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Contemplation Gardens

By Contributor ; Updated September 21, 2017

Contemplation Gardens by Carol Wallace

When we hear the term "contemplation garden' many of us immediately think of those little coffee table-sized Zen gardens in a box that are popular at bookstores and garden centers in the US. And I imagine most of us find it hard to think that using that tiny rake on those few square inches of sand is going to help us to reach some state of Nirvana very quickly.

Now a real Zen garden would be a different story. There is something soothing about raking the sand into beautiful patterns of waves and water that frees the mind and allows it to think upon deeper matters. But it isn't really the act of raking that makes the gardener meditative. It is that there is so little else in that garden to distract us.

Compare the simplicity of the Zen garden with the typical American garden. A Zen garden is almost an abstraction of a garden. It may not have any plants in it - just some very carefully placed rocks and some raked gravel, an abstraction of a landscape representing mountains and water. It becomes almost a blank canvas - an invitation for the viewer to fill in his or her own meaning. With little to distract us, we are freed to let our mind wander through this abstraction, to try to discover meanings both in the landscape and within ourselves.

That raked sand or gravel can become a river, the rocks turn into mountain ranges. Or the rock/mountain ranges become challenges that we face, while the raked river of sand becomes the soothing peace we seek. We have only the barest sketch of things in the Zen garden - and our minds must fill in the blanks, and make of those abstractions something that has meaning for us. "The design encourages one to look deeper and complete the picture in one's own mind." says Stephen Morrell author of the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens' "Japanese Gardens."(1990).

Not so the typical western garden. There we have plants in abundance. The area that is designated as water is really wet and the only raking we do has a purpose - to eliminate all the clutter that nature and the neighbors have left blowing about to annoy us. We can go sit in the garden looking for inner peace, but we are more likely to find a few weeds that need pulling, and a lot of deadheading and other chores that will nag at us until we give up thoughts of contemplation and get to work.

The only time I can find peace and enough tranquillity for meditation is after dark, when all I can see is the essence of garden without being bothered by the details. In darkness, all gardens are Zen gardens.

But there are a few principles which can help us to create spaces within out yards that are peaceful spots that will allow us to contemplate without being forever distracted by petty details. The four main principles are clarity, complexity, mystery and refuge. And hard as it may be to envision something that can be complex and mysterious but also clear is not the paradox that it seems.


Clarity simply means that the area is not confusing to those looking at it. It has, first of all, clarity of purpose. The typical modern US backyard does not - it is a playground, an outdoor laundry room, a garden and more - all at once. We are accustomed to multi-purpose yards, with no real line of demarcation between one area's purpose and the next.

Clarity can be achieved by incorporating the idea of "rooms" into your yard. And we do that by defining the boundaries if each separate area.

Shrubs or even a low planting can serve as a way to mark off these separate areas. What you are doing here is creating the outdoor equivalent of a set of rooms. Rooms have walls - but we may not want to carve our yards up into tiny isolated spaces. While you could use trees, tall hedges or lattice screens, it isn't important in an outdoor space to hide our other outdoor rooms from view - unless we want to. A line of stepping stones, a low border of flowers or shrubs all create an edge that, outdoors, has the same function as a wall does indoors.

Another element that creates clarity in your yard is the use of paths. These don't need to be elaborate. A path can be defined by a strip of grass, or bark mulch, or it can be defined by stepping stones or paving. The purpose of these paths is to let visitors to the yard know exactly which way you want them to go. You may want a fairly obvious and slightly more elaborate path lead us to your most public areas, and use less obtrusive ones to access utility areas in the yard. If you have set aside a small area for solitude and contemplation, you will want the path leading to that area to be very minimal - just a way of getting to your space without getting muddy shows.

Public paths should be wide enough for two people to walk comfortably, side by side. Private paths only need to accommodate a lone walker.

And for good Feng Shui, make sure that your paths are not straight lines. Make them meander a bit. Not only does the curved path invite a more leisurely approach but, as you will see later, it is crucial to the idea of creating mystery in the garden.

Each "room" in your garden should also have a threshold - a clear point of entry. This can be accomplished simply by widening the path, as a stairway landing is broader than the steps that lead to it. Or you can create a real entrance by using an arbor, or a door cut into a row of shrubs. The important thing to remember is that a person standing on this threshold looking in should immediately be able to see the "heart" of that space and know where they are supposed to go.

