Creating a Zen Garden

I’ve been away from the blog for three weeks because I’ve been working on both an article for an academic journal and an op-ed about whether Canadian political film has a future, the topic of a recent post. I’ve now made sufficient progress on both pieces that I can return to the blog. And I’m continuing with my interest, expressed in the most recent post, about the natural world around me.

I first saw Japanese gardens, particularly the classic Zen ones, on a visit to Kyoto in 1984. The simplicity of their components and their evocative symbolism appealed to me. I could say much more about those I have visited and contemplated but I would rather write about the one I’m creating.

The Initial Components

My house has an expansive front lawn that faces east and has three large trees – a sugar maple, an Austrian pine, and a tamarack. The lawn gets morning sunshine but then is in shade for the rest of the day. The house has a front porch that is open and raised just a foot above the level of the yard.

I began developing the garden about six years ago. It is semi-circular, with a diameter of 12 feet against the front porch and it has a radius of 7 feet out from the porch. I planted a dwarf Japanese maple and some tufts of ornamental grass and covered the soil around them with pebbles. I put down a pagoda-like sculpture and there is a downspout that empties onto the pebbles at the far side of the garden, that is the side removed from the front door of the house.

It turned out that the ornamental grass was a mistake; in two years it spread and essentially took over the garden. This year I removed all the grass and I am replacing the pebbles with slightly larger river stones. The downspout brings down wet maple keys that are ready to germinate in the garden. My plan now is to put a ceramic bowl at the base of the downspout – in effect a rain barrel – to catch the water and maple keys so I can carry them somewhere else. I also have a planter of thriving white impatiens that will sit beside the garden near the porch and front door of the house.

Extending the Garden

Last year I had the paving stones leading to the front door re-laid, and there is a rectangular area of river stones that leads up to the garden. I have extended the river stones to the edge of the garden in front of the house. At the other end of the rectangle there is a flower bed, most of which is covered in Japanese spurge. But there is enough room in the bed to accommodate more river stones to join the rectangle at the end opposite the garden and front door of the house. Thus the river stones flow from the garden, through the rectangle, and into the flower bed. The symbolism here is of water. And the actual water flowing in the downspout will merge with the symbolic water. Thus the entire Zen Garden has five elements: the dwarf maple, the pagoda, the downspout and bowl, the planter of white impatiens, and the river rock flowing outward to the bed of spurge. I have posted two photos on my Facebook page, one looking at the part of the garden near the house from the side and the other looking towards the house and showing the entire garden.

Becoming Part of the Picture

On the porch I have a dark mahogany bench 4 feet wide, a love seat. It looks out into the garden. I can sit on the bench and read or talk to someone in a setting that is somewhat sheltered from the street by the sugar maple, Austrian pine, and tamarack. In my retirement, I will be spending more time reading, and I’m hoping this will be an ideal place to read outdoors when the weather is warm.

The Zen Garden is a work in progress, which itself is very Zen. Now to enjoy at as it is in this moment.

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