Claudia C. Swanson has a strong background in environmental education. She is a master gardener, a Virginia Certified Horticulturalist and owner of Dirty Hands Garden Center in Powhatan.

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Zen Gardens
by Claudia C. Swanson       #Hardscaping   #Themed Gardens

It seems that now, more than ever, people are trying especially hard to make their busy lives less stressful and more meaningful. Gardening can help in a subtle way that few other activities can manage, and the guiding principles of Zen gardening can lead to the creation of a truly calming, harmonious, and uplifting environment. These gardens are not designed to excite the senses in the way that Western plots do but are places for the spirit to find peace and tranquility in which to grow. Zen Buddhism requires that every task is performed with love – and it is the love and care that is put into them that gives them a serene and kindly atmosphere. Zen means meditation, and gardens that have been designed along Zen principles are places where contemplation, prayer and meditation are possible and encouraged. This type of garden, therefore, is designed to be a soothing and reflective place that will remain visually the same, year after year. The special style of Zen gardens ensures that by using rocks and plantings in both a symbolic and natural way, by devising pathways that require care when walking upon them, the visitor unwittingly follows Zen ways. This concept of gardening deserves serious consideration since it can become a part of our more traditional practices of landscaping.


Only when you have no thing in your mind and no mind in things are you vacant and spiritual, empty and marvelous. – Te-shan/Tokusan, 780–865


The aim of the Zen garden is to create a perfect harmony of yin and yang. Everything in the universe is influenced by these two forces; yin is the feminine, dark, negative, cold aspect of nature, while yang is the masculine, light, positive, active, hot aspect. All things can be divided into either yin or yang, although everything contains an element of the other: neither can exist alone. In a Zen garden, there is water and land. Water is yin, and land is yang. In a dry garden, the raked gravel or sand represents water and the rocks represent islands or mountains. Without understanding the importance and symbolism of sand and rocks in a Zen garden, many discount karesansui, or dry sand and rock gardens. In fact, this type of garden has an emotional and spiritual depth rarely found in gardens today.


Raking patterns hold symbolic meanings. For instance, the rings around the rock may represent water lapping at an island’s edge.


To be enjoyed and fully understood, a karesansui garden requires a very different mental, emotional and even physical approach from that used to appreciate a typical garden. The art of the gardener is to create a garden in which the two elements are in perfect balance. Because the gravel or sand in a dry garden represents water, it is raked into patterns. These patterns are not abstract, but indicate the ripples or waves of water lapping around the island rocks. Those gardens that incorporate shrubs (not all of them do) use azaleas, cut-leaf maples, conifers and bamboos to represent land or yang. Moss is sometimes used as a substitute for yin, water.


Rocks, stones, sand and gravel are the principal components of a karesansui garden. The sizes, shapes, colors and numbers of rocks are important factors to consider. For example, a long vertical rock can be used to symbolize heaven, while a rock placed horizontally may symbolize the earth. In contrast, a rock placed diagonally represents humanity. Three is considered to be an auspicious number, and in this case, the selection of three rocks represents heaven, earth and humanity. Seven and five are also regarded as auspicious and rocks in Zen gardens are arranged with this in mind. To appreciate a grouping of rocks and stones, allowing the imagination and intuition to flow is important. Formations may be composed to resemble mountains or volcanoes, animals or even families.


Zen gardens often use plant material very sparsely. This design principle can focus the viewer’s attention more clearly on the simple beauty of small things.


Karesansui was originally designed with the guiding principle that “less is more.” Dispensing with any plant or rock that is superfluous to the overall design enables viewers to slow down their thinking and sooth their emotions. If one walks quickly past such a garden, nothing is absorbed from it. Sand that is raked adds a powerful element of texture to a garden. As the sun travels its course throughout the day, shadows are cast in the ridges, introducing an added dimension that would not exist if the plot were smooth. Viewing these gardens in moonlight can be especially appealing since the moon can create an ethereal glow when reflected by the sand particles. The manner in which the sand is raked can help determine the emotions that are evoked upon seeing a dry sand garden. The very act of raking the sand creates a feeling of calm purpose. Wavy lines may indicate fluidity, as in water, while straight, narrow bands can add strength and power to the design. Each viewer will interpret the composition in its entirety with the attitude that he or she has towards the world. This will help determine what he or she understands.

Cross patterns are static; can represent conflict or change

Straight lines can represent journey

Wavy lines represent fluidity and motion


When considering a dry sand and rock garden, you must first decide if the garden is primarily for looking at, sitting in, walking around in, or in conjunction with another garden or living space. A karesansui garden can be the perfect solution for forlorn, neglected places or an unused restricted space, viewed from within a house, office or other place. It could even be used to transform a balcony into an inviting oasis, instead of home to a few sad, potted plants. In city areas that are often shaded by other buildings or structures, a raked sand garden can provide a stunning reprieve from the harshness of traffic, etc. Some gardeners may choose to begin with an area of lawn or flowerbeds they have surrendered to weeds.


Although all of this makes the creation of a true Zen garden a challenging task, there is still one more factor to consider. The finished garden must celebrate nature and even transcend it if possible. Understanding this type of garden requires a change of attitude. It challenges one to answer the question, “What is a garden?” The intent is to encourage new ideas, embrace different concepts and “think outside of the box,” but mostly relax, enjoy and be happy. It is an observance of tranquility and evolution. Most gardens (and gardeners) continue to be a work in progress, changing with the seasons, the universe and ourselves. What better way to celebrate the beginning of a new season of gardening than by embracing a practice of simple serenity?


Before you begin, remember...


1. Size of the garden is not as important as location. Will it be for viewing, resting or walking through?

2. A more level area is ideal, but almost any site can be worked.

3. An area free from obtrusive objects works best (no swing sets, dog pens, etc.).

4. Plan on spreading the rock dust, sand or gravel at least 4 inches deep.

5. Choose rocks, stones and boulders carefully. Search for those that have “character” and be sure to vary the sizes. Do not make them too small, though. Remember to choose odd numbers.

6. Proceed slowly, with intent. This is a project that deserves every consideration.

7. The tool that is used to rake the sand or gravel will have impact on the finished effect.  It too, must be chosen carefully.

8. You can later decide to add plants, select statues or a water feature that can be incorporated into the design.

9. Free your mind.


(Photos by Claudia C. Swanson & David Liebman)



Posted: 05/05/11   RSS | Print


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