Bamboo framed garden sofa

Zen garden ideas – create a calming outdoor retreat to restore wellness

Make any outdoor space feel like an oasis of calm for relaxation and restoration
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  • Any outdoor space, no matter how large or small, can provide the perfect plot to create a calming retreat for relaxation, away from the outside world. Even limited outdoor spaces on balconies can benefit from the mindfulness of simple zen garden ideas.

    ‘Compared to cottage and country garden style garden, this style of outdoor space is uncomplicated and paired back,’ explains Horticultural Director at Dobbies, Marcus Eyles. ‘They don’t feature a lot of different flowers, creating a sense of peace and tranquillity. The aim is to create a space with a modern feel – light and clean lines are important when it comes to establishing a sense of zen.’

    Zen garden ideas

    Garden designer Melanie Hick’s advice is to keep it simple: ‘Self-restraint is a key element of Zen Buddhism. Think fewer types of plants in greater numbers. Halve the types of plants you’re thinking of using, then double the number for each.’

    The look works well in small- to medium-sized spaces, from pots on balconies to raised beds and patios in back gardens. It is also easy to incorporate elements of a zen garden into grassless garden ideas, for example by using gravel and planters. Another added bonus is that, due to the simplicity of design, zen garden ideas are often fairly low maintenance.

    Get the look with our expert advice on zen-style planting and key ingredients for creating a calming ambience – including lighting and furniture.

    1. Plant ornamental grasses

    garden lounger with cushions planted bamboo zen garden idea

    Image credit: Dobbies

    The key to this garden look is in the simplicity. You’re looking for planting that works wonders without feeling too ‘done’. Create a sense of wilderness by planting grasses which don’t feel too styled, yet offer a generous canopy of coverage.

    ‘Larger foliage types such as Miscanthus and Pampas grasses (Cortaderia) or for ground cover then the blue Festuca glauca’ advises Marcus more specially.

    2. Encourage plants with healing qualities

    Lavender pot next to seating zen garden idea

    Image credit: Future PLC/ Lizzie Orme

    Surround yourself with plants and flowers to boost your sense of wellbeing. For a brilliant immersive garden path idea we advise planting aromatic herbs along the edge of the path so that the scent is released as you brush past, such as fragrant thyme or lavender.

    Choose plants with healing properties for beds and borders such as echinacea, fennelor lemon balm.

    3. Create a secluded spot

    shade sail over a garden seating area

    Image credit: Dobbies

    If you’re overlooked by neighbours or are in a south-facing plot, there are permanent or temporary solutions you can try to give your garden more shade and privacy.

    For easy garden shade ideas, consider screening off the area using hedging, shrubs, trees or hard landscaping, such as timber trellis, panels, a pergola or umbrella.

    4. Add architectural foliage for privacy

    courtyard garden with planted bamboo screening zen garden idea

    Image credit: Dobbies

    Use smart landscaping ideas to make your space feel more detached from the surrounding. ‘Plants such as Bamboo (Arundinaria), can be used around to frame the outside edges of gardens or to add some extra privacy and create zones or areas within a space’ suggests Marcus.

    Top Tip: ‘Don’t plant bamboo in the ground,’ advises garden designer Melanie Hick. ‘Bamboo is an ideal plant for a zen garden, but it suckers and runs and can ruin paving. Plant bamboo in planters and pots for a lovely swishing sound and calming effect.’ Ideal planting advice for those with balcony gardens or small courtyards.

    5. Add mood enhancing shades

    angel wings plant in zen garden idea

    Image credit: Future PLC

    Look to add plants and flowers that will help to fill your space with feel good colour. Choose ‘plants with large grey/silver foliage, such as super soft Senecio ‘Angel Wings’ or ‘Brachyglottis ‘Sunshine’ which produces bright yellow, daisy-like flowers in June and July’ says Marcus.

    6. Light it up

    ambient outdoor wall light ideas

    Image credit: Future PLC/ Paul Reaside

    Think about lighting at the planning stage so it can be installed before any landscaping work. A little light goes a long way at night so don’t overdo it. Ground-level garden lighting ideas should be top priority so that paths, steps, ponds and water features are safely lit.

    Then, illuminate the rest of the garden in layers, from tabletop lamps and wall lights to hanging lanterns and fairy lights strung overhead for ambience.

