By Joel M. Lerner
Saturday, March 20, 2010; E04
Gardens can relax or energize you, depending on their design. Balance the energy flow in your landscape to ensure it will be comfortable and harmonious. The Chinese have used this method of design for many thousands of years. It is called feng shui, pronounced "fung shway."
Learning the terminology and concepts of feng shui can help in the understanding of this discipline (see glossary below).
Qi (also called ch'i) describes the energy flow that moves over and around objects and people. Too much is not good; too little is bad. Energy can be blocked by walls or trapped in corners, becoming stagnant. The objective is for qi to flow gently through openings, not be too aggressive (positive) or too passive (negative). Strive for a perfect balance of the two in your design.
Yin and yang describe the two opposing forces that act on qi. Yin is passive and yang aggressive. The common symbol for yin and yang is a circle with a curved line bisecting it, arranged in two colors, one on each side of the curve, with a spot of the opposite color on each side. This is the symbolic goal of balance to achieve in your garden. Too much yin or yang can create adverse effects. A balance creates proper energy and harmony.
Feng shui is the discipline of bringing balanced qi to your life, including home and garden. Translated, it means "wind and water," two forces that have a great impact on Earth. They are considered part of the cosmic energy that the Chinese believe is in everything. Wind and water carved canyons, eroded mountains, determined locations of cities and dictate whether soil will be rich enough to support life.
Front yards represent active yang energy or public space. Yang energy colors are warm reds, yellows, oranges and bright whites. Ideally, front yards should face south because yang energy corresponds to sunlight, a positive force.
Back yards represent passive yin energy, or privacy. Yin energy colors are cool blues, purples and greens. Yin also corresponds to darkness, or negativity -- the opposite of yang, which can be good or bad. Consider them as similar to positive (active) and negative (grounded) electrical charges. A little yang in the back yard and a little yin in the front yard are necessary.
Qi is most active from the west, so use a heavy metal object, such as a sculpture or urn, to calm energy flow from that direction, if possible. Metal is the element of choice because of its weight.
Observance of rigid feng shui principles requires a "story," or explanation, symbolic of every aspect. When principles are applied to gardens, you can take advantage of the environment, ameliorating energy-flow problems occurring from the siting of your house and property.
The five elements
Wood is represented by furniture, structures, thick evergreens and perennials, and the colors blue and green. It is best used in an east-southeast location. Wood is an enemy of earth and metal, but positive when used with water and fire.
Fire is symbolized by barbecues and other fire structures, red vegetables, strongly scented herbs, thorny plants and flowers in warm colors. Use these in moderation in southern locations. Fire's color is red and its enemies are water and metal, but it is productive with wood and earth.
Earth is represented by rock gardens, clay pots, brick or stone walls, paving and sweet-smelling herbs. Earth tones are yellow, ochre and russet. Rock gardens are best located center-southwest-northeast. Wood and water are enemies; it is dynamic with metal and fire.
Metal is represented by sculptures, planters, furniture, structures, roofs and gray-green foliage. It's best used in west-northwest locations. Plants with white flowers symbolize metal, and are enemies with wood and fire but productive with earth and water.
Water is represented by water features, winding paths, blue- or blackish-purple leaved or flowered plants and is symbolized by black. Locate in the north. It is enemies with fire and earth but productive with wood and metal.
If you have incompatible elements, resolve the imbalance by using a material that doesn't conflict. For example, flagstone patios with metal furniture and a wooden pergola would feel unharmonious because wood is an enemy of metal and earth (flagstone). Balance by representing fire and water. Arrange objects in an affinity cycle: water -- wood -- fire -- earth -- metal.
Ba-Gua (Pah Kwa) compasses are divided into eight pie-shaped sections and will illustrate types of qi you have in various parts of the yard. Make one, and label the compass aspects -- north, northwest, south, southwest, east, southeast, west and northeast. Each section represents one of the compass points.
Label energy that flows from each section: nurturing or lethargic from the north; open or intense from the south; fruitful or over-fertile from the east; vigorous or hazardous from the west; calm or volatile from the northwest; comforting or unsettling from the southwest; inspired or provoking from the southeast; and prosperous or stagnating from the northeast.
Gardens need not incorporate every feng shui guideline. Landscape design themes can be applied to formal, traditional, cottage, prairie, naturalized, woodland, rock or other types of gardens. Search for a couple of books, and decide which principles make sense for you.
Suggestions for using feng shui principles in your environment include:
-- Although not possible for most of us, the ideal location for a home is halfway up a mountain with a tranquil river in the front of property. Feng shui experts have developed symbolic representations of these elements, such as representing a river with a curving walkway in the front yard and mountains by placing a hedge of trees at the backyard property line.
-- Houses are best located facing south, and ideal lot shapes are squares or rectangles because qi flows optimally in symmetric spaces. Oddly shaped spaces must be remedied to assist energy flow.
-- Identify existing problems and learn how to fix them.
-- Straight driveways and garden beds should be remade to curve.
-- Narrow passages on sides of houses should be lighted.
-- Anchor houses that protrude into the landscape by adding plants.
-- Screen roads aimed straight at your front door with shrubs.
-- Attract qi to front garden entrances with sweet-smelling plants.
-- Avoid thorny plants that will snag.
-- Make sure the front door is well lighted and inviting.
-- Focus on making all entrances attractive, and mount gates to open inward toward garden.
-- Light paths and gateways as well as south-facing garden areas.
-- Garden lighting creates yang energy.
-- Keep garden free of debris, clutter and dead wood; they create an unsettled feeling.
-- Keep water features functioning. They are best in the north, south and east.
For more information, I recommend "Feng Shui Garden Design: Creating Serenity" by Antonia Beattie (Periplus Editions, 2003).
Joel M. Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md.