Home & Garden

Create a Zen zone

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. -- Alex and Libbey Oliver recently added a little peace of mind -- and quiet -- to their yard in Williamsburg, Va.

They relax in a Zen garden.

"It's a contrast to the other areas of garden that are full of plants and color," says Libbey, a horticulturist who once designed and supervised floral arrangements for Colonial Williamsburg and has written floral-related books. She now manages the Williamsburg Farmers' Market.

Materials for a Zen garden are minimal: stone, water, gravel, foliage plants -- especially ones with flowing leaves like grasses -- and few flowers, mostly pale in color.

"This is our version," Libbey said. "We like it for the simplicity in style and maintenance and for a calming effect."

Joe Hertzler of Hertzler and George in Williamsburg installed the garden based on ideas from Julie Moir Messervy's landscape principles -- lots of geometry in a simple-looking design. An elevated display fountain is the focal point.

"Joe interpreted the design to fit the location and our budget from a photo magazine that I later learned from Julie was her design in a cemetery in Massachusetts," Libbey said.

The design started with two goals: pathways and a focal point, according to Joe.

"Pathways are the key," he said. "Without paths, the garden is simply a place to view from a distance. With a path, the garden becomes animated. Guests are enticed through it. You know the feeling: When you see a path, you have to walk it."

The couple's favorite plants in the Zen garden include golden oregano, green threadleaf Japanese maple, sweet box, hawthorne, rooted boxwood cuttings sheared to eight inches, viburnums, fragrant white peonies and blue hydrangeas.

The hardscape and evergreens really take over in the fall and winter when some of the plants die back.

"Snow really emphasizes the design," she said. "And it's nice to look at from inside the second floor when the leaves fall."

Maintenance on the garden is minimal. No chemicals are sprayed, and most work is done by hand -- no loud equipment allowed. Libbey adds organic material like ground leaves to the soil annually.

What does Libbey wish for her Zen garden?

"More time listening to the fountain and birds," she said.


-- Create your Zen garden separate from other areas.

-- Include a quiet water feature.

-- Keep colors cool and calming.

-- Use soft leaf textures.

-- Encourage birds to visit.

-- Provide places to sit and relax.