A Complete Guide to Zen Gardens

You know what, there is no greater wealth than peace of mind. And we Japanese people know how to find tranquility even in the middle of the bustling city.

How!? Right?

Well, here I am talking about Zen gardens, especially symbolic landscapes that can enhance your inner artistry and offer you a meditative experience.

If you have ever seen these types of gardens, then you already know how breathtaking they look.

In case you are eager to know more deeply about them, then you are on the right page. Now, get ready to get a complete guide to Zen gardens with me.

Let’s begin our journey to find peace in nature…

A Complete Guide to Zen Gardens: Facts & Features

Making a Zen garden is an excellent way to reduce stress, increase your focus, and improve health.

As you dig, trim, and water your garden, you become more mindful and can live your moment to the fullest.

Wait! Wait!

Do you even know what Japanese Zen gardens are and their history and origin?

Well, if not, then get prepared to learn in detail from here.

What Is A Zen Garden?

Zen garden is better known as a Japanese rock garden. These artificial, dry landscapes mainly consist of rocks, pruned trees & bushes, moss, and layers of sand.

The sands are raked into a round, coil, or rippled pattern representing the sea. On top of the sand, the rocks are placed in a way to make a soothing design.

Soothing Japanese Zen Garden

Some Zen gardens also contain simple bridges or paths and lanterns made of rock and stone. There is a spiritual serenity on the way you will arrange the rocks, moss, and sand or gravel.

The plants of the Zen gardens are grown on and around the rocks, and they are pruned carefully to look clean and attractive.

Plants on rock in Zen garden

Even the placement of these objects is deep-rooted in Zen Buddhist teachings and philosophies, many of which date from centuries ago.

Okay, it’s time to learn about the origins and history behind these types of gardens.

History & Origins of Japanese Zen Garden

Zen gardens were first introduced in Zen Buddhist temples in Kyoto, Japan, at the time of the Muromachi Period.

In 1334, the Buddhist monk Muso Kokushi transformed a temple into a zen hermitage and built Zen gardens.

Japanese temple with traditional Zen garden

Initially, these gardens were shallow sandboxes filled to the edge with either sand or gravel. Later, they were decorated with larger rocks of different shapes and sizes.

The larger stones and surrounding pebbles that you see in the garden represent islands in the sea. And the moss is used as a floor cover to create “land” hidden by the forest.

Island in the sea representation in Zen garden

By the way, the selection and placement of each element play a major role in creating a Japanese rock garden.

In the first renowned manual of Japanese gardening, there was a rule to keep the stones upright. The stones had to be placed according to some specific rules. It was believed that if the stones were not placed following the rules, the owner would suffer misfortune.

Upright stones in Zen garden

One of the most famous Zen-influenced gardens in the world is situated in Ryoan-Ji Temple in Kyoto.

As these types of orchards are a great place for meditation, people outside of Japan also appreciate them. Even in America, several gardens are inspired by Japanese rock gardens.

Japanese garden in America

Alright, now if you have an immense interest in building a Zen garden, then my next segment is gonna help you in this regard.

How to Make A Zen Garden? Know in Detail

You need the required tools and supplies to create your own Zen garden. So, the first step is to collect these items.

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Necessary Materials & Tools

You will need-

  1. Measurement tape.
  2. Shovel.
  3. Fencing (if you want to secure the garden’s border).
  4. Rocks in a variety of shapes and sizes.
  5. Edging stones.
  6. Steel garden rake.
  7. Stakes.
  8. Back brace and work gloves.
  9. Wooden Zen rake.
  10. Hoe.
  11. Landscape fabric.
  12. White sand or gravel.
  13. Tamper.
  14. String.
  15. String level.

After collecting the tools and materials, you need to choose an appropriate place to build your rock garden.

Selecting Site And Preparing It

You should choose a flat area in either your backyard or front yard wherever you want.

Mark the limited area in a rectangular shape where you want to keep your garden. If you wanna make a giant Zen garden, you should select a large space.

Rectangular space for Zen garden

But, if your property is small, a 12 X 18-foot rectangle will be sufficient.

Keep in mind that your selected location should have enough sunlight and watering requirements for plants if you have a plan to grow some in your orchard.

Lush plants in Zen garden

Some people build a masonry wall around the space to keep it more private. But it would be expensive and, in some cases, unnecessary.

So, if you want to build one while staying on a budget, I recommend using a lattice fence, which will provide a bit of security without spending much.

Japanese rock garden with fence

By the way, a little while ago, I talked about plants. And in case you wanna plant some trees in your garden, you may choose some from the following list.

