The Japanese rock garden, also known as a Zen garden, has once again become a popular design choice in drought stricken California. The strong regulations on water use, especially for yard maintenance, have led homeowners to find new ways to show off their outdoor spaces. A rock garden requires very little maintenance and depending on the design, may require no watering at all. As a place for peaceful meditation, they can be a source of relaxation and tranquility.
The Story of Rock Gardens
Rock gardens have a rich history and have been adapted by cultures all over the world. They were once all the rage during the American 1930’s and have been rediscovered by modern landscape designers. The roots of Zen gardens lead back to China. Their design was influenced by the Taoist belief that immortals lived on mountains in the ocean. Therefore Chinese Zen gardens tend to use bodies of water such as ponds to represent oceans and rock formations to represent mountains in the middle.
Purpose & Meaning of Rock Gardens
Once adopted by Japanese culture, Zen gardens embraced the abstract. The meaning behind rock formations was created at the individual level. Water was replaced by sand or gravel which was raked to simulate ripples of water. The act of raking sand was meant not to create perfect lines in the sand, but to bring clarity and focus by concentrating on the task at hand. Heavily influenced by Buddhism, the design of Japanese rock gardens were intended to bring an individual closer to the true essence of nature by displaying nature in its most simple and most abstract form. By discovering the true essence of nature, a person could also discover the true essence within themselves.
Design Principles of Rock Gardens
The design principles of a rock garden vary based on several factors but individual styles choices can be applied. Once a spot is chosen, it is important to think about how the garden will be incorporated into the surrounding landscape. If the spot is on a hill, a design that features cascading rocks that simulate a waterfall would feel natural. If there are mountains in the background, imagine how the garden would look with that backdrop. Look at the color pallette of the natural surroundings and choose rocks that compliment the color scheme.
The design of a rock garden can also be used to create visual metaphors about life and death. A famous rock garden in Japan features a design that arranges rocks and sand to represent the course of life. A dry waterfall represents birth, which flows into a turbulent river of sand and eventually flows into a calm flat ocean, representing death. Rocks with particular shapes can be used as representations of the natural and unnatural, such as a rock shaped like a turtle or a rock shaped like a boat sailing on the ocean.
A rock garden can also be used as a scaled down version of famous natural formations. Rocks can be grouped together and arranged to look like island formations. It would be interesting to see an arrangement that was inspired by the Yosemite Valley formations made famous by the photography of Ansel Adams.
Japanese rock gardens are a timeless art form that bring a person in touch with nature and themselves. Whether or not saving water is a priority, they are still an option worth considering for your outdoor or patio design. Zen gardens are easy and relaxing to maintain. There is a lot of room for creativity when designing them and there is no wrong way to do it.