A Zen garden in the city? Nothing could be easier. Just keep three things in mind: keep it simple, keep it pure, and keep it natural. You can add “keep it low-maintenance” and you’re guaranteed a genuine Zen effect!

If you feel you could add a little Zen to a corner of your garden or balcony, and want to enjoy a peaceful sort of environment with little cost involved, here are some tips that can help you design just that.

Start by determining what type of Japanese garden you want to create–one with plants and water, or a mineral garden composed almost entirely of sand, gravel, rocks and stones.

Then mark off the space in your garden you want to set up the Zen atmosphere–this could be your entire yard, a corner of the terrace, or just a balcony. In the end, you need choose a space that you can return to that feels shut off from the world, while still not being claustrophobic. A favorite effect is where light seeps slowly through the branches of trees or from behind mesh.

Basic Planning

There are some things you can collect to develop your Zen garden, but keep in mind that it’s better to limit the number of items in your garden to keep it sober.

  • Avoid turf. Choose ground covers, foam, stone slabs or sand.
  • Summarily mark out your area of repose through the means of a lattice of bamboo, or even a few ornamental shrubs. A Zen garden should offer the illusion of a large space without limits.
  • Create a small, winding path. Even a path that’s short and leads to a dead end will do; the point is that it creates a refreshing sight when it catches your eye. .
  • Connect two areas of the garden via a small bridge (either in wood or in a more representative style using a row of flat stones or tiles). These passageways are rich in symbolism in Japanese culture.
  • Give a second life to objects. Tuck in a pathway, for example, with broken tiles. Pick up unusual stones during your strolls and place them in strategic places; these can be used either for general decoration, or to particularly capture the attention of a viewer.

The Charm of Water

When opting for a pool of water, try to keep it shallow (about 75 cm). Add some water lilies and carp, and enclose it with sand, rocks or moss instead of plants. You can alternatively install a fountain in a corner of the miniature garden.

A Mineral Beach

As a central element of the Zen theme, you can also create a gravel beach in the center of your garden. In Zen philosophy, the concept of water can be represented not just by water itself, but also by sand, gravel or fine rock. You can always alter the spread of large stones or wooden frames and cover them with the mineral of your choice. Some things to keep in mind:

  • To prevent weeds invading your gravel beach, remember to lay a sheet of thick plastic on the ground before covering with gravel.
  • If your gravel beach is placed in an area that gets a lot of sun, avoid white sand, as it tends to reflect light and hurt the eye with glare.
  • Remember that fine gravel is more easily manageable, and tends to be cleaner than sand.
  • A nice touch is to decorate your gravel beach with small or large stones, trying to keep them not generally over 15 pieces in total. Arrange these in small, odd-numbered groups.
  • When you’re done decorating, go over the lot with a wooden rake. You can rake the gravel to create your personal taste in sinuous lines, curves and shapes.

The Choice of Plants

  • Plant evergreen shrubs whose shimmering green catches the eye far better than an abundance of flowers. Trees are considered an integral, perennial part of the garden, while plants and flowers contribute towards changing, seasonal effects.
  • Vary the textures of the plants you use: grass lawns, foam, deciduous shrubs, or flowers contrasting aquatic plants are a safe bet.
  • Keep in mind that durability, strength, and hardiness need to be among the characteristics of plants that you choose. Try to get the maximum impact possible using plants and shrubs that require minimum maintenance. With flowers, look for the kind that require little water, such as some types of orchids.
  • Some flowers are popular in Japanese gardens, such as azaleas, chrysanthemums, orchids, lilies, and Chinese lanterns (Physalis).

Decorative Elements

A few well-chosen items can help you improve the look of your oriental garden. Always proceed in small steps. Avoid the extravagant and the clichéd. Opt for green, brown, sand, ecru, gray, ivory, and white: natural tones! Natural materials like bamboo and wood are the smartest choice for your decorative pots, stakes or trellises.

  • Choose a simple style of furniture made of teak, wicker or wood. Furniture is not meant to be the centerpiece of your garden’s décor; it should blend in with the overall theme.
  • Place a stone bench or a huge flat stone where you mean to sit a —a lovely invitation to meditation!
  • Install candle holders in pots to add a touch of gentle light for the nighttime. You can also put a lantern, preferably stone, which gives out diffused light.
  • A delicate chime of metal or bamboo can also be used to bring breeze to life.

A Zen Garden Balcony

Do you have a balcony that bores you? Don’t worry. You can, in fact, add a touch of Zen. Here are some tips on how to do it:

  • Place two chairs and a small table, teak wood–nothing more.
  • To protect yourself from the sun, use a screen rather than an umbrella. A guaranteed Zen effect!
  • Other items that can complement the decor: a fan, a rice paper lantern or even some silk cushions.
  • Fill sand in wooden or stone trays. Use only a few stones as you would on a larger area.
  • Grow a few hardy plants that can bear changes in climate (such as cold, wind, and heat) in a planter.
  • Place a few fragrant plants in oriental-looking pots.
  • On a coffee table or even a large flat stone, place a small streaming fountain.
  • Replace the door to your balcony with curtain instead– the best being made of wood or bamboo.

Meditate in your Zen Garden

A Zen garden is first and foremost an island of calm to relax and meditate. It unites nature and form in a sleek setting. In a Zen garden, humans do not dominate. Rather, they strive to integrate harmoniously with the environment. To soak in nature without taking special effort is the aim of a Zen garden.

Unlike structured English or French gardens, there is neither law nor order, nor perfect symmetry or strict definition in Zen gardens. The abstract lines of the Zen garden suggest mystery and meditation. Pleasure is sought in contemplation, rather than in the regular and meticulous maintenance of lawns and flowers. Once set up, the only thing you need to do with a Zen garden is to enjoy it.

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