Marin Master Gardeners
University of California
Marin Master Gardeners

Marin IJ Articles

Designing serenity

July 31, 2010
Julie Monson

The presence of water in the garden, whether it's a quiet drip into a basin or a fountain's cascade, seems to enhance the viewer's experience and make the garden a more inviting, inspiring space.

Historically, gardeners found imaginative ways to incorporate water into the landscape. Enclosed Islamic gardens, for example in Granada, feature pools and fountains surrounded by orange trees and flowers. In formal French gardens, water in broad canals, basins and fountains add grandeur and scale to vast vistas. In contemporary gardens, one often finds a "water feature" like a large ceramic pot, water bubbling from its top, or a small fish pond nestled among some rocks. In the Japanese gardens in Kyoto, water - real or imagined - is an intrinsic element at the center of the garden's meaning.

Zen gardens are often dry, where water is imagined rather than real. Perhaps the most well-known Zen garden in Japan is Ryoan-ji, believed to have been constructed about 1500. This small, enclosed garden is composed of 15 skillfully placed rocks on five "islands," surrounded by raked sand. The only green comes from a rim of moss surrounding each rock group. Later Zen gardens tended to use larger, boulder-size rocks. Those in Ryoan-ji are almost delicate. This is not a garden to walk through. One sits on the temple veranda and contemplates a serene abstraction of nature, where raked sand can represent water and the rocks represent whatever you can imagine.

One should not be misled by this garden's simplicity to think that it is easy to maintain. It requires almost daily care to remove leaves, weeds and debris, as well as to rake the sand.

Another Zen garden, Daisen-in, is within Daitoku-ji, a temple complex of about a dozen temples and gardens, all linked majestically with stone walkways lined by rows of maple or pine trees.

Heavily influenced by Chinese garden traditions, Daisen-in's garden features a dramatic mountain scene of vertical rocks in one corner through which flows a sand stream over more rocks into a "river" of sand below.

We were there on a rainy day and able to take our time to contemplate this dynamic scene quietly, as there were no other visitors. It is difficult to explain why this arrangement of rocks and sand could be so fascinating - mesmerizing.

I wondered if it could begin to feel so powerful if it had been formed with actual water. Could the representation of water be more convincing than water itself?

Not all Zen gardens are without water. Tenruyi-ji, dating to about 1270 and also influenced by Chinese garden tradition, contains a large, irregularly shaped, rock-lined pond containing a few islands and bays. Visitors sit on the veranda of the adjacent large temple to quietly observe the water, the rock islands and the hillside opposite, covered with evergreen trees and shrubs.

The scale is much larger than Ryoan-ji, for the garden spreads up the hillside in two directions and includes several linked paths, a stream and small teahouses. Away from the temple itself, one finds blooming azaleas, a few rhododendron, iris and other flowering trees and shrubs. For the visitor, this garden combines ample opportunity for contemplation and for walking through an exquisitely designed and maintained garden.

We visited Saiho-ji (also called the Moss Garden), in a softly falling rain. Created about 1339 under the direction of a Zen priest who strongly believed in the benefit of meditating while viewing a garden, Saiho-ji is, at first glance, simplicity itself.

Although there is an adjacent temple with a veranda, the visitor contemplates this garden by walking through it. Simple paths wind around a very irregularly-shaped, rock-lined pond. Moss covers every inch of the gently undulating earth. Slender maple trees filter sunlight onto the moss carpet. In the gently falling rain, sufficient sunlight came through to lighten the spring maple leaves and moss, so that even the air seemed to glow.

At the home of our Japanese host, a traditional garden includes a shady corner that contained several large rocks, one of which was scooped out at the top, creating a small basin.

Drops of water fell into the basin from a branch of bamboo. Beneath the basin, small pebbles provided drainage and home for a few small ferns. In the late afternoon, we sat on the sill of his open sliding glass door, sipping tea and contemplating the meaning of this serene scene.

In my own garden, I've attempted imaginary water with a dry, stone-filled "stream" that winds through a portion of the garden. This stream also functions as drainage in very heavy rains.

As for real water, a small shady pond contains a few water lilies and adds moisture to nearby moss, hakone grass and bamboo. A stone water basin greets visitors near the courtyard gate. By these simple measures, water, real and imagined, adds magical serenity to the garden.

The University of California Marin Master Gardeners are sponsored by UC Cooperative Extension. For questions about gardening, plant pests or diseases, call 499-4204 from 9 a.m. to noon, and 1 to 4 p.m. weekdays, or bring in samples or pictures to 1682 Novato Blvd., Suite 150B, Novato

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