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African Zen – The art of the garden

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Creating a Japanese Zen garden is not about slavishly copying the elements and placements; it’s about internalising the quiet mind-set that will enable you to craft a place of minimalist serenity – and the act of creating the garden will engender a quiet mind-set that will … it’s all very Zen, really.

When landscape designer David Slawson served an apprenticeship in the art of Japanese gardens in Kyoto in the 1970s – an apprenticeship he later solidified with a doctorate in Japanese aesthetics and landscape garden design from Indiana University – his crew chief reprimanded him for squatting awkwardly while sweeping the soil between the aspidistras. (The Japanese squat with both feet flat on the ground when they’re working: young David had become tired, and moved his weight onto just one foot.)

The lesson, he writes in the introduction to his remarkable book, Secret Teachings in the Art of Japanese Gardens (Kodansha International, Ltd., 1987), was that ‘the spirit with which one performs any task, no matter how “menial”, is more important than getting it done.’
And this is the central point we should make about building and making a garden, wherever in the world you  want to do it: Zen or otherwise, it’s the thinking behind the idea that makes a garden work.



Slawson argues that ‘the principles of Japanese garden design can indeed be shared with the West.’ He goes on to explain that each style of Japanese garden was a product of its time – Zen (often characterised by raked gravel and perfectly placed rocks and mosses) being just one of them.

He makes the point, too, that the tiny, intimate nature of the Zen garden is only one aspect of Japanese garden design, and that gardens in Japan (as in every country of the world) come in every shape and size – from narrow passageways to large estates, many hectares in size.
Most of his writing is centred on answering two questions:

  • What makes a Japanese garden a Japanese garden?
  • What are the design principles behind them?


And he cautions that ‘copying imported styles rather than responding to native locales and materials may explain why so many Japanese gardens made in the United States have an almost museum-like quality.’

Too many stone lanterns, half-moon bridges, and faux torii gates, which in truth are found only in a very few of Japan’s historic gardens, can begin to ‘take on a Disneyland quality. The theme-park approach is fine as far as it goes, with its prettied-up storybook conventions […] but a Japanese garden is after something else.’ And that something else, Slawson concludes, is that, rather than copying existing traditions, the designer should seek to ‘reflect qualities of the natural environment so as to nurture the hopes and needs of the client.’

Which brings us neatly home to South Africa, with its amazingly varied natural environment and incredible variety of indigenous plants. And this, given our growing trend towards smaller and smaller garden spaces, which – in the tradition of Zen garden design – are usually meant to be seen from a single vantage point, brings us back to the earliest Zen gardens in Japan, too.



African Zen indeed

An article of this length can’t begin to explore the individual design elements of Japan’s Zen gardens – but I’d suggest (and I’ll probably be shouted down for it) that they’re relatively easy to learn. Just ask Professor Google.

What’s not quite so easy for us in South Africa, though, is choosing the right plants for the project, but that’s only because we have an overwhelming variety of them. With dozens of different biomes – from Highveld grassland to Cape fynbos (all of which are further divisible into smaller and smaller areas, all of which teem with so many bewildering species of plants) – it’s probably best to narrow things down a little by learning what’s indigenous to your specific area, and choosing from that more limited (I know, I’m contradicting myself here) and simplified list.

Of course, you’ll want to get advice from your garden centre or nursery, but South Africa has some outstanding online resources to help you – mostly curated by SANBI (the South African National Biodiversity Institute), which also manages the country’s ten national botanic gardens (also good places to start).
But plants are only part of the picture, because the visual elements that get the bulk of the attention in Zen gardens are almost always the rocks, stones and sand. Placed just so – as dry waterfalls, gravel mountains, islands, and more – they bring the essence of nature into the space.



It’s important to plant the rocks deep enough into the ground so that that they don’t appear to be floating on top of it – and, just as with the plants, you should choose rocks that occur naturally in your area, rather than importing them from another area of the country that has a different geology. It’s the sand or gravel, though, that usually makes the biggest impact, especially when it’s expertly raked. And the reason for this, I’ve always believed, is because it captures something about our  most basic element: water. Those patterns they put into the sand put us in mind of the ripples, runnels and whirlpools of water at its most calm, most joyous, and most playful.

The secret to keeping the sand in shape, of course, is the rake – and the meditation that goes with the act of raking. You might have to make or have your rakes made – I’ve never seen any full-sized Zen garden gravel rakes in South African nurseries – but there are plenty of patterns on the net for the two basic forms you’ll need. These are the saw-tooth rake and the dowel-tooth rake. Learning the art of raking is something you need to watch, rather than read about: look, for example, for Veronique Pantau Renard’s Japanese Zen Garden Raking videos on YouTube.


In the end, though, you’re doing all of this at home, in Mzansi, and not in Japan. So can you really make a Zen garden under the African sky?


Indeed you can, as long as you always remain true to your vision of bringing ‘the qualities of the natural environment’ into the project. As the famous monk and teacher, Shunryu Suzuki – who founded the first Buddhist monastery outside of Asia – said: ‘The true purpose [of Zen] is to see things as they are, to observe things as they are, and to let everything go as it goes …’

Which is a fine way to look at anything – including your work in the garden – is it not?

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