When I first met Tracy about her landscape project, she expressed her frustration, even desperation over the state of her garden. In a relatively small space there was a cacophony of different levels and materials. The space made you feel uneasy. It didn’t feel safe or restful. She and her family didn’t spend time in their outdoor space. She said her end goal for the project was to have a feeling of a Zen garden.
This was one of those moments as a designer when I knew I needed to keep asking questions. My thoughts about a Zen garden didn’t really align with Tracy or her family or her lifestyle. She didn’t want to spend hours raking gravel and striving for nirvana. In my work, I find the concept of Zen, like Feng Shui is frequently used to describe the ideal or feeling my clients want to achieve in their finished garden. This always begs the question: “What does a Zen garden mean to you?” So, after further conversation, we edited the Zen garden concept into eliminating the visual noise that was her outdoor space, and creating peaceful, useable garden rooms that she could enjoy with family and friends. Further, the use of different materials should be as minimal as possible.
Important elements for Tracy to get her version of her Zen garden were: a water feature, a place to eat, and a place to gather around a firepit. We also had to work around the fig tree her daughter named Bob.
The main challenge was tackling all of the grading and material issues. Garden access was through a bedroom door that lead to a rickety deck. From the deck you had to step up to a sloped aggregate patio with all of its wood expansion joints popping out or rotten. You also had to step down to a narrow path along the house that lead to a side entry. The goal was to eliminate most of the levels and use a high point in a corner of the garden to create an elevated seating area.
Through the design process we created four different spaces. There is a dining area, a built-in seatwall around a firepit, a wall fountain water feature on which you can adjust the flow of water and sound, and a space to sit back and enjoy all of the other spaces. We considered and quickly ruled out lawn in the garden. While there is a lot of hardscape in the final design, the size of the space didn’t lend itself to dividing it into smaller parts. And again, our goal was to eliminate the visual noise of too many materials. The firepit and surrounding bench are at the high point of the garden, the height of which is ideally seat height at the main patio level. I used this to our advantage by defining that space as the dining area so the wall became a seatwall. The whole garden is outdoor living at its best.
The final design includes a bluestone patio and loon lake ledgestone walls and water feature. We plumbed and existing modular grill to natural gas and painted the stucco to match the house. Planting is masses of subtropical plants that provide color the feeling of peaceful Zen Tracy was looking for. Bob stands tall behind the water feature and spreads his limbs over the bench at the firepit. He never looked happier! What’s better is the space has been transformed into Tracy’s Zen ideal of a safe, peaceful space for family and friends.