Zen Gardens: Serene Outdoor Spaces

Considered by many as the epitome of minimalist design, Japanese Zen gardens were first created in medieval Japan to help Zen Buddhists invoke deep meditation by carefully raking gravel and strategically placing rocks to evoke serenity and beauty. The raked gravel represents flowing water and the rocks represent mountains; together achieving a sleek look perfect for garden design.

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Although a Zen garden is rooted in monastic life, you can take advantage of its therapeutic powers by incorporating a few simple materials: gravel, rocks and wood. Zen gardens are easy to create and require little maintenance. See how our designers applied the Zen garden aesthetic into these homes, and create your own respite of peace and calm. Try to see rocks as islands and gravel as water that surrounds them.  With a little imagination you can get a sense of water flowing around a beautiful rock in a relaxing Zen garden.  A Japanese garden may seem bare and minimalist, but designing a true Japanese garden is not a simple task. Every element of its design is carefully chosen and placed to create a look of seamless beauty that reflects the natural world outside the garden walls. It takes time and effort, and a true Japanese garden is never really finished, just as nature is always changing.

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Just a quick look at the design principles may overwhelm you. There are numerous styles, an even larger number of rules and meanings for each element, and occasionally conflicting advice. On the plus side there are groups, classes, books and websites that are devoted to the intricacies of creating these spaces.

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If you love the style but aren’t quite ready for a full commitment, you can still incorporate many of the design principles in your own landscape. Temper balance and symmetry with imperfection. The Japanese maples on either side of the path, in addition to providing a bright spot of color in an otherwise green landscape, are almost matching in color and placement but contrast completely in size. The lantern and upright boulder match in size and color but differ in form, from the obviously man-made to the obviously natural. Even the color of the Asian-inspired gridded fence matches that of the bark of the tree, and both blend with the soft colors of the plantings. Work with what you have. A Japanese garden is intended to replicate the natural world that surrounds it in a smaller space.

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If your space is flat, as here, create a small mound or two to add interest, but don’t try to turn is into a hillside garden. If, instead, your land is naturally sloped, use that to your advantage and add a waterfall or stream that follows the lay of the land. 

Enclose the space. Because these gardens are a microcosm of the world outside, fences and gates play an important role. Fences create boundaries that set the garden apart. The trick is to keep these barriers from feeling harsh or forbidding. Fences are simple in design and designed to blend with or set off the landscape they enclose.

Plantings may conceal part of the fence to both soften it and hint at a world beyond, or the fence itself may be painted to blend into the rest of the yard rather than stand out sharply. The opposite approach is the fence that is opened up in one spot to capture a view beyond the garden itself, maybe a mountain vista or even a tree in bloom in a neighbor’s yard. Bamboo is an obvious choice as a fencing material, but wooden fences, especially those with a grid pattern, will also work.

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