Serenity Now: The Glory of a Zen Garden


Every week, Mansion Global discusses a topic with an elite group of designers from around the world who work on luxury properties. This week we discuss how to channel peace and quiet with a Zen garden.

Whether you have a small plot or a large area, creating a quiet space to relax and reflect seems anything but a prerequisite for getting through everyday life these days.

“Zen gardens are for tranquility and stillness,” said Janice Parker, a Connecticut-based landscape architect. “They should be serene places where we can calm our minds.”

Classically, there are eight main elements in a Zen garden: bridges, islands, plant material, sand, stones, trees, water and waterfalls, Ms Parker said. However, just having ground of any type to rest in can create an instant ohm. For ideas on how to create your own inspired space, follow these tips from the pros.

After: Create a Zen Getaway With an Inner Courtyard

Placement makes perfect

“The best location for a Zen garden is where you can create a boundary or a wall around its perimeter. You can use a wooden or bamboo fence, a planted hedge or even a masonry wall. Place the garden in a northern orientation keeps it from getting too hot and works best with a mix of ferns and moss.

“Although not all Zen gardens have a water feature, this is a great place to add lotus plants or water lilies. Some of my favorite trees are the small dwarf hardwoods and conifers, which stay at the timescale, and, of course, the Japanese maple.The small but beautiful Acer palmatum ‘Sango-Kaku’ has coral bark and its leaves turn an iridescent crimson in winter.

— Janice Parker of Janice Parker Landscape Architects in Greenwich, Connecticut


Let nature lead the way

“Our Zen garden concept really has to do with connecting with nature. The ultimate level of peace and tranquility is achieved in a garden when it is home to birds, bees and butterflies as well as its human inhabitants. We are not trying to do an imitation of a Japanese garden, because that misses the essence of Zen. We seek to create gardens that celebrate nature and create a sense of well-being and that benefit broader ecologies. This idea can be interpreted in different habitats and different areas, but will always create that feeling of unity and peace with nature.

“In terms of plantations, keep it simple. Often the garden has both walls and a floor. Think of combinations of green that emphasize texture and form. Generally, this is not a place for flowers and splashes of color.

“Water features are wonderful in a Zen garden. In addition to attracting birds, water is a sculptural element that invites contemplation and attention to the present moment.

A soothing water feature is central to the tranquility of this peaceful plot designed by Edmund Hollander.

Dutch design

Edmund Hollander president of Hollander Design ǀ Landscape Architects with offices in New York and Chicago

After: (Outdoor) Serenity Now: how to create a Zen outdoor space

Choose plantings with a purpose

“A Zen garden is about uplifting people and nature. It does not have to embody the same landscape vocabulary as a Japanese garden. The lexicon of plants and materials should be what brings you joy. For me, it’s about creating a sense of tranquility and peace with a restrained palette of plant materials. Fence and privacy are essential to separate the garden from the outside world.

“An edited palette of plants is so much more relaxing than a riot of color, while the repetition makes a small garden feel bigger and more serene. I love how bonsai adds a sense of contemplation and age to a garden. I prefer deciduous bonsai trees to evergreens because the seasonal color changes are so rewarding and they feel more natural and less artificial. Bonsai trees truly create an Elysee of peace.

“Akebia quinata (chocolate vine) is a wonderful climbing plant native to Japan. It is a creeping grower and is perfect for a trellis in a small city garden. The profusion and depth of the finely textured leaves swell like clouds​ ​mellow greens. It is a very zen plant although it is a little invasive.

“The greenery adds another layer of color contrast, especially against the brick, so I have lots of Boston ivy and boxwood. Boston Ivy is the perfect vertical lawn, and it’s a very effective for home.Leaf shade keeps the brick wall cool in the summer and warm in the winter when the leaves are out.

“Water is an essential element. Soothing sounds and the reflection of water create a beautiful and soothing focal point. Even a small water bowl, birdbath or pond makes a garden an oasis in summer.

A verdant oasis of lush plantings and resting places creates a serene retreat designed by McKinnon and Harris.

Kip Dawkins

— Will Massie, president and co-founder of McKinnon and Harris, an estate, garden and yacht furniture company in Richmond, Virginia

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