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A Far East Haven Out West
Zen Garden Comes to Idaho


Using the principles of feng shui, a 15'-wide backyard in Boise, Idaho was designed as an ornate Zen garden with a live stream and waterfall, a dry stream, meditation areas and a raking garden. Rough boulders were selected to represent the craggy cliffs where the ancestors live, and smooth boulders to encourage contemplation.


Using the principles of feng shui, a 15'-wide backyard in Boise, Idaho was designed as an ornate Zen garden with a live stream and waterfall, a dry stream, meditation areas and a raking garden. Rough boulders were selected to represent the craggy cliffs where the ancestors live, and smooth boulders to encourage contemplation.

Though the terms Zen and feng shui are commonly used in the Western world today, and their Far Eastern origins are typically recognized, accurate meanings may be hard for most to pin down. Zen has been translated at times as absorption or meditative state. Traced to the 6th century, it is a school of Buddhism that emphasizes personal insight through meditation and the expression of that insight in daily life.

Literally translated in English as wind water, both of which are said to be associated with good health in the Chinese culture, feng shui is the practice of choosing or configuring a structure or a site, and the objects within, so as to harmonize with the spiritual forces that inhabit it, thereby bringing wellbeing and fortune to the people that inhabit it.

Feng Shui was reportedly developed over 3,000 years ago. It is conversely described as an art, a science, and a complex body of knowledge, and for Terry Sims, a landscape designer and contractor, it was the foundation for a Zen garden that she was contracted to design for a family from China now living in Boise, Idaho.

That's where Sims award-winning company, The Garden Artist Inc., has been in business for 10 years specializing in high-end outdoor living areas; finding projects through referrals, their Web site (, and various social media for that work.

Referring to this project, Sims says, "My customers wanted to achieve a landscape reminiscent of their native China and designed around the fundamentals of feng shui. In addition, a family gathering area for dining and play, and raised vegetable garden beds were important to the overall functionality of the landscape."

The home is located at the base of the Boise foothills in Zone 6. The north-facing yard is within the foothills' watershed on clay loam soil. It measures 3,723 square feet but at only 15' wide, it tested Sims' ability to make it appear wider.


Gravel and rubble make up the base of the dry streambed that acts as a secondary water collection basin. The large bridge across it is made from three slabs of sandstone. The boulders in this bed symbolize secondary homes for the family's ancestors.


To control the rhizomes of the bamboo located behind the waterfall (upper right), they were planted in water troughs. To the left of the bamboo is a weeping white pine. Framing the bottom of the photo is a Japanese red maple.

The clients needed solutions for the lack of privacy screening and a problematic grade that caused water to flow toward the home and pool around the foundation. Furthermore, they wanted low-maintenance plantings,

The plan was for Sims to create the design and then oversee the build from start to finish.

So relying on the principles of feng shui and the symbolism of a Zen garden, Sims got to work.

"The aesthetic scope follows the tradition of Asian design with an emphasis on feng shui, which is rich in symbolism and philosophy," Sims relates.

Using a "Bagua energy map" she arranged the physical objects, both the hardscape and softscape improvements, on the design plan.

"A Bagua map is used to coordinate the energy of the environment to the fundamental aspects of human life, such as family, prosperity, career, relationships, love, money, health, creativity, and spiritual growth," reveals Sims. ""Improvements lay within the eight sections of the feng shui Bagua map to support the movement Chi. I use the classic form of feng shui in most of my Asian landscapes. My knowledge of the ancient art is derived from self-education."

As is typical with Zen gardens, the view corridors were calculated to be tightly controlled, and meditation areas were established.

The functional project scope includes a grade and drainage plan, which integrates underground perforated pipes to collect and reroute watershed into a well. The grade is corrected to send water away from the home and into dry creeks that act as a secondary water collection basin.

The design also included a live stream and waterfall with natural boulders surrounding them, and river rock in their beds.

As one of the eight sections, 'Water,' representing renewal, is supported with this waterfall in the center of the landscape with lichen spotted sandstone boulders that were later hand-selected from Weiser, Idaho.

"The source of the water was designed to appear spring-fed as it gently bubbles up from the bottom of a basin, cascades down three table top falls and into a 15-foot winding creek where it disappears into a basin and is recycled back to the top," Sims relates.


A "Bagua map" - made up of sections that correspond to important areas of a person's life, was instrumental in helping Sims lay out the objects in the landscape design. Here, the lantern, which is a symbol of enlightenment, is meant to embody the 'Love and Marriage' section.


An Aquascape AquaSurge Adjustable Flow Pond Pump, 4000-8000 GPH, was specified for this job. To eliminate algae, an Aquascape in-line IonGen System G2 was selected in lieu of chemicals to protect the young children and pets.

A "raking garden," a traditional part of a Zen garden that is meant to give people opportunities to calm their minds as they rake patterns in the material, was designed to be made of small 1/4" chip rock. Its western position puts it in the 'Knowledge and Wisdom' area.

The softscape design is simplistic in nature with strategically placed plant materials, including evergreens, bamboo, and Japanese maples.

"The plant palette is representative of traditional Japanese gardens and the client requested about 30 percent more plant material than is typical in a garden of this style," states Sims. "The Bamboo was planted in underground troughs to prevent the spreading of rhizomes."

At the entrance to the garden is a landing platform for visitors to stop and take in the views.

A raised vegetable garden and a small patio area are out of context with the theme, but both were designed to be screened with plant material to keep the integrity of the Zen garden intact.

Sims relates the symbolism of the rest of the design:

"The dining and play area occupying the east end honors the 'Taste' and 'Children's' sections of the Bagua. 'Love and Marriage' is represented by a lantern, a symbol of enlightenment. The utility area and garage is within the 'Travel' sector of the map. The cherry trees fulfill the 'Changing of the Seasons' section."

The vegetable garden, dining and play areas are screened from the rest of the space by broadleaf evergreens.

"Since windows span the back of the house, it was important that the functional areas of the space be screened to emphasize the beauty of the waterfall, meditation garden, and ornamental plantings," reminisces Sims.

Sims designed all aspects of this Asian garden and specified the plants and hardscape materials. And what materialized in that small and non-descript yard, thanks to her work, was a picturesque, serene, yet intricate landscape that demonstrates the Zen tradition of rediscovery, and the Feng Shui principals of harmony.

As seen in LASN magazine, July 2018.

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September 20, 2019, 2:29 pm PDT

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