    7. Encourage wildlife

    Bee pollinating blue flower garden

    Image credit: Dobbies

    Being at one with nature is particularly grounding and therefore helps to set the perfect tone for a zen garden scheme. Look to add flowering perennials to your planting for a winning wildlife garden idea.

    ‘For attracting bees, butterflies and insects, use plants such as Echinacea, Butterfly bush (Buddleia) and Foxgloves (Digitalis)’ advises Marcus. All these flowering varieties add a pop of colour that is irresistible for insects.

    8. Keep it green all year round

    raised bedding borders with ferns

    Image credit: Future PLC/ Colin Poole

    Keep your space green all year round with choices of hardy evergreen ferns. ‘Including slow growing tree ferns, Hart’s-tongue fern (Asplenium scolopendrium) and Wood Fern (Dryopteris)’ suggests Marcus.

    These low maintenance plants will welcome a green coverage to your space through all seasons. The greenery is ideal to instantly restore a sense of being surrounded by nature, whether that greenery is in abundance or merely a few pots – the pleasing results are the same.

    9. Sit back and relax

    zen garden idea with bamboo garden sofa

    Image credit: Dobbies, Simple Serenity Bamboo Bench, £399

    Of course a feeling of zen really comes when you’re at your most restful, so you want to create an outdoor space where you can take it easy. The best garden furniture is the most comfortable solution, a must for a relaxing outdoor space. But think about who’s going to be using it before you buy.

    Need a family-friendly space with plenty of seating? Then a sofa and armchair set-up or modular design that can be arranged to fit your space are worth considering.

    Or if you’re planning a quiet spot for two, then a double daybed or pod-style sofa may be a better fit.

    Top tip: Future-proof furniture choices. Sofa-style seating can be hefty to move, so if you’re planning a permanent set-up, choose pieces designed to withstand the elements. Or, invest in protective covers.

    10. Stay warm outdoors

    garden sofa beside fire pit

    Image credit: Future PLC/ Alisdair Mcintosh

    Summer evenings can get chilly, so factor in a heat source to extend time spent outdoors. Because a wellness garden is not just for the warmer months, it should be enjoyable all year round. A chimenea, table heater or fire pit will create a natural gathering place and give your seating area a focal point.

    Adding one our choice of the best fire pits would go a long way to making the space all the more inviting during the colder months.

    11. Appeal to the senses

    Create a relaxed mood with scented flowers and plants that will boost your feeling of calm. Try geraniums, roses, lavender or lemon balm.

    12. Welcome water for relaxation

    garden water feature

    Image credit: Future PLC/ Colin Poole

    The sound of running water is one of the most calming sounds and therefore any form of water feature or pond is a welcome idea for a zen garden. ‘Remember water. Adding a water feature is an easy way to connect you to nature’ agrees Melanie. ‘Whether it’s a container pond, a shop-bought bubbler or a water dish, water is a relaxing focal point and great for wildlife.’

    For an easy water feature design, this modern water blade set into a wall of stone in a redesigned low maintenance garden corner.

    13. Set up a spa

    zen garden idea with hot tub

    Image credit: Future PLC/ Douglas Gibb

    Create a relaxation spa-like space with the addition of a hot tub. A four-seat tub will suit the average family. You can buy a basic inflatable hot tub for between £300-£500, with off-the- peg designs in fibreglass or acrylic costing between £2,500-£4,000, depending on design.

    Extras, such as lighting, audio and water features, will cost more and you’ll need to factor-in installation and running costs. Custom-built, wood-fired tubs don’t need electricity, as the heater
    is fuelled by dry wood – expect to pay upwards of £3,500.

    Top tip: Find a solid, level base, such as concrete, which may need reinforcing to handle the weight of a full tub. You’ll need access to water and electricity and the surrounding area should be clean so dirt won’t get in.

    14. Provide an area to meditate

     yoga mat

    Image credit: Future PLC/ Simon Whitmore

    An essential idea for those who practise meditation on any level. ‘A wide range of studies show that meditation can have positive effects for everyone’ says Melanie Hick. ‘Make sure you create at least a small place to sit and reflect, perhaps surround by your bamboo, with a view to your water feature.’

    How do you make a simple Zen garden?

    ‘When planning the space, look to create a neat, organised structure with simple planting schemes and choose neutral, natural colours, such as lush leafy greenery, white flowers and silver, grey foliage’ advises Horticultural Director at Dobbies, Marcus Eyles. ‘Tall sculptural plants will add height and work well in groups’.

    Additional words by Liza Fazzani.

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