The Mindful Garden

Pebbles for zen

Gardening has a unique way of grounding you in the moment. Whether it's due to the ephemeral nature of plants, intimate contact with the biological world, or the sense of rote and ritual, the act of working to beautify a space with biological life can beget a sense of calm and contentment. This satisfied sense of situational awareness is called mindfulness.

Arising from Buddhist traditions,1 the concept of mindfulness — a state of mind firmly grounded in the internal and external realities of a moment — was integrated into Western clinical psychiatry and psychology in the 1970s. It has shown promise in treating depression, anxiety, stress and even addiction.2

Lana Dreyfuss, a registered horticultural therapist (HTR) on the board of the American Horticultural Therapy Association (AHTA), and a licensed professional counselor (LPC), believes that there is something especially therapeutic about being mindful and working with plants.

"No matter what the activity, horticultural therapy is the active doing of the connecting, planting, nurturing that enables one to find a sense of being present with that plant to help in overcoming whatever they are currently going through," says Dreyfuss.

Japanese zen garden with Japanese cherry

Zen textures in a Japanese garden.

A Therapeutic Garden Space Begins With Simplicity

Think of a Zen garden as a guiding principle for your design. The components of a classic Zen garden are deceptively simple: carefully-pruned trees, jutting rocks and meticulously raked sand representing flows of water. Together, these easy landscape elements create a highly constrained and minimalist interpretation of nature. The mindful exercise is the day-to-day work of maintaining the minimalism of the space as leaves fall, wind blows and plants grow.

"Zen gardens are great if they have active participation; that goes for most nature interventions," says Dreyfuss. "Your participation must be active. Horticultural therapy utilizes the body, mind and spirit in centering, grounding and keeping present."

Colorful garden with trees and fountains

A beautiful garden of flowering cherry trees.

Embrace "Wabi-sabi"

Zen gardens are said to capture an aesthetic that the Japanese call wabi-sabi,3 which is the sense of beauty intrinsic to things that are fleeting and perfectly imperfect. Garden fixtures, such as simple, artisanal pottery and spring-blooming cherry trees, embody this value, helping to create spaces that are relaxing and inviting. The Modern Rustic trend, with calming gray neutral colors combined with dynamic natural textures, is an excellent base for building a wabi-sabi space.

A Zen look can be achieved across most USDA planting zones.4 Japan's famous cherry blossoms—an enduring symbol of beauty in transience—are related to a whole host of trees and shrubs in the genus Prunus, all of which give equally stunning early spring displays. This group of trees includes peaches, plums, cherries, almonds, apricots and nectarines.

Additionally, dwarf evergreens, such as cedars, junipers and pines can be pruned tightly to emulate the highly-stylized Zen look. Smaller trees or shrubs planted in broad, shallow pots can be maintained in a bonsai-like fashion.

Outdoor Bonsai garden

Outdoor deck bonsai garden.

The Wellness Factor

While some of the calming effects of gardening can be derived from simple aesthetics, the outdoor environment also conspires toward wellness. Mindful relaxation can come from the inhalation of beneficial oils, the absorption of healthy bacteria in the soil, and by simply breathing fresh, outdoor air. Several studies have found that the incidental inhalation of particular soil bacterium improves memory and cognition,5 decreases stress and anxiety, and stimulates the immune system.6, 7

A garden can be a retreat from the stresses of life. Melding the shapes and textures of the natural world with the sleek, minimalist lines and colors of modern décor can go a long way toward creating a space that encourages mindfulness.

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  1. Van Gordon, William, et al. "There Is Only One Mindfulness: Why Science and Buddhism Need to Work Together," Mindfulness 6.1 (2015): 49-56.
  2. Khusid, Marina A., and Meena Vythilingam. "The Emerging Role of Mindfulness Meditation as Effective Self-Management Strategy, Part 1: Clinical Implications for Depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Anxiety," AMSUS Military Medicine 181.9 (2016): 961-968.
  3. Merino, Anthony. "Wabi Sabi: Shigemasa Higashida" Ceramics Art and Perception 101 (2015): 3.
  4. USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map.
  5. Matthews, Dorothy M., and Susan M. Jenks. "Ingestion of Mycobacterium vaccae decreases anxiety-related behavior and improves learning in mice." Behavioural processes 96 (2013): 27-35.
  6. Reber, Stefan O., et al. "Immunization with a heat-killed preparation of the environmental bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae promotes stress resilience in mice." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2016): 201600324.
  7. Smith, David, et al. "Molecular screening of Mycobacterium vaccae for identification of novel anti-inflammatory compounds (IRM12P. 651)." The Journal of Immunology 194.1 Supplement (2015): 133-10.
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