How To Design A Zen Garden

For those of us looking for something different from the traditional Westernized garden, a Zen garden might be thought of as a low-maintenance alternative.  However, the simplicity that Zen gardens are known for can be deceptive.  It turns out that creating a quiet, contemplative space with few showy, flowering plants requires a surprising amount of upkeep.  But if you’re looking for a starkly beautiful, meditative space it’s difficult to do better than a Japanese rock garden.  Below are some tips on how to design a Zen garden.

What Is A Zen Garden?

Zen gardens are small, stylized, symbolic representations of the natural world.  First developed by Buddhist monks in 12th century Japan, they were designed to emulate the essence of nature, rather than its actual appearance.  They were used to encourage meditation and self-reflection.  The elements of a Zen garden typically include a rectangular wall that surrounds a careful arrangement of stones, gravel or sand, water features, and delicately pruned bushes.

Zen Garden Symbolism

The sand or gravel found in a Zen garden is commonly raked in a way that represents waves or ripples found in water.  Larger stones often act as mountains that symbolize strength, however, they can also portray animals, boats, or waterfalls.  As a whole, a Zen garden can symbolize life, rivers, islands, geometry, or nothing at all.

Preparing A Zen Garden Site

The first step to creating a Zen garden is to choose a small square or rectangular plot and enclose it with a privacy wall.  From there you can level the walled-in ground and install edging to keep the gravel or sand neatly in place. 

Choosing Your Zen Garden Elements

The elements you’ll be incorporating can vary widely and will pretty much come down to personal choice.  However, simplicity is key – however difficult that is for a Westerner to abide by.  Try and limit your choices to the bare minimum to begin with.  If you feel the garden needs more once it’s been set up, you can always add to it later.

Zen Garden Design

Dig holes for your vertical elements such as stones and bushes.  Try and arrange them according to how they would occur in nature.  Once in place, lay landscaping fabric over the soil and cut holes to allow the stones and bushes to poke through.  Put down your gravel or sand on top of the fabric and spread it out evenly.  Now use a wooden Zen rake to create patterns of ripples in the gravel or sand.