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How To Create a Japanese Zen Garden

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A rather square, uninteresting garden, especially one with poor soil is the perfect template for a traditional Zen garden. Space is at a premium in Japan and many gardens are small, square plots with wooden partition fencing – just like a British housing estate! To begin, completely flatten the site and remove everything that will detract from the simplicity of the garden, although well-established trees and bushes around the edges of the plot can provide a useful feature if not too intrusive. The Zen garden represents the world on a miniature scale so nothing should be over-large or cast too much shade.
What you'll need: 
Horticultural membrane
Several tons of pea gravel
Wooden decking
Ornamental lantern or water basin
Ornamental plants
Large stones
Once the site is flat, cover the entire garden with the membrane. This will help retain moisture for the plants and prevent weeds from growing up through the gravel. Cover the membrane with gravel as deep as you can afford – ideally between 4-6 inches.
Arrange a row of decking panels along the rear wall of the building, and/or down one side of the garden. This represents the veranda of a traditional Japanese house, and is classed as part of the living area – the garden is viewed from this vantage point and everything placed in it should be seen from this angle.
The simplest of Japanese gardens can be created from a bamboo, a shrub and a stone – but each needs to selected with great care. There are many varieties of bamboo – including black – and grows from 6-12 feet high. Over time, the roots will spread horizontally and are extremely invasive. Consider growing in one corner of the garden in a large pot concealed with an arrangement of large stones.
Not just any stone is used in a Japanese garden. These should be large rough, weathered stones and those with moss already growing on them should be snapped up. Only select stones after you have decided how and where to place them – traditionally arrangements are for odd-numbered groups of three, five or seven – often broken into sub groups of two or three. Strive for variety and do not place stone of the same height, shape or mass next to each other. Fill plastic rubbish bags with air and seal to make ‘stones’ for testing shapes and placements.
Most good garden centres will stock reconstituted stone lanterns and basins from which you can make your choice – if this is for a small garden a single stone lantern may suffice. If you want to incorporate both, the basin should be set near to the house (as this is in keeping with the old ritual of purification before entering the property) with the lantern close by for illumination. If used on its own, the lantern should be part of the focal point of the garden as seen from the veranda (see How To Age Garden Ornaments)
Ornamental shrubs such as camellia (camellia japonica) and holly (ilex opaca) are ideal for a Japanese garden because a) they are traditional, b) attractive flowers, and c) they retain their waxy green leaves during the winter months. Japanese maples (acer palmatum and acer ginnala) have attractive autumn foliage and branch patters; azaleas rhododendron indicum) are also a good choice for planting to hide tree roots.
Although classed as a nuisance by British gardeners, two useful plants in a Japanese garden are ferns and moss! Ferns of all types grow naturally next to groups of stones, while ornamental moss (polytrichum commune) takes away the ‘newness’ of the planting. Moss will not grow in dry areas and needs plenty of shade and moisture; it is commonly used for ground cover in Japanese gardens for its luxuriant softness and should be watered daily.
Dwarf bamboo (sasa grass) only reaches a height of 3 feet and can be used in the shade of tall garden trees, rock arrangements, or fences. In winter the leaves will wither.
Depending on the amount of space available for planting and without overcrowding the focal point of the garden, other useful traditional plants are aspidistra (aspidistra elatoir), blue rug juniper (juniperus horizontalis wiltoni), plantain lily (hosta undulata), mondo grass (ophiopogen japonicus) and thyme (thymus serpyllum).
If your garden is surrounded by a custom-made larch-lap fence, rather than trying to hide it, paint a darker coloured line at eye-level around the garden, following the actual woven strips in the fence panel. Or tack woven grass beach mats to the framework to simulate ‘tea-whisk’ fencing.
The whole purpose of creating a Zen garden is to introduce an area of calm within our busy lives. It is more than just a garden - as the author of Japanese Gardens for Today writes, a moment’s contemplation of what we have achieved, prepares us for our day ‘in the city that lies beyond the garden wall’.
Borrow several books on Japanese garden design from your local library and study the various shapes and designs before deciding on your own layout.
Confine Western-style garden furniture to the decking area or you will spoil the ambiance of the garden.
Correcting mistakes in the placement of very large stones is hard work, and having to move one stone, may involve moving all of them to achieve the right balance.


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