There are so many beautiful garden ideas out there, and garden design is usually centred around not only the plant life and natural elements of a specific region of the world, but also around the culture and how people spend their time.
Today, we’re going to go over the classic zen garden. This is an absolutely stunning example of Japanese art that incorporates both gardening, and meditative practices.
We’ll go over a little bit of history and the details of what a zen garden really is, along with some stunning photo examples to give you inspiration for your own outdoor (or indoor) space.
Classic zen gardens have been around for a very long time, and was originally created by a Buddhist monk in a zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto during the Muromachi period. The zen garden design was created to imitate the essence of nature.
A zen monk would enter a zen garden with the intent to meditate. The quiet serenity of the space was and is the perfect place to quiet the mind and reflect on the zen principle. A Buddha statue would also sometimes be incorporated into a traditional Japanese zen garden.
The zen garden imitates the essence of nature, kind of as a miniature, of labelled as “dry” landscape. This mini zen garden can appear as a small scale planet, with sand representing earth, moss representing land, and larger rocks representing mountains.
The Sakuteiki, which is the first ever record of zen gardening, uses the expression ishi wo tateru koto, which translates to “the act of setting stones upright”. The placement of rocks in a classic zen garden is very significant, and rocks are even put into specific categories: tall vertical, low vertical, arching, reclining, or flat.
Another important aspect of the classic zen garden is sand, gravel, or pebble. These materials are used to represent water, and they are often raked to created a ripple pattern. This practice is known samon or hokime.
As all things do, the overall appearance and materials used of a zen garden has changed over the course of time. Though the minimalistic design has been maintained, more modernized gardens will include a water feature, white sand or white gravel, succulent plant species, stepping stones, bamboo, and much more.
More and more, people are replacing their high maintenance lawn with even a small garden, and if you happen to live in a place that can only grow specific plant species, the zen garden might be the perfect option for you.
As you’ll see below in the photo examples, the main materials used to create a zen garden are:
white sand or white gravel (sometimes small pebbles)
small water features
Large boulders are used sparingly to create depth and texture in the garden. They serve as sculptures and are meant to represent tall mountains.
Many of these gardens are surrounded by lush garden landscapes that incorporate water, bridges, various trees and plants, moss and shrubs of all types.
Get inspired to create your own Zen garden in your backyard from the many designs and examples below.
There are truly no rules when it comes to a zen garden design. It is usually easiest to pick a large attractive rock and have everything radiate out from there.
Prepping the Space
You’ve probably noticed that the main and most important aspect of the zen garden is a look of minimalism and that it is very manicured. This means that it does require some maintenance to achieve the desired look.
This also means that there should be no weeds. The easiest way to get your zen garden started is by doing the following:
Your garden space should be stripped of all weed, grass, and plant life first. Pick a spot on your property and outline the intended shape.
Strip away all of the plant life until there is just soil.
Cover the soil with weed proof landscaping fabric and hold it in place by covering the area with either pebbles, gravel, or sand.
Leave empty space for the areas where you intend to plant your shrubs and trees and other plants.
From here, place your larger rocks first and organize the smaller ones from there.
Famous stone gardens of Kyoto. A beautiful wooden porch overlooking a simple zen garden comprised of larger stones, some ground cover plants, and white gravel. And of course we can’t forget the wonderfully manicured trees.
Zen garden in the temples of Koyasan. Very large stones set in a large landscape of lighter colored sand, with beautiful Japanese maple trees and a wooden gazebo for gazing and meditating. Source: World Heritage Site. Wakayama, Japan
Traditional rock garden or zen garden in a sunny day inside Hase-Dera or Hase-kannon Shinto. A more narrow pathway of white gravel, with large rocks laying atop some mossy ground cover plants.
Traditional Japanese raked gravel and rock garden (karesansui style) at Kodai-ji Temple in Kyoto, Japan. A very minimalistic design that focuses more of the gravel pattern more than anything else. Large and impressive trees lay in front of an even more impressive temple wall.
The Japanese landscape with the Pagoda Tower on the background at Kew Gardens, Royal Botanical Gardens, London, UK. Lovely stepping stones and stone bridges link spaces of greenery together, with more medium sized stones as features. A quaint bench lies in the background for your viewing pleasure.
Peaceful Japanese Zen Garden with Pond, Rocks, Gravel and Moss. Amazingly manicured shrubs give the appearance of rolling hills with large a rugged boulders in the foreground. A peaceful still river separates green spaces, and flat stepping stones line the outer edge of the zen garden.
Japanese zen gardens in Kyoto that focus on ornamental shrubbery with colorful flowers, different rock sizes all contrasted by very white sand.
Japanese Zen garden at the Hamilton Gardens, New Zealand. Very simple and perfectly manicured shrubs are contrasted by lichen covered boulders. Sand colored gravel is perfectly raked into ripple like patterns.
Japanese stone garden in Tofuku-ji temple (Kyoto) at sunset. A temple wall holds inside gentle rolling hills gleaming in the sunset, with vertical standing boulders and neatly raked sand.
Japanese landscape – Komyoji – Kamakura – Kanagawa. Well organized stepping stones line raked sand, with larger boulders surrounded by bright green ground cover.
Gardens of the world, East Garden, Berlin. A simple design incorporating white sand, many horizontal stones both for sitting and walking, and larger ornamental trees to bright height to the scene.
Possibly one of the most minimal designs in this collection, simple shrubby mounds in a perfect ovular shape, next to white gravel.
Kyoto Hyakumanben Chionji Temple. An absolutely stunning scene with exposed tree roots incorporated into the zen garden. Smaller ornamental trees decorate the dry landscape in place of stones and boulders.
