Serenity Now: The Glory of a Zen Garden

​​Each week, Mansion Global tackles a topic with an elite group of designers from around the world who work on luxury properties. This week, we discuss how to channel calmness and tranquility with a Zen garden. 

Whether you have a tiny parcel or ample acreage, creating a still space to relax and reflect seems all but a prerequisite for getting through daily 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 still our minds.”

Classically, there are eight main elements within a Zen garden: bridges, islands, plant material, sand, stones, trees, water and waterfalls, Ms. Parker said. However, simply having a plot of any kind in which to repose can create instant ohm. For ideas on carving out an inspired space of your own, follow these tips from the pros. 

More: Create a Zen Getaway With an Interior Courtyard

Placement Makes Perfect

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

“Though not every Zen garden has a water feature, it is a lovely place to add Lotus plants or water lilies. Some of my favorite trees are small dwarf deciduous and evergreens, which stay in scale over time, and, of course, the Japanese maple. The small-but-stunning Acer palmatum ‘Sango-Kaku’ has coral bark, and its leaves turn into an iridescent crimson in winter.”

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

Let Nature Lead the Way

“Our concept of a Zen garden really has to do with connecting with nature. The ultimate level of peace and tranquility is achieved in a garden when it provides a home for birds, bees and butterflies as well as for its human inhabitants. We don’t try to do an imitation of a Japanese garden, as that misses the essence of Zen. We look to create gardens that celebrate nature and create a sense of wellness and that benefit the larger ecologies. This idea can be interpreted in different habitats and different areas but will always create that sense of oneness and peace with nature.

“In terms of plantings, keep it simple. Many times, the garden has both walls and a floor. Think of combinations of green focusing on texture and form. Generally, this is not a place for flowers and bursts 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 parcel designed by Edmund Hollander.

Hollander Design

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

More: (Outdoor) Serenity Now: How to Create an Open-Air Zen Space

Pick Plantings With Purpose

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

“An edited plant palette feels so much more relaxing than a riot of color, while repetition makes a small garden feel larger and more serene. I love the way bonsai adds a sense of contemplation and age to a garden. I prefer deciduous bonsai to conifers as the seasonal changes in color are so rewarding and they feel more natural and less contrived. Bonsais truly create an Elysium of peace.

“Akebia quinata (chocolate vine) is a wonderful climber that is native to Japan. It’s a rampant grower and is perfect for a trellis in a small city garden. The profusion and depth of finely textured leaves billow like fluffy green clouds. It’s a very Zen plant despite being a bit of an invasive grower. 

“Greenery adds another layer of color contrast, especially against brick, so I have a lot of Boston Ivy and boxwood. Boston Ivy is the perfect vertical lawn, and it is a very efficient renewable energy source for the house. The shade from the leaves keeps the brick wall cool in the summer and warm in the winter when the leaves are off.

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

A verdant oasis of lush plantings and places to repose 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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