In the late 6th century Buddhist priests were walking in "contemplation gardens". Beautiful, calming scenery with rocks, water and lush vegetation abound. Meandering paths of gravel or just dirt criss-crossed the area. Then we go on to the 11th century and enter the "dry garden". Again we see religious uses but also that of royalty in Japan. Dry gardens consisted of a couple of main pieces usually a large rock and gravel or sand. But you have to go all the way to the 13th century to see "Zen" gardens as we know them today.
The term Zen actually came from us here in the good ole USA. The Japanese people called these tranquil grounds "Karesansui" which literally means "dry mountain and water garden". Another name you might hear is Kansho~niwa and it means pretty much the same thing.
There are many wonderfully extraordinary gardens throughout Japan. One that struck me as the most awesome was Ryoan-ji, The Temple of the Peaceful Dragon. This temple garden consists of a dry and water element. The dry garden is represented in a rectangular bed of small gravel and sand with 15 spaced rocks dotting the landscape. There are many meanings to this layout but I loved the thought of islands in a calm sea.
Literally thousands of people visit this garden each year, tourist and native alike. I can definitely see the enticing qualities. Bowdoin College professor Clinton Olds has a great site for anyone who would like to explore these historic gardens. Japanese Gardens - Overview
Last but not least, let's talk about making your very own Zen garden. First, you should decide on size. Do you have room in your yard for a large or small patch of earth that you could convert into an oasis of sand, pebbles, rocks and possibly water? Or do you live in an apartment with no earth to call your own? Either way it can be done. Constructing an outside Zen garden has the same basic prep steps as any other garden. Level the area as much as possible. Give it a definite shape with either a border or deep edging. Lay your choice of landscape fabric making sure to cover all areas well and also that it will drain water well. Next you decide on filler. Either sand or pea gravel work best as they can be raked and shaped easily. After adding your filler, step back and contemplate where your central focus will be placed and what object that may be. Usually a large rock or piece of wood is used but you are limited only by your imagination. Remember this is your relaxation garden. The symbolism is all about you and your ideas. Next comes making the pattern in the filler with a rake. Small toothed or wide, it's your preference.
Next, you can either chose to add a water feature or let the waves in the sand be symbolic. Just follow the rules for an outdoor water garden. Lily pads and other aquatic plants as well as the famous Japanese koi fish add interest and color. Try to surround this area with tons of greenery. Small trees such as Japanese maples or ornamental conifers work well. It's all about the look and only you can decide where you want to go with that.
Now, for my personal garden. I rent my home so building a large Zen garden was out. But there were so many table top gardens to choose from! You can even turn an old aquarium in one. The possibilities are endless! Of course ordering one is the easiest. I ordered from http://www.cherryblossomgardens.com/. And was very pleased with my little tranquility garden. Prices range from cheap (10$) to extravagant (300$!!!).
I hope you enjoyed this little journey into Zen gardens as much as I have. Now just sit back, relax and play in the sand a little.
Special thanks to Leigh Witchel, Sue Richards, Ann Althouse, Shalom Shanghai Bid Rock Manufacturing and Cherry Blossom Gardens for the use of their great pictures.
Bowdoin College and Prof. Olds provided much of the history.