Gardens of Contentment

The heat from the sun is stifling; his clothes, soaked through with perspiration, are sticking to his body; sweat leaves a trail as it pours down his face covered with dust kicked up from the ancient dirt road he and his crew travel in the open wood wagon. His tired eyes fall to rest on the ox that is hitched to the other end of the reins he holds in his hands.
The animal strains under the effort of pulling the heavy cargo. The day seems endless–they have been traveling since daybreak but have progressed only a few miles. Hundreds of miles must be covered before they reach the garden in Kyoto which will be the final resting place of the huge gunmetal gray boulder–the precious load they carry.

Once at the garden site the stone, covered with brilliant emerald green moss, will be dragged onto rolling logs until it is placed in a spot where Zen monks, the landscape designers of the 16th century Japanese garden, will meditate on its correct placement.

To arrange outside space so that it can most effectively promote the experience of beauty and peacefulness has been the function of artistic gardens in the past, and the anxiety-filled, stressful, hypercharged atmosphere today challenges us even more to find ways to increase the potential of our surroundings to nourish us. One of the great traditions in the art of gardening is the creation of a peaceful space. It may appear that all gardens are peaceful or, on the contrary, that inner calm cannot result from the external environment. But this is not the case. Our perception of physical forms, colors, sounds, smells, and light absolutely affects our sense of serenity. I achieve this feeling of contentment by structuring the space with a particular variety of stone so that the landscape seamlessly connects with the surrounding environment.

For many, nature was a childhood refuge from oppression and chaos of family life. For others, it was a setting that refreshed the family’s shared pleasures. One of our clients spent his childhood days in Iowa. When explaining his favorite type of landscape he said, “I prefer something flat.” So the forefront of his landscape design is reminiscent of an Iowa prairie. Another client traveled to Japan while doing graduate work, and his aesthetic choices leaned toward Asian influences. Several weeks after choosing the design for the railing on his new deck, he realized it was the same as one shown in a Japanese painting that his family had owned for many years.
My own childhood memories of happy times spent with my father gathering rock from a nearby stream for the family garden in Virginia profoundly influenced my aesthetic of a garden as a sanctuary from confusion and discord; a place of stillness and contemplation where beauty provides food for the senses and the spirit. In today’s more technical terms, you can think of a garden as small factory that works silently, day and night, manufacturing tranquility.
I use large boulders, like the Zen monks, to structure the space and create a “factory for calmness.” To do this, one must achieve “authenticity”. As soon as you can tell what was added to the existing site, the garden will lose its authenticity. The area should not look overly complex. It is not an artistic expression if it is out of tune with the space. Aesthetic balance is the key.



The first step in creating aesthetic balance is finding stones with the “right look”. To grand estates in Southampton at the tip of Long Island I brought stones from the hills in Pennsylvania, and now I search the fields of Western Virginia for rock outcrops that express the age-long process of weathering. The type of landscape the client desires and the surrounding elements of the site determine the type of boulder I use. Usually the most jagged, moss- and lichen- encrusted rock will provide the best interest. The stone should allow light to play on it in many ways. Finding such magical boulders, however, is only a part of making an artistic garden. Even boulders with the “right look” must be placed properly to achieve balanced masses or their effect will be ruined.
Balancing the masses also requires the correct stone sizes. Too big and they overwhelm a space; too small and they fail to make an impact. Choosing the right size intensifies energy, a critically important step in creating tranquillity. Careful pre-planning saves valuable time and helps to bring the right materials to the site. In designing a garden a good drawing is important. Each stone is shown in the plan and on a stone chart where it is defined by its height, length, width and weight. In the field the most handsome stone can then be selected to fit exactly these requirements.
Fine-tuning the balance is the final step in the process, as is usually the case with construction. Frequently, alterations in other building plans change the original space plan. The qualities of the stones themselves can alter the design. Now, as the day arrives to bring the stones from the fields to the garden, I have all the elements together for the first time. I can understand them and balance them. The interactions between the space, the design plan, the massive individuality of the boulders, and the experience and inspiration of the designer create the balancing of the masses.
The scene unfolds dramatically. The crane and landscape contractor’s crew arrive at dawn. The early morning mist lingers in the air as they wait for the trucks carrying tons of stone through the sleepy suburbs to the site. Then the action begins. The stone driver wants to get home, the contractor wants to get the job done quickly. Each minute costs in equipment time and crew time. The role of the designer is to orchestrate this dance, to create the feeling tone that will form the essence of the garden.
Knowing how to “set the stones” properly is another step in the art. It is always important that the ground line on the rock be covered. If a stone that is meant to be flat is set upright, it will destroy the balance. It took many years of experience to learn how to read the forms, weight, and texture of stones. To create an artistic expression each step must be done perfectly.
This is not easily achieved when the rock weighs several tons and is incorrectly placed by only a few inches. Once again, chains must be re-attached and the crane operator instructed to lift ever so slightly, while the crew twists the massive form into its final position.

One by one, the largest first, stones are lowered into place. Shouts to the crane operator, the roar of engines, the clang of chains, instructions called to the crews who are digging holes for the next stones, create a feeling of chaos. Stones lie everywhere; confusion reigns. However, as each stone is set in place the structure of the garden takes shape. An order begins to emerge. Stone after stone goes in and the garden grows before one’s eyes. The work proceeds throughout the day and by sunset, for a small job, the work is usually finished. But I remember one large job that required twenty-one days with a crane and a crew of two men.
Of course a garden consists of more than stones- -decks or patios, walls, paths, ponds, lawns, groundcovers, perennials, shrubs, trees, irrigation, and lighting are all features that address the functional needs of the space. Each of these has to be integrated with the stone arrangements to create an experience of beauty and contentment. But the exactly placed stones form the foundation and the heart of the garden.


When the size of each stone is in proportion to the visual strength of the spot and the surrounding stones, the eye moves from the most dominant location in the garden to the next most dominant, and soon it reaches the last and most hidden part of the garden. Then the gaze is drawn back to the primary image again.
This is the effect of the art of placement. When it is done correctly the eye moves naturally, following the existing lines of force and is never stopped abruptly by a dead space or an awkward spatial relationship. This is the key to what produces tranquillity in a space, because the random forms have been tamed. Then the space can influence us like a calming drug.
In any stone garden the stones remain the focus while other features of the garden change over time. One generation of plants lives and dies, to be replaced by others still. Their size and appearance changes constantly–they are too variable to serve as the manifestation of a power point in space. But the stones endure, creating a “factory for calmness” over the decades. The Japanese gardens of Kyoto are renowned today because of the unique spatial experience the designers were able to achieve. Like the ancient Japanese gardens, my aim is to create designs that help us become a part of the endless rhythm of the garden and feel its dynamic space.
—Peter Bochenek