Eugene Weekly : Gardening : 12.11.08

Sheds and Zen Gardening
Inspirational winter reading
By Rachel Foster

I am not usually attracted to literature from the overtly spiritual side of gardening, but Wendy Johnson’s down-to-earth attitude and beautiful, vigorous writing style completely won me over. Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate: At Work in the Wild and Cultivated World is an extraordinary interweaving of philosophy, storytelling and first-hand garden wisdom — a rich, wide-ranging memoir stretching over more than three decades of an admirable life spent working hard and sitting zazen.      

Johnson is a lay teacher of Zen meditation. She is also a gardener and activist, a fierce defender of the natural world. “The monastic path is not my way,” she writes, and she followed an unconventional path even within the Zen community in Marin County that became her home and workplace. “From the first moment, Zen practice was a field of action for me, never a safe haven from the world.” Her view of gardening is very much the same. 

Johnson’s first and apparently skeptical encounter with meditation occurred in the early 1970s, when she was a young American expatriot living in Israel. The war in Vietnam raged on, and like many people of that age and time she was unhappy, restless and adrift. Meditation offered a lifeline. When she returned to America, she went first to Tassajara Zen Mountain Center and later, with the man who was to become her husband, to another branch of the San Francisco Zen Center, Green Gulch Farm, where they helped to establish a productive organic garden.

Throughout the book, Johnson quotes her Zen “lead teachers” and some great, eccentric gardening mentors who helped to shape her. On the practical side, Johnson is her own gardener and a passionate advocate for deep digging, hand watering and persevering with native soil rather than that “soul-free” stuff you buy. (How right she is!) She is terrific on soil management, composting and pests, and conflicts between Buddhism and the exigencies of gardening are wryly noted. Later chapters tell of other gardens, hunger and harvest and the importance of real food.

In the East, the dragon represents wisdom and transformation. Another name for Green Gulch Farm is Green Dragon Temple, and the author describes Green Gulch itself as a dragon writhing up out of the sea. The dragon’s gate of the title might be simply a metaphor for the threshold between that garden and the wild world beyond. At the end of the Acknowledgements, however, Johnson brings up global warming. “My fiercest mentors remind me that this is the best and worst time to be alive. Gardening at the dragon’s gate, at the edge of consequential danger and pivotal opportunity, may we acknowledge the truth of our times and work together for the benefit of all beings.” 

Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate by Wendy Johnson is published in paperback by Bantam Books, with drawings by Davis Te Selle.

Need a special place to meditate? Another West Coast writer, Debra Prinzing, has published a lovely book titled Stylish Sheds and Elegant Hideaways. It is a series of studies, in text and photographs, of various interpretations of the garden shed idea. Not all their owners and designers call them sheds, of course: There are pavilions, tea houses, pods and even a chapel. Most are highly functional for their intended job, while a few are pure whimsy. 

Some are fancy potting sheds; others are studios for writers and painters, playhouses, repositories for collections of objects, private meditation zones, or spaces for entertaining. All are stylish in one way or another, from cute to futuristic. Some are very grand, way beyond the means of most of us, but presented in all their variety, they are an inspiration. Needless to say, the gardens that contain these structures are as different in style as the sheds and their owners, and vignettes of flowers, animals, kids and artifacts increase the pleasure. I challenge you to look at this book without coming up with a few ideas to enhance your outdoor space. 

Stylish Sheds by Debra Prinzing is published in hardback by Potter and is lavishly illustrated with excellent photography by William Wright.

Rachel Foster of Eugene is a garden writer and consultant. She can be reached at



Comments are closed.