The Art of the Zen Garden

The Southern U.S. Charleston-style garden with sago palm, bananas, papyrus, and purple hearts in the steamy long summer.
The Charleston garden with sago palm, bananas, papyrus, and purple hearts in mid summer.

For years in Charleston, I have tried to create the ideal garden. Mixing genres I added attributes of an English garden: Ivey walls, statues, trimmed boxwoods mixed with somewhat wild and overgrown areas, with that of a true Southern garden: Native palmetto palms, oleander, azaleas, tea olive, agapanthus, bamboo, bananas, live oak, magnolia, and crepe myrtle.To honor my years in California, I planted lemon and olive tree varieties that could endure the steamy South Carolina summers. The results as the years have rolled by are impressive as everything either matured and is happy or withered and disappeared. Forest Sprite

Despite my success, I have never realized what I had been trying to achieve was more of a Japanese garden. Spending a week in and around Kyoto gave me the opportunity to visit dozens of shrines, temples, and gardens and see great examples of what I had been overlooking at home. I was struck first by the fact that gardens in Japan never have to rely on huge amounts of space to create impact. The Bonzi tree personified. Most of the water features, plants, lanterns, fish ponds, bridges, rocks, and even trees are understated, austere compared to many western gardens. After Japan, My yard at home seems more like a city park. After a week in Kyoto, the gardens of Versailles appear ridiculous and about as intimate as the Paris subway.


Many Western gardens seem to dwell on pure aesthetics and impressing visitors whereas gardens in Asia focus more on spirituality and philosophical goals. Japanese gardens often feature water, either a pond or stream, or, at least white sand to symbolize water. In Buddhist symbolism, water and stone are the ying-yang, opposites, dark and light, male and female.

Meandering paths, stone lantern, water basin, Koi pond, rocks, flowers and manicured plants make the perfect zen garden in Kyoto.
Meandering paths, stone lantern, water basin, Koi pond, rocks and manicured plants make the perfect zen garden in Kyoto.

The idea of concealment is a regular theme in Eastern gardens: The idea that a wall, bamboo, or an irregular path will always screen something and create hidden places, making the visitor want to walk further, and consequently less aware of the physical smallness of the space. More common in the West is the large rectangular courtyard with grass or a pond in the middle, plants and trees around the edges. To me the fun is more about the mystery of what you may discover in a garden and the layers of patterns, contours, textures, and colors you find in the gentle collision between the natural and man-made.

Imperial Garden

Gardens in Japan strive for the natural but not the wild. Manicured just enough but mimicking nature more than man creating an idealized view of the natural world in a compact miniaturized form.

Water Basin

As you enter many Japanese gardens, there typically is a gate, often symbolic more than protective. The gate invites us inside instead of blocking passage. Many entrances are a simple wooden gate or a more dramatic stone or wooden red-orange Shinto torii, which symbolizes the transition from the profane to the sacred. As you enter, whether a shrine or temple, there is normally a stone water basin fed by a bamboo pipe or kakei. Wooden-cupped ladles with long handles are provided for drinking water and to wash before entering further. For temples, one would always remove their shoes before entering, but not so for gardens or shrines. Cleansed and welcomed, let the mediation and healing begin…



5 thoughts on “The Art of the Zen Garden

  1. Thanks David! I really appreciate the positive feedback. I have been fortunate to see so many amazing places this year and in many ways it will be hard to leave Asia. Hoping to catch up with you this summer on the West coast!


  2. I so love reading your blog, Kevin! Thanks! Your writing is evocative of themes I haven’t thought about since leaving Asia 20 years ago. Delicious.


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