View from Hyakumanben Chion-ji Temple’s Peaceful Gardens. The Japanese rock garden or “dry landscape” garden, often called a zen garden, creates a miniature stylized landscape through carefully composed arrangements of rocks, water features, moss, pruned trees and bushes, and uses gravel or sand that is raked to represent ripples in water.
The Japanese rock garden Karesansui) or “dry landscape” garden, often called a zen garden, creates a miniature stylized landscape through carefully composed arrangements of rocks, water features, moss, pruned trees and bushes, and uses gravel or sand that is raked to represent ripples in water.
Sand and Stone Garden. This is one of the five gardens located at the Portland Japanese Garden. This is located in the Pacific Northwest in in Portland, Oregon. I am a Photographer level member of the Portland Japanese Garden as required by the Garden for Commercial use of photos.
Koyasan, Japan – November 16, 2010: Banryutei Rock Garden in the Kongobuji temple complex. This temple is known as the headquarters of the Koyasan Shingon sect of Buddhism.This sect was introduced to Japan by Kobo Daishi in 805.World Heritage Site.Largest rock garden in Japan.
Stone and Sand Garden at Portland Japanese Garden with Tiled Roof Wall. A very neat and tiny scene, with rather small, moss covered stones giving the appearance of islands, with rippled white sand that gives the impression of water pushing away from the shore of these islands.
View of a zen rock garden in the summer. Larger shrubby bushes contrast the bright sand, and flat laying stepping stones invite you to explore the dry landscape.
Sand Garden, Kyoto, Japan. A very minimalistic design, that if you look closely, looks exactly like an aerial view of a large mountainous island surrounded by rainforests. The white rippled sand accentuates the impression of an island landscape.
Japanese garden seen from inside a traditional tatami room. This is a far more lush scene that focuses more on greenery than it does on stones and sand. Beautiful plants and shrubs encroach on the rocky features.
Temple Garden. The close up angle really accentuates the feel of you looking at a large mountain with small trees at its base. Zen gardens can sometimes fool you into thinking your experiencing the aerial view from a plane.
A beautiful small cairn sculpture on the beach near Lake Michigan. Here’s an idea – you can apply the Zen practice on a beach if you live near one or are visiting.
Bao Loc, Vietnam – Rock Garden with the rays of sunshine radiating in the sky creates a peaceful feeling at Bao Loc, Vietnam. Hyper simplicity is present here, with only small stones and sand creating the zen garden design.
Tofuku-ji Temple, which was founded in 1236, is the head temple of the Tofuku-ji School of Rinzai Sect of Zen Buddhism. Tofuku-ji Temple is one of the most popular spots for Kyoto’s beautiful autumn foliage. The maple trees beside the Tsuten Bridge in the temple are its centerpiece.
Karesansui, Japanese traditional landscape gardenn at Tofukuji temple, Kyoto, MiniKyoto. A great focus on small mounds of earth covered in mosses and grass with one single manicured tree in the background. And, of course, our perfectly rake sand necessary for a complete zen garden.
Bainbridge Island, Washington United States – A beautiful summer day at Bainbridge Island, sunlights bright on the Japanese garden and the cozy guest lounge at the Bloedel Reserve. This is an example of a small Zen garden that you could easily replicate in your backyard.
Kyoto, Japan – Kennin-ji Temple is one of the five most important Zen temples and it’s the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto. A beautiful temple wall holds inside vertical standing boulders, small manicured trees, and perfectly raked gravel.
Zen garden at Hyakumanben Chionji Temple in Kyoto, Japan. This is an excellent small Japanese Zen garden idea for your backyard. A small garden idea perfect for a courtyard space. Very small bamboo plants bring some movement to the space.
Zen garden at Hyakumanben Chionji Temple in kyoto japan. Small clusters of medium sized stones and small mounds of moss surrounded by a sea of sand. All of this is contained within beautiful white temple walls, as well as larger ornamental trees.
Zen garden at Hyakumanben Chionji Temple in kyoto japan Trees seem to be the overall focus of this zen garden design, with tall trees having their roots allowed to grow as they please, and smaller trees complimenting the perfectly raked sand.
Detail from Zen garden, which is Japanese type rock garden presenting miniature landscape. It is carefully arranged meditation place with rocks, water, or water features, sand, moss, trees and bushes .
Zen Garden japanese style of stone garden way of peace. A very simplistic design, focused on one single boulder and perfectly white sand with the classic ripple pattern. Carefully placed stepping stones appear in the background so as to not disturb the serene scene.
An absolutely stunning zen garden design with bright red Japanese maples in the background, beautifully manicured shrubs in the foreground, and manicured sand completing the scene.
Large boulders are the focus of this zen garden design. They are surrounded by darker colored earth, and larger grain sand. These are all surrounded by taller shrubby hedges.
Japanese Zen Garden near Seattle with raked sand around rocks. The centre piece of a seemingly amazing garden space complete with trees, stepping stones, and rolling hills.
Zen rock garden at the Japanese Tea Gardens in Portland Oregon. Very small rocks covered in mosses are the only feature of this zen garden. One branchless stump also acts as a feature.
Zen rock garden at the Japanese Tea Gardens in Portland Oregon. The main focus of this design is shrubbery and manicured trees instead of larger stones. A truly peaceful scene.
Small Zen garden in between Chion-ji Temle buildings walls. It is Japanese type rock garden presenting miniature landscape. It is carefully arranged meditation place with rocks, water, or water features, sand, moss, trees and bushes .
Detail from Zen garden, which is Japanese type rock garden presenting miniature landscape. It is carefully arranged meditation place with rocks, moss, trees and roots with white wall in background. That is in Chion-ji temple in Kyoto, Japan..