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Don Pylant, April, 2021

Newbie looking for help

Started by kmckenna, June 21, 2017, 08:31:51 AM

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Hi everyone!  I'm brand new to this forum but it looks like this is the perfect place to learn!

I've always loved zen gardens so when we purchased our house in southern Illinois, I figured I finally had a chance to create my own meditation space!  I chose one of our neglected front garden beds that only gets a little sunlight and cleaned it out.  I planted a Japanese Maple as soon as we bought the house, so it's 3 years old now.  (It took awhile before I got a chance to work on my little garden :)   I researched alot of gardens online, and tried to use elements that fit my surroundings. 

I leveled, made a little burm around the edge of my sand space, and covered with black landscape fabric.  I set my stones and transplanted moss.  Then I started laying bags of white sand in the center for my water element.  I'm using ash Mexican pebbles around the outside. 

Now, my questions I've run into so far...

1.  What do I use to clean my sand of daily debris?  I've looked everywhere and can only find information about cleaning gravel using a broom.  I've been using a cat litter scoop for big pieces and a flour sifter for tiny.  Is there a more traditional way to clean the sand?

2.  Is there a trick to keeping the sand out of my rock edging?  I really want that clean, crisp edge that the gardens usually have.  Do you use a small brush and wipe off the rocks?  I'm at a loss here.

3.  Since starting this project, my Japanese Maple has gotten unhappy.  He's 3 years old in the same spot, but now he's lost his color and several top branches of leaves.  I thought it was from overwatering, since I was watering daily to help the the moss acclimate, so I stopped watering.  At first the red seemed to be coming back, but now he's looking very yellow again, and more leaves on top are drying up.  Is the moss around his base the problem?  Do I need to find a way to water him beneath the moss?

Thank you so much and I'm so excited that I found this forum!



Wow I love your enthusiasm
First of all let me clarify that I'm no expert in Japanese gardens I can only offer my opinion on the little bit of experience that I do have based on the pictures that you posted. Is the weed barrier you placed underneath the sand allowing the water to drain or is the water pooling? Is it possible that the Japanese maple is not getting enough sun? With the use of that fine white sand as your medium the wind and water is going to carry those fine grains outside of the borders. Unfortunately in your attempt to keep the moss growing you may have watered the Japanese maple to the point of root rot. Hopefully not. That again is part of the drainage issue. Have you tested the soil PH. From the picture it appears that your zen garden is underneath a conifer tree of some type. Decaying pine needles can affect the pH of a soil. Cleaning and raking that fine sand is always going to be a problem because of the fine grains. Perhaps a border of concrete or mortar with those Mexican pebbles in bedded within can help with the sand displacement issue. Just a few thoughts on what I've seen hope it is helpful Patch


Thanks Patch!  Do you think there is anything I can do to save the little maple or do I just have to wait it out and see?


I don't know what species of moss you a growing but, many, maybe most, and particularly the type of moss you want does not require much water. A daily light misting dawn and dusk is what you want to use.  Like the dew they would get in there natural environment.  After all as non-vascular plants they have no roots so only benefit from water in the soil indirectly. Some of my best moss grows on a sheet metal roof.  Means you can mist your moss adequately w/o drowning the maple. 


Thanks pstanton!  I just transplanted local moss from friends and family's yards.  There's several different types together, which wasn't my goal, but by recycling that's what I got.  It seems to be doing fine, now it's just the maple that's worrying me.  Is there anything I can do to help him possibly come back?  My husband thought maybe cleaning a small circle of moss out from around its base might help?


It is really going to depend on the what the problem is affecting the tree.
(There are others on this forum with expert plant knowledge who can better direct you.)
Is the mounted area where you planted the maple enough space for the roots to grow and spread. Again, back to the pooling water problem. As the maple has grown over the past three years, are the roots now to the point of growth that the sand and pooling water are soaking and sogging the roots. If so you may need to raise up the mounded area to compensate. Saving the tree from root issues may require removing the tree, trimming and spraying the roots with a Fungicide, replanting in sterile medium and doing a lot of praying.  These are just  some of the considerations. But, don't go into panic mode yet. Again it may just be too much water and not enough sun. Patch 


Sorry, don't know much of JM, I'm in Z4.  That black plastic seems like a tricky thing to use, your are really messing with mother nature in a big way, gas exchange, drainage etc, etc.  I don't use it and wonder if you might suffocate the roots of anything under it, including the big conifer.  The moss looks great though.