Hearts are important in two types of areas - the public space, and your private contemplation space. In a public space the heart of the garden may be a grouping of chairs, or a stone bench, a small pond or fountain, or even a piece of sculpture. It is a focal point - but in many ways the heart of the space is also its reason for being. That is why a public space should suggest the idea that many are welcome by providing seating groups - even several flat rocks to perch on, while your private space should include only a solitary resting place.


Complexity as a concept is actually easier to grasp than clarity. Complexity simply means that there is enough of interest going on within a given space that there is a reason to enter it and dwell there for a while. mix of textures, colors, smells, shapes, sizes and spaces encouraging the visitor to break a larger space into more discreet areas of attention.

It also incorporates the idea of Yin and Yang. The area will be full of positive spaces filled with plants as well as negative spaces - flat areas of paving or grass, or simply a mass of a single type of plant to give the eye a rest from the complexity of other areas within the space. Too much complexity results in a feeling of chaos. We need to give the eye a rest with spaces that lack that complexity.


Mystery is the part of gardening which I enjoy most - the surprises and hidden features that may be hinted at but not revealed unless the visitor actively seeks them out.

Mystery can be created by placing a large shrub or rock at a curve in the path, hiding whatever lies around that bed from view. This is one reason the curving path is so important - the curve helps us to create surprises fairly effortlessly. We see a path, know that we must follow - but not all of it is revealed to us at once. We must actively enter into and participate in the garden to find the elements of mystery.

A simple element of mystery is a small water feature. It should not be visible from the threshold - but it should be audible. The sound of water draws the visitor into the space like an engraved invitation.

Other uses of mystery may involve a sort of window through the plantings through which we can get a fleeting glimpse of a piece of sculpture, a seat of some kind, or a particularly vivid and fragrant planting.

The best "mystery" in my own garden was accidental. My husband and I wanted to build a hidden pond. That we could look at while sitting in the gazebo. While my husband was doing the leveling and rock borders for the pond, I was buying shrubbery designed to screen the pond from view unless you crossed another threshold. As it turned out, we didn't need the shrubbery. The pond is situated in a natural dip in the land. Unless you walk up the gazebo steps you may hear water - but the pond itself is simply not visible.

I created another area of mystery by cutting an arch into the branches of a weeping willow. All you see at the end of this arch is grass and sunlight beckoning you through - and a delicious fragrance. Once through the arch you find a rose garden - one that wasn't visible elsewhere in the yard.


Not every room in your garden needs to be a refuge. But certainly the "garden spots" both public and private should give off a feeling of retreat from the cares of the world. Perhaps it has screening from lattice or shrubs that give the area a private, protected air. Perhaps it is a refuge from the hot rays of the sun - a spot with shade and a place to relax. Refuge simply means that the garden provides a sense of being protected and comfortable. Entering the space should give us a feeling of belonging.

This holds true both for the public garden and your own private refuge. Your private refuge is your contemplation garden. Only a narrow path approaches it; so that it is as much out of public view as possible, and it provides a resting place for you, large enough only for one.

Our ultimate contemplation garden - our real refuge, should be as simple as we can make it. No riotous array of color here - maybe a limited palette of plants - hostas, and ferns, or other easy to care for plants. The colors should be restful, and the plantings should be such that you don't enter the space seeking a rest and then find yourself forever leaping up to pull a weed or deadhead something.

My own area is simple. It is shady, screened from view by rhododendrons., hydrangeas and tall ferns, with a groundcover of sweet woodruff that smothers all weeds. It is green, shady and totally serene. There is a small glider there for me to sit in and rock gently; wind chimes and birds provide the music.

Using the elements - complexity, clarity, mystery and refuge doesn't simply create a contemplation garden - it turns your whole yard into a place that is at once more interesting and more peaceful. But using these elements all over again to create your most private area will give you a garden space that eases the mind and makes the heart glad.

About the Author

Carol is a garden writer and college professor in northeast Pennsylvania. She manages the Gardening section of Suite 101.com, where she also writes the column Virtually Gardening.


About the Author

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