Introducing you to the Zen Garden, I admit it is not Zen. Or maybe it is. The Zen students I’ve known were realists, and my Zen garden began its humble evolution in a garbage dump. In Zen, you start where you are.
Our home’s previous owners created copious amounts of garbage and piled it up near the back door rather than make the journey to the front sidewalk for free curbside pickup. As the bags and bins piled up, their dogs would root around and dig, and maybe some rabbits and raccoons got in. All of this happened before I moved in, and thankfully my husband had cleared out all the above-ground trash years before I met him.
What remained was a square space enclosed on one side by the house, on two sides by a collapsing fence, and on the fourth by the little concrete walkway to the gate. The ground was bumpy with weird little sinkholes, making it almost impossible to mow. Perennial weeds reigned. Odd bits of things would surface from the ground when it heaved from frost or erosion. Let’s just be very dramatic here and say the ground was vomiting up the filth it had been forced to swallow over all those years of abuse.
Let’s digress here and talk about sanity and environment. You will never be able to convince me that a sane healthy person can live in a disorganized dirty space. Creating a clean, nonchaotic environment can help heal physical and mental illness (see the Windhorse Project and Naropa University). Gardens specifically can heal trauma (read The Healing Fields by Sonja Linden and Jenny Grut). The Zen garden is a survivor, and it gives me hope to see how it has grown. Whatever domestic horrors the garden witnessed are now buried beneath layers of mulch, years of weeding, season after season of gentle attentive stewardship. Whatever trash remains has been incorporated into the soil and roots, and now feeds the garden instead of choking it. The Zen garden feels mature, stable, and lush.
When I started just three years ago, the Zen garden was a forlorn space. The size of the space nevertheless had an innate charm, suggesting a little hiding place. I like to go outside with my coffee in the morning, and so I envisioned a bench in this nook, very sparse planting, and lots of moss. I mistakenly thought it was a shade garden because I was looking at the light in the late fall; in actuality, it only has deep shade in the part closest to the house, and about half the garden gets full sun all summer. I made more than a few mistakes in my plant choices. Oops.
I had just learned about “lasagna gardening,” and the idea made lots of sense. I piled paper on top of the weeds, then mulched in with tons of pine bark, and then planted one brownii yew and one ground cover yew. It smelled amazing with all that lovely pine bark, and the immediate effect was pleasingly tidy.
Very soon the ground began to show its pits and lumps again. Perennial weeds pushed through all the paper and mulch with unassailable tenacity. This is when I learned that some weeds will come back no matter what you do, and the smallest piece of root will grow underground in the dark for a whole season, boldly popping up with stronger, deeper roots than ever before. Digging out the whole root ball became necessary, and I got to know the soil with all this digging. There were many, many worms. They kind of freaked me out. Some were so big, and they liked curling around the weed roots! Eight inch long worms the width of my pinkie almost seemed to charge at me when I dug the weeds. I ran away from quite a few. Yes, I’m a girl, and I got scared of the slimy things. I admit it.
I kept adding mulch to smooth the terrain and destroy weeds, and this organic mulch enriched the soil tremendously. After about one year, the top few inches of soil were gorgeous and black and crumbly. The mulch did all the work. (I just did the weeding.)
I don’t remember exactly how long it took me to start adding plants to this area I claimed should be sparse and simple; probably only one month after the yews went in. I explained the Zen idea to my husband, and he agreed, saying, “I’m on board.” When new plants appeared every few weeks (a climbing hydrangea for the fence, a vinca ground covering the corner, some crocuses next to the rock), he never once criticized or questioned how far the garden was digressing from the plan. He’s told me since then that he often thinks my ideas sound terrible. He’s also told me he feels no need to say so because the end results are always “spectacular.” Everyone should have a companion with such blind faith in their creative process.
And then I stole moss. Moss was a key component of the plan, but mosses grow at a leisurely pace. We had a little bit of moss in our yard, but my neighbors who hardly ever raked that year had big swathes of moss growing on the north side of their house. (They also have a wonderful mossy roof growing on their garage; I’ll be so sad when someone judges it derelict and “cleans it up.”) There’s very little space between the north side of their house and the south side of ours, so as a good neighbor I decided to help them rake their leaves. Of course I wouldn’t be so inconsiderate as to let big chunks of mossy earth snagged by the rake pile up on their grass; as a good neighbor I gathered up all the chunks of moss and transplanted them in my garden. Instant moss gratification.My (obviously codependent) husband heard me talk wistfully about old looking concrete benches, and despite his loathing of yard art and his modernist sense of style, he bought a goofy fake classical concrete bench for Christmas. He told me he thought it was incredibly tacky, even as he bought it. But the bench framed by lush foliage just begs you to stop a minute and sit down. He loves the bench. It’s kind of the whole point of the space, because from the other end of the yard, it provides a destination. You can see it through the living room window. It says you can rest. Even if you don’t have time to stop, it suggests visually the possibility of repose, and allows a moment of calm. It is cool in summer, secluded by toad lilies in fall, and gives a vantage point close to the ground for viewing moss, trillium and hellebores all year long.
I’ve made so many mistakes in the Zen garden. I planted a yew because I thought the whole garden was shady. It turns out the area has full sun in summer and I could have planted something totally different and exciting, less prosaic than a plain old brownii yew. In its third year though, most other evergreens would become too massive for the space and look misshapen if pruned hard. But since yews grow from old wood, which I didn’t even know when I chose it, I can prune it into a cute little globe as hard as I want. Planting the yew was a wise mistake.
Anemones I chose from the hardware store “shade plant” section dried up and died in the sun their first year. I tried transplanting them closer to the house. They vanished for a solid twelve months. I considered them compost and hoped the moss would cover them. The next year some ferny foliage looking suspiciously anemone-like surfaced in the spring. The year after that, flowers bloomed. This year, the foliage still stands late into fall and I can’t wait to see how many flowers come out in spring. They fill a corner bereft of bulbs in the mid to late spring.
Since I was unaware of the importance of native plants when I started the Zen garden, it contains mostly exotics. My planting choices would now be completely different. I would never have planted a buckthorn. But what a great plant the buckthorn is in its place, providing vertical interest and a feathery screen for the living room window. I had no idea the plant would get so tall, and it is mere luck that it’s perfectly placed to create privacy. I couldn’t have planned it better. Non-native blue wonder toad lilies, purchased mostly because they have the coolest name ever, look like little bamboo with masses of tiny orchids on top. Sitting on the bench, one is eye level with the flowers, which are best appreciated up close. No way could I have planned that.
Through growing the Zen garden and letting it evolve, I have come to realize and accept that I will never have a Zen garden. I guess I like to play more than I like to meditate. I don’t want a space that never changes. I will never have a closely clipped and well groomed pristine space because I want color, texture, something happening every season, many different species, and above all I want a garden with surprises.
Mistakes in the Zen garden all seem like brilliant choices in retrospect. Maybe I should pretend I planned it all and lap up the praise, but it is so much more fun and interesting to tell the truth and see a garden grow. If you read this, you may feel more at liberty to make your own mistakes that will flower into brilliant unexpected “choices.” Can you apply this idea to life outside of the garden? I think you can. I think we should all try to apply this idea more often, as though we all had a wonderful companion accepting every wise or foolish choice we made with complete faith in our growth process. As though “god” was a non-judgmental companion who delighted in every way we could subvert her tropes and do something unexpected, something new every time. As though the point of life is to play.