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Order and planned is the key. Zen gardens are not showy, busy, or haphazard. The landscape is well-ordered and planned. Any item placed in the Zen garden is purposeful and symbolic in some way. The planning is a very personal experience that only you should do. You need not rely on input from others, but decide within yourself how things should be. If it feels right to you, it is right.
Water is a crucial element in a Zen garden; either real water in the form of a fountain or pond, or implied water in the form of a bed of raked sand or gravel. The mountains of stone and concentric circles of raked gravel represent, not only a body of water, but the larger universe as well.
Rocks are a very important element. The overall goal of a Zen garden is to create a sense of permanence in your landscape. Rocks represent mountains, and their placement is meaningful and symbolic.
Zen gardens are designed for year-round landscaping appeal. Evergreens and moss ground covers provide cyclic continuity. Your Zen garden is never "dormant," but always alive. Whether spring showers, winter snow, or summer heat descend upon a Zen garden, it is always alive and appealing to the senses.
A Zen garden isn't built in a day. Planning the landscaping for this project is a meditative process that should be as calming as your garden design itself. Don't just grab a bunch of rocks and stick them in your Zen garden. Choose your stones carefully based on how they make you feel, and what they conjure in your imagination.
There are evergreen selections widely available in the US, which work well in Zen garden landscaping. Some fitting evergreens for your Zen garden include traditional Japanese pines and hollies. Native species, such as mountain laurel, work well in a Zen garden as well.
Deciduous trees add a delicacy to a Zen garden, much like a gauzy lace curtain lends to a simple window. The slight and lovely Japanese maple adds fine, garnet foliage to the landscape. The small varieties of Japanese maples can be nice features to your garden. Depending on the size of your Zen garden, just one or two well-chosen trees are all you need. Remember, you are looking for tranquil and restful, not a forest dominance.
There are many garden accessories and ornaments available to enhance your Zen experience. Many garden ornament dealers have Yukimi lanterns in different styles and sizes. Again, you should choose the style that speaks to you. If you have a small garden, you should consider a smaller Yukimi so as to not overpower the garden.
Tending a Zen garden is not, by its very nature, a chore or something to be rushed through. The meditative quality of a Zen garden lies not only in the viewing of the garden design, but in the pruning, nurturing, and especially the raking of the garden as well. Zen gardens are meant to be fussed over and puttered with. Even the simple act of picking up fallen leaves can be incorporated into the total experience.
You can even carry your Zen experience over into you work environment if you wish. You can easily make a miniature version of a Zen garden for your desk.