A Complete Guide To Zen Gardens | How To Make, Design Principles, And Tips For Creating Zen Gardens

Wanna learn how to create a beautiful zen garden? Here is step by step instructions on how to make zen garden outside and indoors. Read on to also find out how to make mini zen gardens on a budget and the different rules of creating a zen garden.

Zen gardens, also known as Japanese rock gardens or karesansui, are designed to promote relaxation, meditation, and contemplation.

These gardens are characterized by their minimalist design, use of natural elements such as rocks and gravel, and emphasis on empty spaces.

In this guide, we will explore the principles of Zen garden design and provide practical tips on how to create your own Zen garden.

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.

Different Types Of Zen Gardens

There are several types of Zen gardens, each with its own unique characteristics and purposes. Here are some of the most common types:

  1. Dry landscape gardens

Also known as karesansui, these gardens are made up of a dry landscape of rocks, gravel, and sand, with no water or plants. They are designed to represent natural landscapes, such as mountains and rivers, and to encourage contemplation and meditation.

  1. Tea gardens

These gardens are often located near tea houses and are designed to provide a peaceful and harmonious environment for tea ceremonies. They typically feature a path leading to the tea house, a water basin for guests to purify themselves before entering, and simple plantings.

  1. Courtyard gardens

These are small Zen gardens that are designed to be viewed from inside a building, such as a home or temple. They often feature a central rock or plant arrangement surrounded by gravel or sand, and are designed to create a sense of calm and tranquility.

  1. Strolling gardens

 Also known as kaiyu-shiki, these gardens are designed to be walked through and explored. They typically feature a variety of elements, such as waterfalls, ponds, bridges, and stone lanterns, and are designed to create a sense of movement and flow.

  1. Moss gardens

These gardens are covered in a thick layer of moss, which is often used to create intricate patterns and designs. They are designed to be viewed from a distance, and are meant to evoke a sense of stillness and calm.

Overall, Zen gardens are designed to be contemplative spaces that inspire reflection, meditation, and a sense of connection with nature.

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.

Necessary Materials & Tools Needed For Creating Zen Garden

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 For The Zen Garden

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

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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.

How To Create Your Zen 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.

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.

How To Make A Zen Garden On A Budget

  • Step 1: Choose a location

Pick a spot in your yard or outdoor space that is relatively flat and has good drainage. The size of your garden will depend on the space available and your budget.

  • Step 2: Gather materials

You’ll need sand or gravel, rocks or pebbles, and some plants or ornamental items. You can find these at a local gardening center or home improvement store. If you want to save money, consider using materials you already have on hand.

  • Step 3: Create a border

Use wooden planks or stones to create a border around the area where you’ll be placing the sand or gravel. This will prevent it from spreading out into your yard.

  • Step 4: Add a layer of sand or gravel

Spread a layer of sand or gravel over the area inside the border. The thickness will depend on your preference, but a depth of 2-3 inches is common.

  • Step 5: Arrange rocks or pebbles
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Choose a few large rocks or several smaller pebbles and arrange them in the sand or gravel. These will serve as focal points and add interest to your Zen garden.

  • Step 6: Add plants or ornamental items

You can add some small plants such as succulents or ornamental grasses around the rocks or pebbles. You can also place some ornamental items like a small pagoda or a Buddha statue to add more character to your Zen garden.

  • Step 7: Rake the sand or gravel

Use a small rake to create patterns in the sand or gravel. This is an important step in creating the Zen garden’s calming effect.

  • Step 8: Maintain the garden

Keep the sand or gravel level and free from debris, and water any plants as needed. You can also trim plants to maintain their shape.

There you have it! These are the basic steps for creating a Zen garden on a budget. With a little creativity, you can make a beautiful and peaceful space in your yard.

How To Make An Indoor Mini Zen Garden

Here are some steps to help you create your own indoor Zen garden:

  • Step 1: Choose a container

When choosing a container for your indoor Zen garden, you want to make sure it is shallow and wide enough to hold the elements of your garden. 

A ceramic dish or tray works well, but you can also use a glass bowl or any other container that fits your style and needs.

  • Step 2: Select the elements

The key elements of an indoor Zen garden are rocks, sand, and plants. Choose rocks that vary in size, shape, and texture to create interest and contrast. 

You can also add miniature figurines or statues, such as a Buddha or a Japanese lantern, to add a touch of authenticity. 

For the sand, use fine-grain sand or gravel in a neutral color, such as white or beige. 

