sand garden or water feature.
Plants are an important part of any garden. Choosing your Zen-style plants can go a long way toward establishing the Eastern look you're going for. Aside from the basics, like moss and ferns, there are plenty of plants that will Zen your garden in no time. The traditional Japanese maple tree is an excellent choice for your yard. It casts a low, wide pattern with its purple leaves. Water irises, bamboo, tree peonies and Japanese apricot trees are also good additions to the mix. When it comes to your tabletop area, nothing beats a bonsai tree to help establish a Zen-inspired setting.
Zen-inspired statues and figurines can add a nice finishing touch to your Japanese-style garden. Leave these items for last, once you have your more difficult-to-install elements in place like your water feature, living area and raised beds. Don't go overboard with ceramic Buddhas and gongs, either. The key is to add just a few well-placed and tasteful additions. Zen style statues and figurines are often made from stone, but can also be carved wood or terra cotta. Jade is a little more expensive but definitely adds some Asian influence. Traditional statues are of soldiers, horses, elephants and, yes, Buddha himself. Rock cairns are another option. A cairn is simply a manmade pile of stones. You can either make one yourself by stacking flat river rocks, or buy one pre-stacked and set it into place.
Music is the final piece of the puzzle in creating your Zen-inspired garden. Go online or visit your local music store and you'll have a lot of options to choose from. Traditional Japanese music to inspire meditation and relaxation generally consists of stringed instruments like violins or gentle woodwinds. Chances are, some of the song titles you end up with might include words like "sunset or sunrise," "gentle breeze" or "serenity." It's for good reason -- this music definitely calms the nerves. Some even come with sounds of nature playing in the background. An oboe and violin play over a running stream, a plucked harp flows over the sounds of wind and birds. If all of this is a little too new age for your tastes, you may want to just pick out a nice wind chime to provide the calming sounds you desire.
Nothing is more important to your Zen-style garden than feng shui -- the ancient Chinese art of placement, translated as "wind and water." While it's not exactly Japanese or Buddhist in origin, it can still help serve you in your quest for inner garden peace. By working with your garden layout, you can encourage a good flow of chi, an energy force, which can lead to positive changes in your relationships, health and fortune. Use the natural layout of your landscape to lead you in the right direction. Never make straight paths to and from your home. If you allow them to curve and meander, the energy moves more slowly and peacefully. Living spaces should be backed by shrubs or bamboo to provide privacy. Create balance by mixing up the colors and sizes of your furniture and garden elements. Use your accent lighting to add bright splashes in the darkest parts of your garden. And finally, avoid clutter. Picture clean, open spaces that allow wind and sunshine to flow throughout your space.
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