Best Plants for Zen Garden

There is a wide range of plants that are appropriate to grow in a rock garden such as-

  1. Japanese Forest Grass.
  2. Moss.
  3. Evergreen Azaleas.
  4. Ferns.
  5. Miniature Pines.
  6. Chinese Junipers.
  7. Shrub Bamboo.
  8. Corkscrew Rush.
  9. Creeping Junipers.
  10. Creeping Thyme.
  11. Deutzia.
  12. Pagoda Dogwood.
  13. Umbrella Pine.
  14. Yews.
  15. Snow Fountains Weeping Cherry.
  16. Crimson Queen Japanese Maple.
  17. Horsetail (in a container).
  18. Mondo Grass and Lilyturf.
  19. Pachysandra.
  20. Rhododendron.

All of the above plants have an attractive and meditative aura. You can buy the ones that look captivating to you and plant them in your yard.

Peaceful rock garden with rock

If you plan to grow a flowering cherry tree, check this article, where we discussed growing facts about different cherry blossom trees. It will be helpful for you.

Alright, it’s time to know the whole process of creating a Zen garden step by step.

Steps to Follow While Making The Garden

Before going into the steps, I want to share a piece of information. By any chance, if you have never seen a Japanese rock garden, I suggest you visit one first or you may watch the below video to get a virtual view of different indoor Zen gardens.

It will help you understand the design of a typical Zen garden easily.

Okay, let’s not wait any longer and get started describing the steps.

Step 1: First, clear out any weeds, plants, stones from your selected rectangular space.

Step 2: Use the shovel to dig and remove a few inches of top layered soils.

Step 3: Hammer the stakes into the ground at each corner. And then tie your strings between them to check the level with the help of your string level.

Step 4: Now, use your steel garden rake and scrape off the ground until the surface is flat.

Step 5: Tamp down the soil to make the surface more even.

Step 6: Place the edging stones along the lattice fence. These will keep the white pebbles or sand inside.

Step 7: If you plan to place large stones or gather the gravel or sand together to make mountains or islands, you need to dig a large hole for each rock. Also, you need to dig holes for your plants.

Step 8: Plant your trees inside the holes as well as bury the rocks. Keep in mind that you should place the rock in a way that they look like mountains.

Step 9: After that, place the landscape fabrics over the ground. Make sure to cut holes in the fabric to shelter the rocks and plants.

Step 10: Then, spread a few inches of white gravel all over the surface using a hoe.

Step 11: Finally, use the wooden rake to make ripples or swirls in it.

The process I just described is a minimal requirement of a rock garden. However, you can enhance its beauty by adding stone lanterns, artificial waterfalls, and a buddha statue.

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Although these items will be costly, they can take the attraction of your garden to the next level.

Even the burbling sound of water can put your mind at ease in a moment.

Till now, I have discussed creating a life-size Zen garden.

But, do you know that you can make one indoors, like on a balcony or in a small space inside your home?

Yes, you heard me right. Even making a mini Zen garden seems more fun to me than the bigger one.

How to Create A Mini Zen Garden?

Although you can collect all the items separately in a miniature version, buying a mini Zen garden kit from shops or ordering it online is the easiest way.

Inside, you find a zen sandbox, unique colored gravel, meditating yoga statue, old-style bridge, bamboo spinning rake, traditional four teeth rake, and artificial mossy plant.

Mini Zen garden tools and items

Remember that the items may vary according to the kit’s price.

Alright, after you get your kit, follow the following process.

DIY: Mini Zen Garden

Step 1: Fill up the container with sand and shake it from side to side to even it out.

Step 2: Place the stones and trinkets randomly in your garden.

Step 3: Add the plants to give the garden a green touch.

Step 4: Create a swirl pattern with the mini rake.

Step 5: Place the buddha statue and bridge (if they come with the kit).

These mini rock gardens look cute, and you can put them on your desk or in the corner of your house.

I have a zen garden right on my working desk. Sometimes I also play animal crossing and get ideas on making different styled zen gardens and try to reflect it in a real one.

I myself find it really fun, and you may try it too.

Okay, it’s time to talk about some facts about these gardens that you might not know.

Facts That You Should Know About Japanese Zen Gardens Before Creating One

As I mentioned earlier, this type of garden has a deep root in our ancient culture, and there are some rules that you should follow to respect the tradition.

And right now, I will share some facts that you might not know about.

1. Be Careful While Choosing The Stones

Typically, Japanese gardeners classify rocks as tall vertical, low vertical, reclining, arching, or flat. The type of rock you are gonna choose is as important as its shape.

For example, you should select igneous rocks or rough mountain rocks with sharp edges to represent mountains. The borders of your Zen garden should consist of smooth sedimentary rocks to keep the gravel or sand inside.

igneous rocks and gravel

It is also stated that your stones should:

  • Vary in shape, color, and size from one another.
  • Not have bright colors as they may distract the viewer from the whole panorama.
  • Have grains that usually run in the same direction.

