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Admittedly, these are stressful times. Even under the best circumstances, most of us could use some peace and tranquility in our lives – and especially now we need it close to home. When looking for inspiration, consider looking to the 1,300-year-old-practice of Japanese Zen gardens. Several new and existing clients have recently asked us about designs for Zen gardens. While traditional Japanese gardens may be precise in their design and installation, many of the principles of Zen gardens can be applied to almost any garden.

Boulder fountain trickles onto stones below

One of the main purposes of a Zen garden is meditative – to slow people down and to enable them to become aware of themselves in the present moment – to encourage a feeling of calm. Curved flagstone or gravel paths invite quiet exploration. Lichen-covered boulders invoke mountains or the earth. Ornamental grasses and ferns rustle in the wind. Repeated low plantings establish a rhythm. A multi-trunk deciduous tree or conifer stand out as a focal point in the distance. Sometimes water trickles from a fountain onto stones below. These elements create a sense of the natural environment on a human scale, giving us a sense of peace and comfort.

To experience this for yourself, take our virtual stroll through a beautiful Zen garden in San Ramon with California native plants in the foreground and Bishop Ranch Open Space in the background.

https://youtu.be/P2zUqSWuAH4
Winding path with boulders and redwood

Now that many of us are home more, thinking about incorporating a Zen garden into your landscape – however large or small – could be a positive and creative project. Even the exercise of looking online for images of Zen gardens could provide a sense of relaxation to you.  

A recent article “Elements of a Japanese Garden: Create tranquility in your garden by borrowing some principles from these timeless spaces” in the magazine Fine Gardening, outlined some of these principles: seasonality, space, quality, subtlety, proportion and design. Some of the author’s recommendations include: choosing plants that have distinct foliage-color changes and intriguing structure in fall and winter, enhancing views by creating space in the foreground with smaller plants leading to bigger ones, and selecting plants and materials that are suited for your area and are harmonious together.

A Low-water Zen Garden with CA Natives

Boulders and native grasses

Your gardens that are inspired by traditional Zen principles can be reflective of our California natural landscape and also drought tolerant once established. Curved stone and gravel paths, numerous boulders and a simple stone basin water feature provide structure to the garden planting.

Instead of more water-intensive bamboo and gardenias, a garden can highlight native California plants, like vine maple (Acer circinatum), shore pine (Pinus contorta) and sword ferns (Polystichum californicum), for a similar effect. Plantings of flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum var. glutinosum ‘White Icicle’), snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus), coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica), white Douglas Iris (Iris douglasiana ‘Canyon Snow’), and California fescue (Festuca californica) are repeated to suggest rhythms, symbolizing the seasonal rhythms of nature and within ourselves.

The trickling of the water feature and the rustle of the various ferns and grasses soothe and bring us into awareness of the moment and the natural landscape.

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Kalich - Boulder fountain, Japanese maple tree, native planting, stamped concrete

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