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The new year is upon us, and we may want to take a little more peace with us into 2024. If you are planning on making self care more of a priority, or want to spend more time practicing mindfulness, we suggest looking to the past before charging into the goals of the future. With our how-to on zen gardens, a guide to understanding both their tradition and meaning, you can bring this serenity into your life in your own unique way!
In order to build the best zen garden for your individual needs, we must first understand the history and tradition of Japanese gardening and how it has evolved over time.
Paradise Gardens- the Origins of Zen Gardens
The first zen gardens were meant to create a small sample of perfection. This was meant to reflect the Buddhist tradition where one who sought rebirth would re-enter into their next life in paradise. These temples were, of course, religious in nature, and spread throughout Japan. They could be full of colors, a more dramatic reflection of the beauty and vibrancy of the natural world.
The Next Phase, Perspective Gardens
Over time, some of the gardens shifted in meaning. They became a place to find a new perspective, or rather, to take into account how our perception changes as we go about life. Rather than each element of the garden having a specific structure and meaning, as in the paradise gardens discussed earlier, these new perspective gardens were meant to show different angles of life with each step. However, different motifs from the original layout remained consistent, namely that each had bodies of water and islands within them.
Dry Landscaping, the Emergence of the Rock Garden
Dry landscaping emerged towards the end of the medieval period in Japan. These gardens replaced the prominent water features of former gardens with gravel, mimicking the streams and movements by raking the stones into a pattern reflective of water’s movement. Builders used larger rocks to reference the idea of landscape features such as islands and mountains, taking advantage of the materials ability to extend upwards, especially in more limited spaces. Moss was often the only greenery present in dry landscaping displays.
The reason these rock gardens were adapted is because they allowed grand scenes to be condensed into smaller settings, representing the grandeur of nature on a much smaller scale. These gardens also allow for more curated experiences, as the ability to place things so precisely can serve as a reminder our sense are limited, and our perception can only do so much.
Tea Gardens and Additional Natural Elements
The tea garden also began to develop during this time. The tea garden is really a path, one featuring stepping stones or other sort of guided walk, meant to draw in those celebrating tea. The colors should not be too vibrant, but there is still more greenery and plant life allowed that would not typically be present in a dry landscaped rock garden.
“Zen” Gardens Today
Often, the modern gardens we have come to associate with Japanese culture feature recognizable elements of each garden variant. While gardening in this manner is highly traditional, the individual elements of each garden type can be introduced or adjusted to suit the needs of the landscape, as well as serve the individual purposes of each garden’s keeper.
Keeping this in mind when you embark upon your journey to build your own personal Zen garden, you will need to evaluate each garden structure’s purpose, as well as your own landscape, in order to deliberate which elements to include in your space.
Are you seeking a curated perspective, and are greatly limited by space? Sticking to the traditional rock garden may best suit your needs. Are you looking to build a calming sitting area, and want to introduce some more greenery to your yard? A tea garden might be the choice for you. Blend in some elements of the paradise garden if you want more beautiful and stimulating foliage.
All gardens will require upkeep, but harmony is truly the focus of most Japanese gardens. Therefore, one should remain focused on maintaining an environment which best allows each element to thrive. For example, even moss requires watering, as well as basic maintenance and removal of natural matter which may block its exposure to the sun.
One common theme amongst all these traditional Japanese gardens is the idea that humans must work with nature, shaping it and caring for it gently, rather than forcing it to conform. This is, in many ways, different from the Western tradition of gardening, in which we take nature and bend it to our will.
Do not expect to install a “perfect” Zen garden, one which is weedless or mossless, with perfectly trimmed shrubs and unnaturally vibrant flowers. Your Zen garden will be harmoniously natural, cultivated by your hand as you learn to accept your own inability to truly tame nature. You will, however, learn to see the potential of your space, as well as decipher what your space is looking for from you.
What is the Theory of Zen?:
Zen design uses seven principles for guidance:
Koko (Austerity) -
In order to allow a space to truly express its nature to you, the elements within it must be restrained to the barest essentials.
Kanso (Simplicity) -
The human desire to remove excess, in order to focus on what truly matters.
Allow nature to influence elements of your decor, and use elements of your space to recreate them.
Reject the notion that symmetry is always a sign of perfection, and embrace uneven and unexpected shapes and designs.
Yugen (Mystery or Subtlety)-
Understand that in the absence of distractions, viewers of your space will focus on the elements you have included more. Remember this when you decide their significance and placement.
Datsuzoku (Magical or Unconventional)-
This principle embraces the unknown as an opportunity for exploration.
This is the embracing of quiet, a silence which allows us to become more fully aware of ourselves. Through this process, we unleash our creative abilities and are more capable of harnessing them.
Tradition Meets Modern Design
For a concept so rooted in tradition, the question stands, how do we incorporate zen into our modern lives? Here’s Soltech’s tips for installing a zen garden to embrace the timeless balance and energy of the past, while blending it with our present sensibilities.
1. Find a quiet, secluded spot
Because the concept of zen gardens is rooted in experiencing nature, it is ideal to find a space with the sounds of birdsong, or perhaps some trickling water. However, these can be hard to come by without the other audio of daily hustle and bustle. Don’t worry, a little white noise is perfectly fine (and might even be preferable, if total silence isn’t your jam), but try to avoid passersby entering your space every couple of minutes.
- This doesn’t necessarily mean you need a ton of space for your zen garden. If you choose to build an indoor zen garden, you can locate it in your office, a space where you may already get privacy, as well as need a little stress relief. Or, perhaps there's a corner of your porch tucked away where you can get some fresh air as well as a bit of peace.
- Screens are a common zen garden feature, and can not only provide a little alone time, but can also add a new layer of decor to your space.
2. Introduce some greenery-
- If your area is indoors, or perhaps in a shady area (such as a covered porch or balcony) you may want to invest in a grow light. Plants are not a requirement of zen gardens, but our modern expectation of balance and nature frequently involves foliage. A good rule of thumb is to be discriminating with your greenery and focus on a few feature pieces you can surely keep healthy and flourishing. Soltech carries a wide range of fixtures in our catalog, but a Highland™ Track Light System may be your best choice if you're looking for the freedom to place your plants in a way which feels natural and allows energy to flow most freely.
3. Source some natural furniture and decor-
- We recommend rattan or wicker furniture in soft shapes, no harsh edges and pointy corners. The goal of a zen garden is for energy to flow freely.
- Make sure to incorporate some rocks, as well as plants. Rocks can be incorporated as seating, decor, or even a footpath. Gravel can also be used as low maintenance ground cover. Bonus, raking gravel can also be very meditative. Even if you have opted to install a miniature version of a zen garden, consider investing in a pebble tray for a similar calming effect.
- You may need additional lighting in a zen garden, especially if you will use it during evening hours. Use natural looking lights, nothing harsh or fluorescent, and keep the fixtures simple. We recommend an Aspect™ for all covered settings where waterproofing is not a concern.
- Keep space free of distractions. While embracing the natural is an important part of the zen lifestyle, something as disorderly as a cluster of dandelions can distract you and pull you out of a meditative state. Also, take careful care of the plants you do want. Dead plants do not foster a pleasant, peaceful atmosphere.
5. Spend time with your zen garden-
- Even if your Zen garden is as small as your desktop, you should make time to set aside a decent amount of time with it. One must actively engage with these elements to see their benefit, this is not a one way street.