Finally, select miniature plants, such as succulents or mosses, that can thrive in low light and do not require much water.

  • Step 3: Create a design

Before placing the elements in the container, create a rough sketch or plan of the design you want to create. 

You can create patterns or paths with sand or gravel, or use the rocks to represent mountains or islands. Place the plants strategically to add color and life to your garden. 

Aim for a balanced and harmonious composition that creates a sense of calm and relaxation.

  • Step 4: Arrange the elements

Once you have a design in mind, start arranging the elements in your container. Begin with the rocks, placing them strategically to create a focal point or to represent natural elements. Then, pour the sand or gravel into the container and use a small rake to create patterns or pathways. Finally, place the plants in the container, being careful not to overcrowd the space.

  • Step 5: Add final touches

Once you have arranged the elements in your indoor Zen garden, take a step back and assess the overall composition. Add any final touches or adjustments to create a balanced and harmonious design. You may also want to add a small water feature, such as a mini fountain, to create a sense of serenity and relaxation.

  • Step 6: Place your garden in a peaceful area

Finally, place your indoor Zen garden in a peaceful area of your home, such as a bedroom, meditation room, or office. You can also add candles or incense to create a relaxing and calming atmosphere. Be sure to care for your plants by providing them with the necessary light and water they need to thrive.

Overall, creating an indoor Zen garden is a simple and effective way to bring a sense of calmness and tranquility into your home. With a few simple materials and a little creativity, you can create a beautiful and peaceful space that will help you to feel more relaxed and centered.

What Are Zen Garden Rules?

Here are some common rules for creating and maintaining a Zen garden:

  1. Keep it simple: Zen gardens should have a minimalistic design with no unnecessary clutter.
  2. Use natural materials: The materials used in a Zen garden should be natural, such as sand, gravel, and stones.
  3. Create patterns: Use the sand or gravel to create patterns, such as ripples or circles, which can represent water or waves.
  4. Use asymmetry: Zen gardens often have an asymmetrical design, which can create a sense of naturalness and informality.
  5. Incorporate elements of nature: Use plants or other natural elements such as rocks, to add interest and texture to the garden.
  6. Maintain the garden: Zen gardens require regular maintenance to keep them looking their best. This includes raking the sand or gravel to create patterns, removing any debris, and trimming any plants.
  7. Practice mindfulness: Zen gardens are meant to promote mindfulness and meditation. Spend time in the garden, focusing on the patterns and textures, and allowing yourself to become more present and calm.

What Are the 7 Principles of Japanese Zen Gardens?

  1. Koko (Core of Emptiness)

The concept of emptiness is central to Zen philosophy and is expressed in the Zen garden by leaving empty spaces in the design. These spaces are meant to represent the potential for growth and change, and to encourage meditation and contemplation.

  1. Kanso (Simplicity):

The principle of simplicity is expressed in the use of minimal elements, such as rocks, sand, and gravel, to create a sense of harmony and tranquility in the garden. This simplicity helps to focus the mind and promotes a sense of calm and relaxation.

  1. Fukinsei (Asymmetry):

This principle emphasizes the use of irregular shapes and asymmetrical arrangements to create a sense of naturalness and spontaneity in the garden. This creates a feeling of movement and energy, which is important for promoting a sense of vitality and liveliness in the garden.

  1. Shizen (Naturalness) 

The principle of naturalness is expressed through the use of natural materials, such as rocks, sand, and gravel, and by creating a design that blends in with the surrounding landscape. This creates a sense of harmony and balance between the garden and its environment.

  1. Yugen (Mystery and Depth) 

The concept of yugen is expressed in the use of symbolism and hidden meanings in the garden. This creates a sense of mystery and depth, which encourages meditation and contemplation.

  1. Datsuzoku (Freedom) 

The principle of freedom is expressed by breaking away from conventional design and creating a unique and individual garden. This allows the designer to express their creativity and personality in the design.

  1. Seijaku (Tranquility) 

The principle of tranquility is expressed through the use of quiet, peaceful spaces, such as small ponds or shaded seating areas, where visitors can meditate and contemplate the beauty of the garden. This promotes a sense of calm and relaxation, which is essential for Zen practice.

Tips For Creating Japanese Zen Gardens

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.

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

Be Careful While Choosing The Stones For Your Zen Garden

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.

You Must Place The Stones with Their Best Sides Shown In Your Zen Garden

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.

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.

Keep Your Plants to An Absolute Minimum In The Zen Garden

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.

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.

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.

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.


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.

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