Planting Challenging Landscapes: Barren, But Beautiful


Planting Challenging Landscapes:  Barren, But Beautiful
  • Posted August 5, 2016

One way to sum up the traditional Japanese approach to garden design might be 'less is more.' Plants occupy a minimal portion of the landscape; the placement of every stone, pebble and swath of sand is planned out with exacting precision. Desert landscapes, though disconnected in time and space from Japanese gardens, share a similar aesthetic and are perhaps nature's best approximation of a Zen garden.


In Zen gardens, nature is intentionally restrained in order to present a distilled version of it — the essence of a river is invoked with a bed of raked sand; the essence of a forest is created with an arrangement of bonsai trees. In deserts, the lack of plant life and the abundance of bare rock and soil is a product of meager soil conditions and scant rainfall. Like the bizarre, but intriguing plant life of a desert, the vegetation in a Zen garden seems to radiate life. The minimalism of these landscapes concentrates the presence of the objects within them.


Whether you want to create a desert-themed garden, a traditional Japanese garden or just have a piece of lifeless scraped earth that you want to turn into an attractive landscape, adopting a minimalist mindset is the key to unlocking the beauty of a barren landscape. Call it Zen, call it modernist, call it whatever you want, when the landscape is designed with a less-is-more mentality, it is sure to stand out and likely to cast a spell of calm over those who enter it.


There are practical sides to the minimalist approach, as well. Good soil is not needed. For that matter, no soil is needed other a few bags of potting mix. Zen gardens are ideal for patios, decks and rooftops. With a little creativity you can even convert an old concrete slab or part of your driveway into a vibrant Zen garden. All you need are a few pots, a few plants and a lot of rock in different forms — varying shades and sizes of boulders, pebbles and sand. Here are the three key steps to making it happen and a few tips to maximize your success.


1. Use a weed barrier.

With so few plants, any weeds that appear will be free of competition and may end up taking over the space. High quality 'breathable' weed fabric is the best choice as it has a long lifespan and allows moisture to pass through.


2. Use plants with good architectural form.

Dwarf conifers, ornamental grasses and evergreen groundcovers are examples of plants that hold their form throughout the four seasons and are known for shape and texture rather than a seasonal flower display. Avoid exuberant flowering perennials. Think bonsai, not cottage garden.


3. Create visual order without resorting to symmetry.

Consider the design as the chef of a fine French restaurant would consider the presentation of a meal on the plate. A dollop of color here, a wash of texture there and a bright sprig of something on one side for a bit of flourish — all with lots of empty space in between. Use decomposed granite, smooth pebbles and boulders of various shapes and sizes for a subtle palette of muted color tones and textures to fill in the empty space.

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Brian Barth
About the Author

After 15 years as a professional landscape designer and horticulturalist, Brian Barth embarked on a second career to share his passion—and the knowledge he's accrued—through writing. His love of plants is all-encompassing, but he has a particular soft spot for culinary crops.


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Planting Challenging Landscapes:  Barren, But Beautiful