Add a Japanese Zen Garden to Your Backyard

Home » Blog » Add a Japanese Zen Garden to Your Backyard

Robert Pavlis

Zen gardens are some of the most famous examples of Japanese gardens. Originally invented by Japanese monks as early as the 700s, they are now iconic and popular around the world. Other names for Zen gardens include mediation gardens and Japanese rock gardens. Stones, sand and gravel are the most important features of these gardens, though they can also include bridges, water features and plants. At a glance, these gardens look simple and subdued but they are packed with meaning. The essence is a calming space for meditation that evokes natural landscapes on a small scale, which makes them a great choice for gardeners looking for a peaceful retreat in the comfort of their own home. Compared to other types of Japanese gardens, Zen gardens can be successfully created in small spaces and have low maintenance.

Add a Japanese Zen Garden to Your Backyard, Shitenno-ji honbo garden, source: 663highland
Add a Japanese Zen Garden to Your Backyard, Shitenno-ji honbo garden, source: 663highland

What is a Zen Garden?

Zen gardens are abstractions of scenes found in nature rather than replicas of actual natural places. They were originally dry landscapes created in temple courtyards to facilitate meditation. Rather than stimulating the senses, the goal is to promote stillness in the viewer. Buddhist monks believed they could achieve mental emptiness and inner peace more readily in a minimalist garden that only contained simple forms.  Meditation can involve sitting, standing, or walking. Maintaining the garden by raking gravel, pruning plants and weeding is also a form of meditation.

A Stone Foundation

Kongōbu-ji Garden, the beauty of stone and sand, source: Christophe95
Kongōbu-ji Garden, the beauty of stone and sand, source: Christophe95

Stones are the most important elements within a Zen garden. They represent mountains, trees, water and fire. Traditional Zen gardens are dry landscapes, so gravel is used to represent water. Beds of sand, gravel or pebbles are arranged to remind the viewer of a flowing river or a serene pond, with larger stones as the border. Stones can also be stacked and placed to evoke a waterfall. Wooden or stone bridges over or near these dry water features emphasize their role in the garden.

Dry waterfalls at Senshūkaku-teien, Tokushima, Shikoku, source:
Dry waterfalls at Senshūkaku-teien, Tokushima, Shikoku, source:

Beds of sand and gravel should be irregularly shaped and curving to look as natural and dynamic as possible. Think naturally occurring rivers and ponds. Geometric shapes, straight lines and angles are contradictory to the essence of the Zen garden. Swirling, curving, or circular patterns raked into the sand or gravel enhances the feeling of movement. It’s best to use gravel rather than sand in a backyard setting since sand moves around too much and can quickly become high maintenance.

Soil Science for Gardeners book by Robert Pavlis

Rocks placed vertically represent mountains, while rocks oriented horizontally symbolize islands or earth. These symbolized islands can then be completely surrounded by gravel. Rough and worn rocks are preferred to represent mountain landscapes, while smoother rocks are used as stepping stones or placed around dry or wet water features. Over time, rocks will take on a more weathered appearance, adding age to the garden.

Daisen-In garden, dry stream with small stone bridge, source: Ivanoff~commonswiki
Daisen-In garden, dry stream with small stone bridge, source: Ivanoff~commonswiki

Rocks (and other garden elements) are usually arranged asymmetrically to create a spontaneous look that could be found in nature. Odd-numbered groupings of varying heights and sizes in random configurations is key to this Japanese style.

The pursuit of the “correct” way to choose and place rocks and other elements could take years to fully understand and master. Traditional Japanese gardening texts emphasized that improper rock arrangement could lead to bad luck and misfortune. For the purpose of your garden, however, you should do what feels and looks right intuitively. Remember, Zen gardens are about relieving stress, not adding to it!

An Optional Splash of Water

Actual water features are present in many Japanese rock gardens, though they are not found in dry Zen gardens. The presence of water provides a healing and life-giving force, so it wouldn’t hurt to include one if you want a water feature in your garden.  Water features can increase the peacefulness of the garden through multiple senses and if you build it using natural techniques it will require little maintenance.

Another benefit to a water feature is the possibility of growing aquatic plants like Nymphea (water lilies) and Nelumbo (lotus), which are a staple in different types of Japanese gardens, including Paradise Gardens, Stroll Gardens and Pond Gardens.