KMC, I agree with Stanton regarding the moss and the amount of water you use otherwise saturating the moss is just creating a sponge and a whole lotta problems?. Are you noticing any mushroom or fungi growth with the moss. If so your moss is too wet. (I believe most would agree on that observation) Also, if you have moss growing on the base of the maple or any protruding top roots this likely indicates excess moisture. Patch


I'll go out and check the tree itself as soon as it stops raining.  Anyone know of any traditional gardens that use sand instead of gravel?  I'm guessing I made a wrong move there on picking the white sand.


June 23, 2017, 12:03:03 PM #10 Last Edit: June 23, 2017, 12:21:53 PM by don
Wow - leave town for a few weeks and never catch up!  It will take me a while to read all this post and it is a mix of moss, maple and sand.  So here is a shotgun comment to add to the excellent advice already offered.

Maple - i see no root flare and suspect it must be buried.  Then it is critical you expose the original soil level where the flare is visible.  Maples like a steady soil moisture and hate feast and famine. Take whatever steps you need to for proper  drainage throughout the root zone and particularly around the trunk and supporting roots.  Personally, i wouldnt use any fungicide, but instead would work to bring the grade back to normal, remove the sand, and drench the root zone with compost tea, seaweed extract and molasses.  If you create good conditions for the return of beneficial fungi and bacteria, they will push the bad guys out.  But if you kill off all fungi and bacteria, guess who comes back first?  Additionally, do not fertilize until you see growth improve and then use only organic sources so as not to affect your new happy fungi.

Moss - transplanting found moss is a great way to experiment with what will grow where, but you have to copy the growth conditions.  So if the original home was growing on stone, you need to provide stone in the new location, etc.  Light and moisture conditions should also be similar.

Sand - get rid of it.  It is common to hear the raked gravel in some Japanese gardens referred to as sand, but it really is gravel.  Gravel is better drained and because of its rough surface, stays put better than sand (I think Patch said this already).  Plus cats, well... you know.  Usual gravel is granite, but i have played with limestone with some success.  I think i posted a picture under that forum.  Whatever you use, be sure to use weed barrier cloth under it to keep it from blending with the soil below and making it easier to clean when that time comes.

Sorry to shovel this so quickly - hope it helps!


Well KMC,
There is some of that expert advise I mentioned in the beginning. (Thanks Don) Certainly better to go organic with the fungi problem (If that is what you are dealing with) As far as the sand is concerned I have never used it. I use a larger size of Grani-grit which is crushed, granite stone. Easy to rake and the larger size and sharp edges are unwelcoming to the neighborhood cats. If you stick with the sand you will always have to deal with sifting the small particles out to keep it clean.
Good luck, keep us posted Patch   


KMC, all, healyjet posted this youtube link a while ago

It's a bit long, on and in the Portland-JG , some discussion of the finer aesthetic points of gravel for JGs in it, that's not the focus but for some reason the discussion was notable to me.

I use pea gravel mostly, at 15$ a ton I can go 8 to 10 inches deep, no fabric just on the dirt which is usually subsoil, precious topsoil removed and used to grow things.  This is going on 20 years now and no weed problems, I just pull the odd weed now and again.  The cats do think of it as huge custom made litter box though.  It is not under trees.  I have a section of crushed stone walk that is under conifers, this was weed free for a number of years but the small spruce and juniper needles worked there way into the stones, and created a perfect growing medium. So a consideration is what is going to fall on the gravel, small spruce and juniper needles would be almost impossible to clean out,  deciduous leaves easily swept up even pine needles might not be so difficult to remove.


Thanks everyone!  I'm looking around town to see if I can find some white pea gravel sized stone to use. 


Update!  I managed to find some white chips that were the smallest and lightest i town, for $20 a ton.  Spent the last 2 days shoveling and arranging.  Feeling alot more finished!  I also found that when I pulled up some of the black rock the water under it had been pooling, so I'm guessing the fabric barrier is water proof.  So I tore some holes in it around my Japanese maple so hopefully she'll make a comeback now!  I also made a small pagoda out of air dry clay and a cheap solar light from the dollar store.  I think I need to paint it though, debating between grey or black.