Zen garden: design ideas, inspiration & pictures

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Feng shui is the concept of aligning certain aspects of the home in such a way, that is positively effects the energy of a room. In ancient China, the cosmological idea of Qi/Chi or universal energy first emerged, and it strives to explain the energy of all living things, or life force.  According to Feng Shui, the way in which a room and the things in it are positioned have a direct effect on the chi which flows through a it. In short, the way we decorate our rooms directly affects us on a level beyond the physical.

The garden itself acts as a channeling funnel for positive and calming chi, so whether it’s a small garden on your table or a large garden outside, the purpose of building it remains the same.

How to create your zen garden

Find the Bagua or energy map of your home. Bagua (or pakua) is a principle also used in ancient Chinese cosmology, and is a mapping the fundamental principles of reality, which are seen as 8 interwoven concepts, and have a basis in the 5 elements as well as the idea of the ying yang, or light and dark. Using the bagua principle, you can measure the flow of energy through your home by looking into which areas do not have a strong energy. The five elements are wood, water, air, fire and earth, and eich of these has corresponding properties and colours.

For each element there is also a compass point, so for instance, South is equated to fire, so you shouldn’t paint your house's south walls with darker or colder colours, but rather brighter warm colours, in order to move the right chi to, and from the right direction.
Each element also has it’s own shape. Wood is rectangular fire, triangular. Water is wavy as that it it’s natural state, whilst earth is square and metal, round. Once we see these 5 elements and their properties, we start to see certain patterns emerge. A rectangular wooden table with a dark colour is going to have more positive feng shui then a round plastic table.

Zen Garden Materials

Zen gardens as we know them today actually came out of feudal Japan, and share Feng Shui principles as Zen Buddhism which is the cornerstone of the philosophy, was taken up by the Ruling Samurai class during the period. Often called Japanese rock gardens, they are characterized by lightly coloured sand or light gravel, with specifically placed rock formations. Various substances work in different ways to effect the flow of chi. Each has it’s own unique qualities and can positively or negatively guide energy or create a desired effect.

Wind chimes are a wonderful addition, as they create a beautiful sound which helps calm and relax the surrounding atmosphere, but remember which element should go where and what these are used for in order to get the best energy flow.

Wood is the element of new beginnings. It is said to anchor and root us. Having trees around your zen garden can assist in creating a calm, serene environment.

Natural fibres like bamboo, wicker and straw, are all plant-based, and like wood, they assist on slowing down chi flow and creating serenity.

Glass, especially in large panes, can assist in speeding up the flow of chi greatly. It is part of the fire family so it is positive and energetic.

Metal is also a positive energy mover, which assists in revitalising flow and stagnant areas.

Fabric is a good way to slow the flow of chi down, but be careful not to use too much, as this can have a negative effect as well. Remember, that the more natural the fabric, the better the outcome, as non-natural fibres tend to interact negatively.

Ceramics are a mix of the natural wood and stone, as the more raw and natural the ceramics are the more similar to wood they are, whereas the more polished and finished ceramics are closer to smooth stone.

Stone and rocks are also a good way control chi, but certain shapes of stone have different effects. Sharp chiseled stone will scatter chi, while smooth stone will speed it up.

Synthetic materials aren’t good for Zen Gardens at all. Instead of moving or scattering chi, they simply block it, which does nothing for the flow of energy though the rock garden.

Tile and brick being very similar to wood and smooth stone in natural appearance and feel, (Brick being more like wood, tile like smooth stone) and so their properties will also be similar.

Different plants types to use

Growing plants around your zen garden is in one way or another very similar to creating positive channels by which the energy can flow.

Bamboo: strong, grows tall and has a beautiful dark green colour, good for the eastern side of your garden.

Peony: though dark green, has a very beautiful warm pink flower with a yellow center, making it a fantastic flower for the South side of the garden.

Maple trees: are beautiful because of their changing colors. Japanese maples are especially beautiful and show many different colors year round, and will fit any compass point.

Plum trees: light green colored leaf, which is almost a warm green. Best for the yellow areas of the garden which is closer to the center.

Orchid: clean bright white in colour, and are best suited to the western or northwestern facing part of the garden.

Chrysanthemum: Yet another warm, flame colored flower which actually also comes in white and pink, this flower would be very well suited to South, and West parts of your garden.

Iris: Iris while similar in shape to orchids are beautiful purple flowers with an almost ultraviolet hue. They would be best suited to cooler colour points, especially the North East.

Lily: A gorgeous white flower with long yellow pistils,  the Western and Northwestern sections of your garden would be best served by this flower.

Lotus: Lotus flowers are synonymous with Zen Buddhism, with many Asian cultures seeing their deities in the forms of Lotus flowers, these are warm white/pink flowers with yellow centers. They grow in water, so put them in a flowing water sculpture for best effect.

Daffodil: Narcissus or the daffodil is a common plant with a bright white flower. These are fantastic flowers for smaller gardens or mini zen gardens as they do not grow large.

Magnolia: Large white and pink flowers with red seeds characterize this flower. THye grown on large trees so they are best for the larger gardens, planted in the South or West.

Jasmine: Jasmine flower is a strong, sweet smelling flower which grows on a creeper like vine, with very dark green leaves. They are perennial bloomers, so and require sunlight and quite a substantial amount of water, but are very rewarding because of their smell.

Gardenia: Long oval dark leaves, and large white flowers are a hallmark of this plant. Actually from the coffee family, these flowers are one of a species of over 140 plants in the species.

Pine tree: Pine trees make brilliant bonsai, growing quickly and not requiring too much care. Evergreen pine needles are a familiar smell which most Americans equate with Christmas time.

Citrus: Lemon and orange trees are bright green leafed, with small white flowers, normally growing on medium sized trees.

Grasses: Lemongrass and the like are fantastic plants for zen gardens s they have distinct features and do not require exorbitant amounts of care. They grow fast and easily, and when well watered, remain green and lush. Consider also growing catnip or Joseph’s Cloak if you prefer ground covers over grasses.

Keep your Zen Garden looking good

Protect your garden from pets or potential pet messes, especially if you have energetic dogs. Cats are harder to train, and can make a mess if they decide to use your zen space as their sandbox, so do your best to keep them from doing so and research ways to stop your animals from doing this. Fertilizing and watering any plants around your space regularly is a necessity, and will keep them healthy, but it will also attract weeds. Do your best to weed your garden once a month if you wish to keep it on good condition. Also try as much as possible to keep a zen garden clutter-free, this will keep you garden design looking clean and assist in keeping the right kind of energy in the area.

Finding Indoor Zen

Indoor mini-zen gardens and even larger ones are very popular worldwide, and can be a tranquil space for quiet reflection in the home or at the office. It’s quite simple to create a zen garden design, using no more than sand and rocks. To make a small zen space for yourself, get a large bowl and fill it with white sand or fine gravel, and some select rocks, remembering the chi principles when selecting them. Get yourself a small fork sized wooden rake and you are set. If you have the opportunity to place a larger garden at home or in your work space, then you can fill a large floor area with sand or gravel about 3 inches deep, and follow up with rocks which area small enough to move if necessary. Again purchase a wooden zen garden rake which is large enough to rake the sand in patterns or straight lines. Though plants are not strictly part of zen garden design, add them for aesthetic effect. Talk to a professional about the best setup in your home for the best use of feng shui in your garden design.