Pond and Japanese Tea House at Aspen Grove Gardens
Pond and Japanese Tea House at Aspen Grove Gardens

The key to Japanese style water features is to make them look as natural as possible, with asymmetric shapes bordered by rocks. This is in stark contrast to the geometric shapes found in European formal gardens or modern-style gardens. Ponds are usually shaped to look like miniature lakes found in nature, while waterfalls are scaled down versions of mountain streams. Water features generally face the moon to capture its reflection at night.

A Minimalist Plant Palette

When it comes to plants in a Zen garden, less is more. In fact, many famous gardens, like the mystifying Ryoan-ji contain no plants at all except for moss. Using a small number of plants keeps things un-cluttered. The idea is that people are subjected to a lot of mental stimulation all day, and a Zen garden can be the one place where you can fully relax and clear your mind. Plus, fewer plants results in less maintenance, especially since the gravel prevents most weeds.

Juniper and rock form simple grouping, source: Marika Li
Juniper and rock form a simple grouping, source: Marika Li

The planted areas in a Zen garden evoke islands, riverbanks or the forests that grow around mountains. Another common configuration is creating a border of plants around a central stretch of gravel. Like rock placement, plants should be arranged in a way that looks spontaneous and asymmetrical and growing them between rocks enhances their natural effect.

Moss is popular because it can grow over rocks and give an ancient feeling to the garden. Shrubs, especially dwarf evergreens, are a great choice for Zen gardens. Low-growing evergreens like dwarf Japanese juniper (Juniperus procumbens ‘Nana’) are a good groundcover choice in areas that are too sunny for moss. Microbiota descussate (Siberian carpet cypress) is another Japanese garden favorite that’s underrated in the west. Growing low evergreens on or near rocks is a classic choice for rock gardens.

Generally, plants in the Zen garden are of varying shades of green for a monochromatic effect. Such a color scheme is soothing to the eye, whereas a lot of color and contrast is eye-catching and energizing. Rather than relying on color for interest, Japanese gardeners like to use different heights, textures and shapes of green.

Myoshinji Daishin-in Temple
Myoshinji Daishin-in Temple

This style of planting is not for everyone and you might want to add more color and seasonal interest. A lot of traditional Japanese plants are colorful and can be incorporated into the garden. Some great examples include Berberis (barberry), Acer palmatum (Japanese maple), Rhododendron (rhododendrons/azaleas), Hakonechloa (forest grass), Prunus (ornamental cherry), Wisteria, Hosta and Iris.

A Walk Towards Inner Peace

Clearly defined areas for walking are a common element in some Zen gardens. Japanese gardens mimic the spontaneity of nature, but they are still controlled little worlds. Pathways provide order by guiding people to specific views or controlling the pace of movement in the garden.

Like all garden elements, walkways can be as formal or informal as the gardener desires. A simple walkway could be a gravel path, while more intricate walkways involve stepping stones or carefully fitted pavers.

A Sense of Enclosure

The classic Zen garden, Ryoan-ji dry garden, source: Stephane D'Alu
The classic Zen garden, Ryoan-ji dry garden, source: Stephane D’Alu

Zen gardens are meant to be closed off by a wall or fence to separate the space from the outside world, making them a great choice for backyard gardens. Fences also provide a plain backdrop to make the features of the garden pop. You could incorporate Japanese fencing or screens, but plain wooden fences or a backdrop of tall trees subtly complements the Zen garden. You could even separate your mediation garden from the rest of the garden using a hedge.

The essentials, enclosed in green, source: Fadesga
The essentials, enclosed in green, source: Fadesga

Meditate in Your New Zen Garden

Zen gardens come in many flavors and sizes. Yours can have the scale and complexity that suits your space and your lifestyle. Simply opening up a space in your garden for meditation with a bed of gravel, some rocks and low-maintenance shrubs will add some well-needed serenity to your backyard.

Written by: Marika Li

If you like this post, please share .......

Robert Pavlis

I have been gardening my whole life and have a science background. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

2 thoughts on “Add a Japanese Zen Garden to Your Backyard”

Please leave a comment either here or in our Facebook Group: Garden Fundamentals