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Zen Gardening in Small Spaces
by Jerry Filipski
by Jerry Filipski

email: jfilipski@yahoo.com

Gerald (Jerry) Filipski is the gardening columnist for the Edmonton Journal, a position he has enjoyed as a freelance writer for the past 12 years. Jerry also writes for Canadian Gardening, the new Alberta Gardener as well as for the lifestyle magazine of P&O ferries. Jerry also does numerous public speaking engagements including some major gardening conferences and workshops as well as question and answer sessions for Wal-Mart and Rona.


July 1, 2007

The tranquility and peace of a Zen garden is highly desirable in today's hectic world. Recently, a dear friend asked if it was possible to suggest an alternative for her 4th floor condo balcony to the standard pots and hanging baskets. I have not told her this yet and you are all sworn to secrecy but the plan will be a Zen garden for her balcony.

Karesansui, or the 'dry-landscape' style Japanese gardens have been in existence for centuries, but it wasn't until the late sixth century with the advent of Zen Buddhism did 'dry style' gardens began to evolve. The earlier gardens were created where one could enter and walk around and much larger in scale. Around the eleventh century, Zen priests adopted the dry landscape style and began building gardens to serve a different purpose. They were to be used as an aid to create a deeper understanding of the Zen concepts. Not only was the viewing intended to aid in meditation but the entire creation of the garden was also intended to trigger contemplation. By the late 1200's, the basic principles had been established and up to the present day, they have been refined and extended. The garden created by the Zen priest are called "kansho-niwa" or contemplation garden and termed by many today as " Zen gardens ".

This type of garden lends itself well to gardening in small spaces such as condo and apartment balconies, yards and decks. This is due to the fact that with Zen gardening the scale is very much in the designer's eye and not according to a pre-set design or scheme. The two main elements of a Zen or a "dry style" garden are rocks to form mountains and sand to form flowing water. The "sand" used in Japanese gardens is not a beach sand but a crushed granite and comes in varying shades of white gray to beige and approximately 2 mm. in diameter. Avoid using light colored crushed granite in sunny areas for it will produce a blinding glare, but it will brighten up an indoor garden or dark shaded garden. If crushed granite or rocks are not available, the grit fed to turkey and chickens will work well.
Chose rocks that are weathered and have 'personality'. For larger rocks consider using lava rock which is much lighter than regular rock. Weight is a very important consideration for any balcony gardening. Consider not only the weight of the sand and rock but also the soil in surrounding plantings and the water in those plantings.

Construct a shallow 'sand-box' approximately 5 cm deep and whatever width and length you see fit as being the right size for your area. My suggestion to my friend will be to have the sand-box nearly hugging the balcony railing with a plant border in between the box and the railing. The front of the box will have a curve to suggest a view of a beach. Place the rocks in the sand box and add your sand. This sand will then be raked using a small gardener's hand rake into waves and patterns of the ocean rippling against the rocks.

The border plantings are very important. Sometimes the seeming-limitations of a small space actually give you a lot of freedom to experiment with garden scale and landscape in miniature. There are many plants that will work well in this Japanese setting. Here are a few examples of plants to use as border or background plantings in a small-scale Zen garden:

  • Dwarf hostas

  • Pachysandra

  • Dwarf daylilies

  • Bonsai trees and shrubs

  • Use indoor plants as well. Plants such as Norfolk pine, Aspidistra etc make for wonderful background plants for this garden. Let your imagination and preferences be your guide.

With the border plants you can have them in decorative pots, plain black plastic as long as the pots do not add a lot of weight to the garden and you use light potting soil as opposed to heavier garden soil. My suggestion to my friend will be to have some low growing Pachysandra in the front of the bed with dwarf hostas and daylilies in behind. I will also suggest a grouping of 2-3 bonsai trees or shrubs. These can be purchased or can be shaped by the gardener. I'll save the shaping of the bonsai for a future column.

The final touch for my friend's garden will be the addition of a wet element to the garden with a shallow (10 cm) water feature in the opposite corner to the dry element. This element can again be anything your mind's eye appreciates as long as it is not too heavy. My suggestion will be a dish-shaped container such as am earthware bowl. The water will be active with the addition of a bamboo 'deer-chaser' fountain. This is the type of fountain that has a bamboo component that fills with water and then once full gently tips forward allowing the water to spill into the bowl in a peaceful fashion.

The bowl will be surrounded by baby's tears, ivy or some other suitable creeping indoor plant. The background will be an inexpensive bamboo screen available in any Oriental import store. The screen will be fastened with wire to the balcony railing and will offer privacy and wind protection.

The balcony or deck can be turned into a retreat for both the mind and body. Size is not a consideration at all. By scaling down and using the minimalist approach, which is used in a great many Japanese plantings, your condo or apartment can have a get-away equal to the largest of yards.

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