Globe Local

Retreat to a Zen garden steps from your door

A Hull Zen garden with a custom-designed gate and granite posts.
Millicent Harvey
A Hull Zen garden with a custom-designed gate and granite posts.

Can a garden be an antidote to stress and anxiety?

Family therapist Stephen Duclos of Hull thinks so. He and his wife, Christine, appreciate their modern Asian-inspired garden as a personal, peaceful retreat.

“When I get home from work, I don’t want to spend more time inside,” Duclos said.


Working with landscape designer Amy Martin of Cohasset, the busy professional couple created a garden with elements of traditional Japanese Zen gardens designed to bring serenity, peace, and tranquility.

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Homeowners are incorporating Zen garden elements into their landscape to create a natural retreat that is an escape from ever-present screens and the stressful 24-hour news cycle.

“Our garden is free from technology. We have a no cellphone policy in the garden,” Duclos added.

“I am always mindful that space I am designing is going to provide my clients a tranquil space to free their minds of racing thoughts and worry. I think we could all use a space like that,” said Alexandra Knott, a horticulturist and lead designer at Weston Nurseries in Hopkinton.

“My focus when creating a meditative spaces is to bring the Zen garden from its sixth-century origins into my client’s 21st-century landscape,” Knott explained.


“A garden should be a retreat,” said Ingrid Miles of Ipswich, a yoga teacher for 30 years who has lived and taught in many parts of the world. “A garden should be a sanctuary and offer meditation space.”

Miles’s “Beacon Hill-size garden” in Ipswich includes a shady “room” with a meditation bench between pyramidal junipers. A semi-circle arc of hedgerow and a half-circle of flowers “softens the space and invites you to sit on the meditation bench. Life is a circle.”

Zen gardens generally avoid straight lines and feature soothing curves. Martin worked with Stephen and Christine Duclos, who are art collectors, to create a very personal but minimalist garden inspired by a beautiful painting of the human form in their Hull home.

“The painting of a woman’s torso inspired the curves. It was very interesting to incorporate the freedom of the human form in the garden,” Martin said.

All of Martin’s design elements — from the serpentine gravel beds and plantings to the stunning custom-designed gate — are related to that female form. Together the elements create a singular theme and a spiritual space. She gave the Duclos’s garden a stunning vertical natural sculpture of three stones that are turned to each other to create a sense of relationship and thought-provoking shadows.


“Creating a singular perspective is an important concept in Zen design and differs from more conventional components,” Knott said. “By focusing on one view, I can use the surrounding landscape to make the garden appear to extend beyond its boundaries. I then add a single focal point such as a vertical rock formation, which will encourage introspection and meditation.”

‘I am always mindful that space I am designing is going to provide my clients a tranquil space to free their minds of racing thoughts and worry.’

Knott’s goal is to “keep the palette simple and calming,” she said. “When adding plantings to a Zen garden, the plants should act more as a support to the stone features and less as a distraction to the contemplative nature of the space. When I choose plantings, I think about textures, heights, and movement more than color.”

There are always practical considerations.

“Shade, simplicity, and texture are important to creating a calming space,” Miles said. “Shade because it would be difficult to meditate it the hot sun.”

Martin faced challenges with her design. The garden needed to be in front of the home because the backyard faces the ocean and the fierce winds made the space difficult to enjoy for relaxation much of the year. The front yard was limited and the homeowners wanted a sense of privacy and yet welcoming access to the front door.

For privacy, she created a see-through granite post wall in a diagonal louvered setting. The vertical stone columns create interesting shade patterns that change during the day and with the seasons.

Using natural materials that would stand up to the harsh oceanfront environment was essential. Martin created a set of natural stone stairs that rise between verdant limber pine trees, chosen because they are very durable and grow naturally in a harsh, rocky terrain.

“A little water feature bubbling in the gravel from a natural reservoir under the pea stone adds to the simple and low maintenance space,” Martin said.

“A small water feature creates a peaceful and rhythmic sound to aid in meditation,” Knott said.

For Miles, the calming design of the space is more important than size or the details.

“A Zen garden doesn’t have to be a plant garden,” she said. “It could be as simple as sand and stone. Most importantly it should enrich our spiritual lives.”

Linda Greenstein can be reached at