gardening: Zen in a cold climate

Zen gardens, perfect for childless city-dwellers, don't only work in Japan. But their elements must be at one with the natural environment, writes Caroline Donald
ON SPOTTING some pictures of the garden at Ryoan-ji temple in Kyoto, the world's most famous Zen garden, a colleague muttered: "Looks like a tractor has driven through it," thereby ignoring the exquisite relationship between the rocks, their position in the flowing lines of the immaculately raked gravel, their innate natural beauty and their multi- layered symbolism. "I like a bit of colour myself," she said. "Give me a hanging basket any day."

The "dry garden" courtyards that are the essence of Zen gardens - and the source of much Western perplexity - were never intended for domestic use, with or without hanging baskets, but for contemplation by monks in the Buddhist temples that they were laid alongside. While not all gardens in Japan are in the pure three-rocks-and-a-pile-of-sand Zen form, nearly all Japanese gardens - from tea gardens and stroll gardens, down to Mr and Mrs Fujibuchi's urban patch - contain an element of Zen in their design.

This particular strain of Buddhist thinking is difficult to explain. As David Scott, consulting editor of Simply Zen, which is mainly about interior design, admits when asked to define Zen in a few easy sentences, "Your mouth opens and you look like a fish." He glides towards an explanation of the role of gardens such as Ryoan-ji in Zen: "Through the practice of zazen, which is meditation, one hopes to achieve the immediate expression of the perfect present in every person and moment. It is experiencing your true nature. Gardens provide a vehicle for `sitting meditation', and they also provide a vehicle for `moving meditation', ie, working in them. In the Zen tradition, ordinary work is very important. When a student asked a master what the meaning of Zen was, the master replied, `Have you had your breakfast? Then go and wash your bowls.'" This sounds to me dangerously like the impenetrable aphorisms spouted by Billy Connolly to advertise a certain fish-themed credit card.

Although we tend to think of Japan as a seething urban jungle, much of the country's mountainous landscape is untamable, so the majority of the population lives in a small amount of habitable land. The Japanese have always revered their landscape and find a holiness in inanimate natural objects, such as rocks, water, moss, trees and shrubs. They try to make their gardens reflect the natural landscape by using these materials in order to strive towards a perfect tranquillity and harmony that is Zen. The space between the elements in a garden is as important as the rocks and trees themselves, which will usually be in "auspicious" groupings of three, five or seven. This is also partly to make them look "natural", although hours of deliberation will have gone into their positioning. As Scott puts it, "the idea is to compress a landscape for contemplation in a way that is both naturally artificial and artificially natural." A pine, for example, that is meant to represent a tree gnarled and distorted by the salty ocean winds, will have been rigorously pruned and trained into that shape over many years, and it seems unlikely that it ever got so much as a whiff of sea air.

Despite an interest in the philosophy and tradition of such gardens, Sunniva Harte, author of a new book, Zen Gardening, takes a practical approach to adapting the style for one's own backyard. "I do think it is possible to adapt a Japanese style to an English garden," she says. "A pure gravel and rock garden is ideally suited for town gardens, where people are very busy and stressed, and they want something that is low maintenance and restful to look at." Philip Cave, a landscape architect who specialises in Japanese garden design, isn't so sure. "It isn't as easy as it sounds," he says. "You need to get a special rake made, and it is a question of raking it every one or two weeks, depending on how energetic you are feeling. The rake is quite heavy, and to create the ridges you must be careful not to pull too much along to the end." He jokes: "It is said that the Daisen-in temple in Kyoto takes the form it does because a priest pulled too much gravel off the ridges, so they had to make it into cones." (The perfectly formed cones in the middle of the gravel are now greatly admired and much-photographed.)

Despite reflecting "nature", these gardens are very much a creative interpretation of nature. They do not take into account such wild cards as children and dogs, with their own ideas about which way the curves should flow, or what should decorate the gravel. A dry garden should therefore be something that is going to be looked at, rather than lived in - perfect for the urban childless with a taste for minimalism, an aversion to gardening and a strong roof terrace to hold the weight of all that rock. Dog turds on the gravel apart, according to Cave, the most difficult thing to maintain in a Western-created Zen garden is the moss that gives the stones that authentic rock-of-ages look. "The Kyoto climate is a lot more humid than ours," he says. "You can buy it in turves there, like we do with turf, but here we tend to have to buy it from flower arrangers and try to get it to grow in the soil. The birds pick it up as fast as you can put it in." Unlike British gardens, where one of the pleasures is to watch it mature and develop, Japanese gardens are planted pretty much in their finished states. Harte explains this: "They are designed to be very familiar from one year to another, so that you can go back to a place 20 years later, and the garden will be the same. In a country where there were a lot of wars, people found it reassuring to go to a space that was a familiar friend."

One of the most important things about Japanese gardens is that not only should the elements balance each other, but that the whole garden should harmonise with the natural environment. Rocks should be as local as possible - Cave gets his from Scotland, rather than importing them from Japan - and it should be easy to grow and maintain the plants. Harte gives an example: "In Japan, bamboo grows thickly on the mountains and therefore it is natural to have bamboo fences and gateways. In this country, it would be perfectly all right to have the same design but with, say, chestnut poles, or willow, as these would harmonise better with the surrounding scenery than bamboo would.''

Compromise is probably as good as we in the West will ever achieve, but even the masters find it difficult to achieve perfection in Zen gardens. Cave delivers up another Connollyism: "The son of a great tea master swept up all the leaves on the moss in the tea garden. The tea master said, that's no good. Do it again. So the son swept up every single leaf, and nothing was left on the moss. But the tea master said no, it still wasn't perfect. He then grasped hold of a red-leafed maple, gave it a shake, and a dozen leaves scattered on to the bright green moss. `Now it is perfect,' said the tea master."

`Zen Gardening', by Sunniva Harte, is published by Pavilion, price pounds 19.99. `Simply Zen', edited by David Scott, is published by New Holland, price pounds 20