2. You Must Place The Stones with Their Best Sides Shown

Once you have selected your rocks, you need to be careful about their placement around the garden. It’s because the harmony of rock placement is meant to give you a sense of peace and serenity.

So, all of your stones should be placed with their finest sides shown from all angles.

This means that if a rock has an ugly-looking side, you must place it in a way that hides the fault, even if it leans on an odd angle.

Japanese rock garden with stone arrangement

It is kinda rare to see a straight line or symmetrical patterns of stone placement on a typical Zen garden. The most common stone arrangement consists of a single or even several groups of three rocks each.

Many Buddhists put two small rocks on either side of a tall vertical rock to symbolize Buddha and his two attendants.

One tall rocks with two small rocks beside

Well, don’t worry, the placement of stones is not as rigid as it seems in the rules.

A new regulation was invented at the end of the Edo Period, which stated that rocks could be placed randomly to add a sense of spontaneity to the garden.

So, chill!!

You may look at the below video and see how attractive the arrangement of rocks looks.

Just listen to your heart, and whatever seems appealing, you may arrange the rock that way. But, at least try to hide the worst-looking side.

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3. You Should Have A Knowledge About The Symbolism Behind The Stone

Before the creation of a Japanese rock garden, you should know the symbolism behind different types of stones.

  • Vertical stones (taido rocks) are often used to represent trees or the element of wood.
  • Flat, horizontal stones (shintai rocks) symbolize flowing water.
  • Arching stones (shigyo rocks) act as fire.
  • Low and reclining stones (reisho and kikyaku rocks) portray metal and the earth.

If you ask for my suggestion, I will tell you to try out different combinations, such as:

  • A short vertical rock (metal) along with flat rock (water).
  • A tall vertical rock (wood) beside a reclining rock (earth).
  • A reclining rock (earth), a tall vertical rock (earth), and a flat rock (water).

Personally, I like to put odd numbers of stones together as this type of formation looks more balanced to me. But, if you like even numbers, you may do so.

Just make sure that the number of vertical and horizontal rocks in your garden is well-balanced.

By the way, you may also use large stones to represent the other elements of nature.

4. Keep Your Plants to An Absolute Minimum

Yes! The plants should be minimum!

Even though plants glorify the beauty of a typical garden, when you are creating a Japanese Zen garden, you should keep them a bit minimal as the emphasis is more focused on rocks and their placement around the orchard.

5. It’s Okay If Your Rock Garden Contains Pond Or Water

Although water is not a part of the traditional Zen garden, you can add water to yours if you want.

From my point of view, the sound of moving water can create a more relaxing environment that is beneficial to meditation. And a trickling Asian-style waterfall or fountain will help drown out the urban noises.

Or, you may use a Shishi Odoshi (traditional Japanese bamboo water fountain), which is easy to make and provides calming sounds of water dripping.

Japanese bamboo water fountain

But, if you wanna stick to tradition and avoid water, there is another option. You can design a karetaki (dry waterfall).

All you’re gonna have to do is to arrange your rocks and gravel/sand into a waterfall-like shape.

Typically, the waterfall’s cascade can be represented through a tall, standing blue stone. Then you can create a karenagare (raked sand river) to imitate a stream at the base of your falls.

6. You May Use Rock Sculptures

Based on the size of your stone, you can use it to represent a mountain, an island, or a welcoming feature if it’s placed at the entrance of your rock garden.

You can also make a kogetsudai (gravel mountain) from sand or pebbles by shaping them into a tall cone to portray Mount Fuji or other mountains.

Gravel mountain

If you want, you may create a simple bridge or pathway made of rocks through your garden. This type of path can add a sense of distance as well as a focal point to aid meditation.

In case you are building a tiny indoor Zen garden, you might be unable to work with many stones or plants. However, arranging your own chosen flora and stones and drawing new patterns in your sand or gravel can be as contemplative as keeping a large garden.

In fact, this cute little garden could bring the solace you need from an overwhelming workload throughout the day.

7. You May Use Sand Instead of Gravel

As opposed to gravel, you can use sand in your Zen garden to create an interesting symbolic contrast.

Depending on how you rake or swirl, the sand can mean either raging or gentle waves. Sand may also represent the ocean surrounding the island of Japan.

Sand mini Zen garden

In short, a Zen sand garden provides a great aesthetic and a balance to the rigidity of stones you will use.

Okay, there is nothing left to inform you regarding today’s topic. So, I am gonna wrap it up now.

Conclusion

After going through my complete guide to Zen gardens, I hope you will end up finding peace of mind by making one on your own.

It will definitely make your front yard or backyard more exceptional than your neighbors.

Who knows, maybe they will get inspired from yours and develop for themselves too!

Lastly, I wish nothing but the best for your health and mind.