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Zen Garden

Building a Japanese Garden


Building a Japanese Garden: Landscape and Universe


By Lara Netting


In 1957, Natalie Hammond bought a property in North Salem, NY, where she planned to build her new Japanese garden. These were popular in the 1950s, as the United States rebuilt its friendship with Japan after World War II. Natalie Hammond had traveled to Japan and believed a garden like those she’d visited would be a peaceful escape from the busy city and suburbs.

Ms. Hammond’s new property was part of an old hilltop farm, with beautiful views of the distant Berkshire mountains. Cows used to graze on the grassy, treeless site. A Japanese garden is just the opposite, however. Imagine you are visiting one in faraway Japan. 

When you walk through the gate, you see just the first “room” in the garden, with perhaps a few stepping stones, a small flowering tree, and a bench. If you follow the path, then you can see into the next garden “room,” where water trickles over the stones toward a pond that you can just peak at through some trees.

Of course, you are eager to see more, so you follow the path toward the next “room.” This is a pond, with an island in the middle, that you can reach using a little stone bridge! In this way, room by room, you travel through the whole garden.

water trickles over the stones toward a pond


By the time you come back around to the gate, you feel as though you’ve walked through a forest, around a lake, and toward a mountain, and are happy to rest on the bench.

How, then, did Natalie Hammond transform a cow pasture into a Japanese garden? What did she dig out and build up and plant, to create her small version of the grand parks made by Japanese noblemen?

Natalie Hammond built a specific kind of Japanese garden, called an Edo stroll garden. “Edo” refers to the years 1603-1868, when the Tokugawa clan ruled Japan. “Stroll Garden” tells us that the Edo lords built gardens large and varied enough to walk around.

Other Japanese gardens were simply admired from a balcony, at a temple, or a merchant’s home. A visitor to an Edo stroll garden could feel as though he or she were traveling, around Japan or as far away as China. 300 years ago, this was how to take a virtual trip.

Edo Japanese loved to sightsee, and the garden designers recreated famous tourist sites. A grove of cherry trees could remind a visitor of Arashiyama, a favorite spot for spring cherry blossom viewing, outside of Kyoto.

A cone-shaped mound allowed visitors to feel as though they’d made the trip to Mount Fuji

A cone-shaped mound, high enough to climb, allowed visitors to feel as though they’d made the trip to Mount Fuji. Japan’s tallest mountain and an active volcano, Mount Fuji was believed by many Japanese to be sacred.

Few people in the Edo period were able to leave Japan, but many could see paintings and poems that described China.

The visitors to Natalie Hammond’s garden also made a virtual trip, from New York to Japan. One of Natalie’s first actions was to have a big pond dug out of her farmland.

Gardens designers created small versions of the grand West Lake in Hangzhou

The Hammond Garden also has its own Mount Fuji. As you can imagine, a big mound of earth was created when the pond was dug out, and this was probably the source for the small cone-shaped mountain which stands to the east of the pond.

Gardens designers created small versions of the grand “West Lake” in Hangzhou, which had Buddhist temples and weeping willows along its shores, as well as islands within the lake and bridges reaching to them.

Around the pond, she planted willow trees and iris flowers, which bloom each June in the gardens of Japan. Ms. Hammond’s builders left a small island in the middle of the pond and made a rough stone bridge to reach this restful spot.

stone statue of the Bodhisattva Jizo

There, Ms. Hammond set a stone statue of the Bodhisattva Jizo. In Japan, Jizo is believed to protect children, travelers, and lost souls and his little statue, dressed in a red cap and bib, stands at intersections, at temples, and in cemeteries all around the country.

Ms. Hammond made a stream to feed her new pond, with water flowing over stones and more iris growing on the banks. (A hidden pump also helped to keep the pond full.)


Ms. Hammond also composed one of the dry waterfalls that are common in Japanese gardens, often as part of a larger dry landscape or karesansui.

Japanese garden designers had in mind both nature and paintings when they created scenes of mountains, waterfalls, waves, and oceans, using stones and plants as their paint.

a stream to feed her new pond, with water flowing over stones and more iris growing on the banks


Dry gardens are also allegorical, suggesting stories from Chinese and Japanese literature. A waterfall without water invites a viewer to imagine. It brings to mind the story of the fish that managed to swim upstream, a comparison to achieving a scholarly degree in China or Buddhist enlightenment in Japan.

Natalie Hammond also was an artist (she was a painter and a theatre set designer) and she worked on her dry waterfall herself. She stood stones up to look like cliffs, spread rounded blue lava rocks at the bottom of the “stream,” and planted little white alyssum flowers to look like frothy water.

Natalie fit a Zen Garden into a corner of her stroll garden


Away from the pond, Natalie Hammond’s relative, Mrs. Bigelow, helped her build another kind of dry landscape called a “Zen garden.” A perfect rectangle was filled with white gravel. Larger stones within the gravel appeared as islands rising out of the sea, or cliffs poking out of the clouds.

Natalie fit this into a corner of her stroll garden, but in Japan gardens like this were part of Buddhist temples in the 15th and 16th centuries. (This is the Muromachi period, which came just before the Edo period.)

The Zen Buddhist religion teaches that only rare, enlightened beings can understand the meaning of our universe. All of us can try, however. Zen Buddhist artworks are one of the tools that lead us toward the truth, which is somehow simple, yet nearly impossible to grasp.

a Zen garden - A perfect rectangle filled with white gravel - larger stones appear as islands


The designer of Ms. Hammond’s Zen garden explained: stones of different heights represented Man, Earth, and Heaven. The gravel background was raked into a Cloud Pattern to show that the stones are individual yet connected, as each man is separate yet connected to all else in the universe.

At the Hammond, you can sit on a bench in front of the Zen garden, as a priest might have sat in front of his temple garden. The English poet William Blake suggested “To See the World in a Grain of Sand.” In a Japanese garden, you might see the universe in this small area of carefully placed stones.

This educational section has been made possible through

the generosity of the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership

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