My first professional job was in Manhattan inside a somber high-rise. I wore a suit and carried a pager. I was also given a company cell phone. My little Motorola could place and accept international numbers in case a partner in Berlin couldn’t open his email. In our current epoch of communication, this might not seem like much but in the mid-90s having such a powerful cell phone meant you were no longer playing in the bush leagues.
The lobby of the building was not much different from its counterparts up and down the street but what set it apart were the two serene Zen gardens on either side of the security desk and elevators. Smooth pink and white stones swirled like sinuous ocean waves around islands where lush Ming Aralias towered above the crags of moss-covered rocks.
I have been captivated by these oases of calm ever since and make a point of enjoying them whenever I visit a park or botanic sanctuary that boasts a Japanese garden.
Above: some gardens I have visited
Ever since purchasing my first house with both front and back yard in Houston’s tropical climate, I have come to appreciate Zen gardens even more, especially their sparse vegetation. Like rust, grass and weeds never sleep, particularly when nature provides them with plenty of rain and warm sunshine. I never knew that Live Oak trees had such an infiltrative root system.
When I am not engaged in jungle warfare with my own property, I am contending with incursions from neighboring plant life. Everyday a new tendril has slithered beneath or crept through the slats of the fence. Discarded fronds drop like dead birds from the palm trees in an adjoining lot and every period of gusty winds carries plant detritus into my territory.
But there is hope; a slow and steady process of deforestation is underway.
The removal of a dilapidated pergola left an ugly, filthy hole. A heavy down pour would transform it into a stagnant lake suitable only for breeding mosquitoes or mud wrestling. Rather than extending the lawn, I had it covered with attractive paver stones. Incidentally, the area of my new patio is roughly the same size as the bedroom in my former Queens apartment.
New gutters and a state-of-the art drainage system have been added to make the backyard less of a soggy marshland no matter how much it rains. Keeping with the masonry theme, a ton of bull rock, with a weed barrier underneath, provides one meter of plant free trim between the turf and the house’s foundation.
My HOA has strict guidelines for street facing property but they are far more lenient with what goes on out back. This is bad news for a pair of prehistoric looking fig trees that appear to have lost the will to live. They flourished all summer, comical leaves reaching to the sunny sky. I harvested several desserts worth of fresh fruit, and while figs are not something I seek out on my own, it was fun getting farm-to-table food for free.
Now the poor twins have drooped. Many of their leaves are yellowing and their limbs crawl on the ground like groveling supplicants. Perhaps they are begging for the water I draining from their roots.
It may not sound very Zen to destroy life but that plot of grotesque black mulch where the fig trees are currently floundering is a perfect spot for smooth pink and white stones raked in circular patterns around a few low maintenance cactuses.