Luxurious Zen Garden Retreat

An upcoming party had designer Margie Grace on the move as she created this peaceful Zen garden for an elegant outdoor area perfect for entertaining.

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A big party speeded up the time table but nothing’s hasty about the feeling when you enter the calming space.

What were the main items on the family’s wish list?

Our clients had been planning their dream gardens for over four years and shopping for them just about as long. They knew that one of the gardens on their bluff-top 3- acre estate in Santa Barbara would be a “Zen Garden”--a tranquil garden with an Asian flavor.


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What was the single largest issue you wanted to address?

The owners were set on having a Zen-style garden at the entry to their new 10,000 square foot Mediterranean style home. We needed to marry the disparate house and garden styles, and create an understated Zen landscape that would not be overwhelmed by the rather imposing house. In order to ground the garden and give it an appearance of scale in front of the large house, pathways and grading was used to define three separate spaces. The spaces were also used in classic Japanese style to exaggerate perspective, creating the illusion of a much larger space. Most of the plants were chosen for their effectiveness as a backdrop rather than as a focal point themselves. This helped to serve as a unifying element throughout.

What was your biggest obstacle in this space?

The owners were hosting a black-tie event for 300 people in just two months from the time they hired us. The garden not only had to be designed and built in this woefully short time period, but it also had to appear well-established. We had to devise a way to include many of the objects that the clients had collected over the years in a way that made sense and gave us the tranquil space our clients longed for. Careful plant, mounding and sculpture placement transformed the space into one where even the ever-hurried UPS man was found lingering for over 20 minutes!

What surprised you the most about the project?

This garden forced us how to follow the most efficient path to achieve the desired result. The usual "design, specify, construct" model of landscaping was not a feasible way to construct this garden due to the owners existing collection, rushed timeline, and the finished surfaces that had already been installed at the entry to the courtyard. We had to get all of the materials on site and massage each piece into place to set a mood for upon the home.

What are the “hidden gems” in your plan?

One detail with a major impact on the final result was selecting the boulders, cobbles, pebbles, flagstones, and seating all in a similar color--a soft tone of gray. This palette allowed the garden to look instantly aged. The statuary, hardscape elements, and fountains were carefully separated throughout the landscape in order to de-emphasize the disparate sizes. Objects included a 6’ - high Buddha, 12”-high prayer bell, and massive, 1,500 pound stone urn. Spectacular tree specimens were chosen and carefully placed to provide a counterweight to the other objects in the garden.

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