Q. What is a Zen garden? What plants can it include? Can I create one on a city terrace?
A Zen garden, also known as a Japanese rock garden or dry landscape garden, is a carefully composed arrangement of raked sand or gravel, rocks, water, moss and plants. A calm oasis, the Zen garden can be a meditation aid; in Zen practice, garden sand is carefully raked daily.
Like landscape painting and haiku, Zen garden design expresses a yearning for oneness with nature, aiming is to imitate nature's essence rather than its literal appearance. Kuo Hsi (1020 to 1090 A.D.), a great Chinese landscape painter, noted how nature affects the human senses: "The din of the dusty world and the locked-in-ness of human habitations are what human nature habitually abhors," he wrote, "while....mist and the haunting spirits of the mountains are what human nature seeks, and yet can rarely find."
Zen gardens are as much an expression of Zen art as Japanese ink paintings. They are also a metaphor for the cosmos, kindling awareness of the large in the small, perceiving an unbounded universe in nature’s tiniest and humblest creations—a flower, a bird, an insect or a stone.
In traditional Japanese beliefs, rocks were the dwelling place of benevolent spirits. Seeming to grow up from the garden soil yet firmly rooted in place, rocks also represent stability and durability in a world that is transitory. Rocks provide a sense of both reliability and solidity and the passage of time, shown in their slow accretions of lichens and the weathering of their surfaces. Practically speaking, rocks can also be used as a freestanding wall to screen out undesirable views, and as stepping stones, pavements, and bridges.
Rocks and sand or gravel are the basic materials of the garden. The sand or gravel is often groomed to represent water; stones can represent mountains; and moss or rocks create islands. Water features and stone ornaments such as water basins, lanterns, and sculpture--used sparingly--may also be incorporated.
Some hardy plants that work well in a Zen garden are the compact form of Chamaecyparis obtusa, Pinus mugo, and contorted hazelnut. These plants are tough enough to thrive in a garden on a city terrace.
For tips on a variety of gardening topics, see our Plant Information Guides.
- Courtesy of NYBG Plant Information Service