The garden can be your personal "island of beauty", a place that creates emotions through scents, colours, shapes and sounds; a place that surprises you with its continuous transformation and reconnects you to the slow rhythms of nature. The garden can also give you an impetus to spend more time outdoors, whether gardening, entertaining, playing or just relaxing for a moment.
If you are just looking for an idea to design or restyle your garden or "island", why not be inspired by oriental style? In the popular imagination, the Japanese garden—or zen garden—is synonymous with harmony, silence and meditation.
If you fancy the idea of creating a green space that doesn’t require a lot of maintenance but instead gives you time to contemplate the beauty of nature and search for inner peace, today we will tell you how to make a DIY zen garden.
The zen or Japanese garden
Whatever style inspires you, in creating the garden always start from a design: this is essential in order to avoid hitches during the construction stage. Designing means:
Knowing exactly how big your Japanese garden is going to be.
Working out your needs: at this stage, having a reference style for your garden establishes a consistent basis for the design, a bit like grammar gives you the rules you need to speak a language correctly.
Define the general organisation of the garden spaces.
Add in the design details, specifying elements such as plants, materials and installations to be implemented according to your favourite style, both to insert the defining elements—those that must be included—and to give everything a consistent look.
On the one hand, the Japanese garden is inspired by untouched nature—especially the beauty of East Asian landscapes—but rather than imitating it, the aim is to encapsulate it in idealised form within a small space. On the other hand, Japanese garden culture has a strong link with the religions that have emerged in Japan, including Buddhism which spread together with Zen philosophy. So much so, that for Zen monks, gardening was both an art and a spiritual exercise. In fact, Zen Buddhism has strongly influenced the Japanese garden, infusing it with a taste for simplicity.
The zen garden is full of symbols, not only because it reproduces a landscape in miniature, but also because each element, whether a tree, stone or an area covered with sand, can be a metaphor for something else: an entire landscape, an island emerging from the water, an ocean...
The characteristic ingredients of the Japanese garden are the mineral element (in the form of rocks, gravel or sand), water and vegetation. These components are not always present: in particular the ultimate zen garden is the dry garden or rock garden (karesansui), which consists of rocks, sand, little or no vegetation and absolutely no water, although it is represented by the other elements. Furthermore, unlike their Western equivalents, in oriental gardens the vegetation never dominates with respect to the other components. The rock garden is also an excellent starting point for creating a zen garden in the house, where greenery can be represented by bonsai trees. In Japanese gardens there is no symmetry, shapes are simple, everything is harmonious and in order, nothing is accidental: you get the impression of being in front of something natural.
Once the design is finished, you can lighten the workload needed to create—and subsequently maintain—your oriental-style garden with help from a transporter, which is very useful for effortlessly transporting plants, materials, gardening tools, fertiliser, etc. wherever they are needed.
How to design a DIY zen garden
If you want to create a DIY zen garden, you can do it with plants suitable for your local climate and the type of soil in your garden, and using local materials. When conceiving your design, imagine it as a painting (or a stage set) that can be contemplated from one or more observation points, depending on the size of the space available.
Distribute the vegetation in your Japanese garden to emphasise the “stratification” typical of natural habitats where different tiers of greenery are formed, based on the height of the plants. Going from bottom to top:
Low ground cover plants imitating moss, which almost replaces the classic lawn of European gardens, and which is sometimes the only vegetable element in zen gardens.
Taller ground cover plants.
Shrubs: mainly evergreen but also deciduous varieties.
Trees: ideally slow-growing or smaller species, preferring evergreen species to deciduous trees. Don't plant “useful” trees (for example fruit trees) in your zen garden; the same also applies to shrubs.
As we said before, in karesansui, rocks, gravel and sand are the primary components: gravel and sand are often used to simulate water, by raking it into a pattern recalling rippling waves. Use these materials to cover decorative surfaces and paths, which must be underlaid with a well-draining substrate to avoid the accumulation of stagnant water. You can use rocks as focal points of your zen garden—except ones with a very regular shape—or paving stones to create a path. In the latter case, lay paving stones so that they are comfortable to walk along, but avoid symmetries and regular patterns. To clean the garden and stone surfaces you can utilise the practicality of a blower—being careful to keep it away from gravel or sand—and pressure washer.
Whereas the oldest Japanese gardens include water in the form of navigable lakes, over time the volume of water has been reduced (and even eliminated in dry gardens). In your garden you can include water fountains with stone basins, which are typical of “tea gardens” (so called because tea ceremonies take place there). Another peculiar feature of tea gardens are stone lanterns, which you can use to decorate your Japanese garden. Alternatively, illuminate the spaces of your DIY zen garden with camouflaged lighting that is hidden out of sight.
To demarcate your oriental garden, you can opt for a natural perimeter such as a hedge, which will need to be grown and pruned to a geometric shape, or build a bamboo fence. You can also use bamboo to create path or lawn edging in the garden.
The natural look of the Japanese garden is only an illusion, since it is actually the result of careful maintenance. According to tradition, human intervention in terms of shaping and growing plants helps nature to achieve perfection. With regard to this kind of precision pruning, which is mainly performed using manual pruning tools, you can find some useful tips in our piece on topiary art: how to prune hedges with creativity.