Zen and the art of winter gardening

When the cold weather starts rolling in, us gardeners are prone to a good moan – (especially those of us heading towards or exceeding that ‘national speed limit’ age).

Once the colour starts fading from the borders in Autumn and the lawn has received its last cut of the year, it can feel as if the garden is in hibernation. A little bit of the joy is temporarily put on hold and it seems that all that’s left is back-breaking chores and our complaining knee joints.

Yep… we do like a good moan.

It’s understandable that we can become a little despondent with our garden at this time of year. Where is the colour? Where is the heavy scent of flowers and sense of life that sparks so much joy in spring and summer? But there is a different type of enjoyment that can come from our gardens in the winter months… we just need to look East for a bit of inspiration.

Look East for inspiration

You may already be familiar with the concept of the Japanese Zen garden. Zen, a branch of Buddhism originating in China in the 6th century, remains strong across Asia and has been spreading westward, popularised by recent books by western authors and, of course, YouTube. This ancient philosophy is vast and practitioners spend a lifetime (or more) developing their understanding of the ancient teachings.

At its most fundamental level, Zen calls on you to return to the present moment through self-concentration. Many of its practices and rituals are intended to support this process. A Zen garden prioritises form over colour, using clean space to frame shapes and gives them the room to be seen clearly and contemplated fully. With that concentration, the observer can develop mindfulness and become more aware of the elements within the space.

For many, this awareness and appreciation is very relaxing and enjoyable.

There is a lesson to be learnt here as we head into winter. Rather than thinking of our busy and mature garden as being dormant during the off-season, we can choose to look at it differently. I’m not suggesting whipping our your lawn for white aggregate and bonsai trees nor necessarily building any element of a Zen garden, but rather embracing the philosophy of the Zen gardener and adapting the way you think about and appreciate your outside space in the winter months.

Create space, clean and allow ‘form’ to take centre stage

Firstly, think about the shapes that are already present in your garden. Looking at it again, but with a new perspective will hint at the lines and form that already exists but is normally hidden under overhanging branches and foliage. Recut the edges of your lawn and redefine the angle to flower beds – this instantly creates order and relief that will help frame the shape of your lawn and beds.

Next, take a look at shrubs and evergreen foliage. Is there a natural shape hiding there? If so (and if appropriate for the species) liberate that shape through careful pruning. Be meticulous. Take your time. Enjoy the process.

If you have stone ornaments or other garden features, think about repositioning them – make them a focal point of the garden. The same can be done with large decorative rocks or an ornamental potted tree.

If there are larger trees, sharpen the lines of their shape and clear away any debris underneath. Take time to clean and weed any hardscaping such as patios and pathways. Remove any clutter (such as barbecues or unused seating). Make your winter garden a minimalist retreat.

Finally, clean your garden. Sweep away all the leaves and organic debris from the lawn. Rake out flower beds and remove or cut back any dead plants.

From this point on, with your grounds cleaned and cleared, winter gardening tasks will centre around refining this process as you rediscover the form in your garden.

Enjoy your garden everyday

There’s an old Scandinavian saying: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes”. There are plenty of sunny days in winter where you can wrap up warm, head outside and enjoy reading a few chapters of a good book. There is also no rule that state alfresco dining is limited to six months of the year. We can learn from our Nordic friends and enjoy a family meal around the fire pit or barbecue.

We just need to change our thinking about our outdoor living space and we soon realise that our gardens are full of life and joy – 12 months of the year.