March 25, 2008

Creating Quiet: Make Own Meditation Garden

Every home has enough space for some dream-building -- an out-of- the-way spot for relaxing after a hectic day's work, a quiet corner where your mind is free to drift, a site too distant to hear the doorbell's chime.

With some thoughtful landscaping, those out-of-the-way spots can emerge as meditation gardens, spirit gardens, healing gardens or Japanese rock gardens. All are created to raise consciousness or reduce stress.

"Just as there are many forms of meditation, people have a variety of needs from a meditation garden," says Nicole Kistler, an artist and environmental designer from Seattle. "Any space where people feel comfortable and safe will be a good place to meditate."

A meditation garden should be sensory-rich -- rich in plants, trees or shrubs that are aromatic, soothing to the ears and appealing to the eyes.

That would mean calming background sounds such as the breeze- driven rustling of ornamental grass, the delicate clatter of bamboo, water gurgling from a fountain or splashing from a waterfall. Muted foliage works better than a distracting bold, along with the scent of blooms or herbs that have been crushed underfoot.

"I often see three key elements in gardens for reflection and meditation: water, lush green plants and comfortable seating," Kistler says.

Moving water masks distractions like the noise of traffic. Plants provide shade, visual interest and oxygen. Natural lighting also is an important ingredient in the design mix.

Cultivating the minimalist look is a plus for any meditation garden, artistically and practically.

"These should be healing and relaxing gardens. Low maintenance. Not large. Not places where you have to work," says Osamu Shimizu, a Japanese garden designer from Glen Echo, Md., who created a rooftop meditation garden at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., and several Japanese-inspired landscapes at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond, Va.

"It would be nice to have them surrounded by hedges or trees so they're isolated from everything. It also would be nice to have areas that you can focus on using some sculpture, pottery or water."

Many of the elements designed into meditation gardens are borrowed from Zen or temple gardens. Examples include:

Rocks, gravel and sand that can be groomed with a rake to symbolize the look of rippling water, islands rising from the sea, mountains peeking above the clouds or anything your imagination might suggest.

Natural pieces reinforcing the look of the immediate surroundings. That might consist of some gnarled remnants of weathered wood or the rocky outwash from an eroding slope.

Treescaping or landscaping with trees. "That depends largely upon their sizes, but you can create some interesting shapes with the trees you have growing in your yard," Shimizu says.

Labyrinths, pathways and gently curved planting beds. "Even small trails can create the illusion of space or the potential for discovery around the next bend," Shimizu says.

Meditation gardens can become year-round retreats with the proper plant selection: Shimizu suggests evergreens in winter and perennial plants that mature in succession. And they can be enjoyed night and day with proper lighting -- lights aimed at trees or fountains can be dramatic.

Even city-dwellers can create meditation gardens that overcome the racket made by helicopters, sirens, jackhammers and street traffic.

"Turn things inside out. Install or take advantage of a large window and enjoy your (meditation) garden from indoors," he says. "You also could place an intercom near a fountain to hear the splashing water or somewhere where you could pick up the sounds of plants blowing in the wind. The intercom can act as your own natural wind chime."

But beware the temptation to continue adding on.

"It's human nature to add more and more. If you have a pond, then you add an aerator. Then you add some fish. Then you have to add filters," Shimizu says. "People can lose what they're seeking in a meditation garden by making it too complicated, too much work."

Dream gardens

Less is more when designing a meditation garden, where the minimalist approach can be functional as well as aesthetically pleasing. These gardens are meant for dreaming, not for tending.

Choose low-maintenance plants -- for the most part perennials -- with features that appeal to the senses.

Here are selections that have proven popular in dream gardens. Many were inspired by the temple gardens of Japan.

Japanese maple trees. More than 400 cultivars have been developed, making this a great, all-purpose, all-season tree whether it's used as a centerpiece or in groups. Japanese maples are not the hardiest of trees but usually do well in USDA zones 4 through 8. Japanese maples are prized for their fall colors, but they also outperform many other showy ornamentals with their springtime radiance. Their spectacular leaves continue "flowering" long after fruit trees have dropped their blossoms.

Japanese or Siberian iris. These are simple to grow. They do best in acid soils and require full sun for at least a half-day. Both varieties like water, which makes them good choices for planting alongside ponds or near streams. The Siberians are hardy from Zones 3 through 10; Japanese iris is partial to Zones 4 through 9.

Apricot and cherry trees do double duty by flowering and providing fruit. They also can be pruned or shaped to add more interest, summer or winter. Zones 6 through 9.

Water fixtures. Few sounds are more lulling than those made by moving water. Ponds, streams, waterfalls or fountains are design standards for meditation gardens, often serving as the focal point. They also attract many species of wildlife.

Ferns and moss provide lush green color from early spring through the first few killing frosts and beyond. Moss placed between paving stones invites walking barefoot through the garden. Ferns and moss do best when planted in areas tending toward shade and moisture. Hardiness varies according to type, but all are safe to grow in Zones 5 through 8.

Evergreens add four-season interest and serve as efficient sound baffles on borders. Cedars and certain old-world species of junipers are attractive choices, suggesting the twists and turns of Bonsai.