What is a Zen Garden and How to Create One

If you’re looking for a way to design your garden with peace in mind, a zen garden is a great way to create a soothing space in your yard. This ancient garden practice may seem daunting to tackle at home, but creating a zen garden allows for creativity, personality, and calm. 

In this article, we’ll cover the ins and outs of zen gardens and how to make a zen garden of your own.

What is a zen garden?

Zen gardens are a type of simplistic Japanese garden known for encouraging peace and meditation and paying tribute to nature, similar to rock gardens and yoga gardens. These gardens are great for small spaces, or for those interested in an introduction to Japanese garden design.

Zen gardens are also known in Japan as karesansui gardens, meaning “dry mountain water.” Traditionally, these gardens use stones to suggest mountains and sand and gravel to suggest rippling water, accompanying them with other natural features. The zen garden originated in the 11th century, when Buddhist monks developed them as outdoor meditation spaces. 

You can use your garden at home for the same reason–– creating the perfect space for mindfulness and relaxation. 

Design components of a zen garden


Garden expert Megumi Kato of the Portland Japanese Garden says that there are three basic design components that zen gardens build off of: stones, water, and plants. While traditional zen gardens are dry landscapes that don’t feature literal water, the element is still referenced in the landscape, and modern designs often incorporate a water feature.

Stones are the building blocks of the landscape, while water and plants create a soothing ambiance. Here are a few ideas of ways to incorporate each:

  • Stones: large rocks, stepping stones, pebbles
  • Water: sand, pea gravel, fountains, koi ponds
  • Plants: ferns, succulents, small trees, ornamental grasses

Guiding principles of a zen garden

Zen gardens are traditionally designed with a few guiding principles in mind, which resemble the basic principles of American landscape design but have some important differences. Here are a few of the design principles of creating a zen garden:

  • Simplicity. A zen garden design should be serene, so go for a simple scheme that won’t be elaborate or overwhelming.
  • Nature. Zen gardens pay tribute to the beauty of nature, so let nature shine in your garden design. Incorporate natural elements such as native plants, water, and stones.
  • Asymmetry. Plants should be grouped in odd-numbered clusters, such as threes or fives. Asymmetry can create balance and draw attention to a focal point.
  • Unconventionality. Bring your personality into your garden design with hardscaping and decorative elements that resonate with you.

How to create a zen garden


Creating a zen garden is an intuitive process that relies on following your instincts to create a calming space. Seems confusing? Don’t worry! That only means that designing a zen garden allows you to bring your own creativity into an ancient design tradition.

Research design ideas

Start your design process by researching other zen garden ideas to get a feel for what you want yours to look like. You can visit local zen gardens in your area, or just peruse at home! It can be helpful to create a vision board of elements you want to include in your own design.

Sketch it out

Your zen garden won’t feel very calming if the design isn’t well-planned! Before you start digging and laying out sand and gravel, draw a sketch of how you want your garden to look to guide your design process. Keep walkways open and simple to navigate, and include any hardscaping features you want to emphasize, such as a water fountain or pond.

Keep it simple

With these traditional landscapes, less is more, so don’t go overboard with competing elements when planning your zen garden. For decorative statues, wind chimes, and other garden decor, aim for the maximum impact of each piece instead of quantity. A few accents go a long way!

Flow with curves

zen garden

Zen gardens emphasize peace and quiet, so incorporating some calming curves to your zen garden design is a great idea. Design walkways and garden beds with curved edges, and trim any shrubs or trees using the traditional Nawaki pruning method–– emphasizing soft, rounded shapes that resemble clouds.

Choose plants carefully

Zen gardens feature plants like any other garden, but typically, they blend with the other elements of the garden to create an overall feel instead of providing a focal point. Be selective when choosing plants for your zen garden to make sure the whole landscape flows together.

Ferns, ornamental grasses, succulents, and other drought-tolerant plants are some of the best plants for a low-maintenance touch to accompany the rocks in your zen garden. For larger greenery that will still suit the vibe of the garden, consider Sawara cypress, Buddha belly bamboo, or Japanese maple.

Note: if you’re considering bamboo for your zen garden, make sure to stay away from invasive varieties. It’s hard to keep calm when you’re constantly having to fight to keep your garden together!

Add a meditation space

Get the most out of your zen garden by dedicating a space to quiet contemplation. Pergolas and screens provide some protection while still allowing you to be present in nature, and oversized outdoor cushions can create a nice space to sit down.

Looking to take your zen garden to the next level? Incorporate a sand garden to feature a space for meditative raking. This ancient practice is calming to participate in and satisfying to watch–– and, it allows you to create endless art in your own backyard.

FAQ about zen gardens

How do I make a budget-friendly zen garden?

Zen gardens are easy to adapt to your budget needs. Keep your design simple for a calming atmosphere that’s easy to design, and focus on low-maintenance plants that will fit with the garden scheme and allow you to save money on care.

What plants are best for a zen garden?

Ferns, ornamental grasses, succulents, and other drought-tolerant plants are great for a zen garden. Consider focusing on native species to highlight the beauty of your environment and increase biodiversity. 

How do you arrange rocks in a zen garden?

When arranging rocks in your zen garden, aim for a naturalistic flow instead of straight lines. Small rocks can be piled in a circle alongside design features like a water fountain or potted plant, while larger rocks can help guide pathways or create markers in your meditation space.

Don’t stress about landscaping

Your yard should be a calming space, particularly if you’re interested in designing a zen garden. Don’t spend hours stressing over how to design your garden from scratch. Instead, call a local landscaping pro for expert assistance while you relax. 

Then, once your zen garden is complete, a lawn care professional near you will make sure the surrounding environment stays just as serene.

Main Image Credit: el_ave / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Annie Parnell

Originally from the Washington, D.C., area, Annie Parnell is a freelance writer and audio producer based in Richmond, Virginia. She is passionate about gardening, outdoor recreation, sustainability, and all things music and pop culture.