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What is a Zen Garden? 11 Steps to Creating One and History!

This is a close look at the zen garden of a Japanese temple with large decorative rocks and sand adorned by the patterns.

We could all use a little more zen in our lives, especially nowadays. Spending so much time inside results in getting real creative with DIY projects and other ways to fill the time. If we’re going to get weird about it, why not create something that brings us peace and tranquility?

The incredible thing about rock gardens is that they can be made in any size. My personal Zen Rock Garden is in my living room and is only the size of a coffee table. But still, whenever I see that beautiful little square of precious stones and soothing sand, I am inspired to meditate or to simply take a moment to breathe intently.

Today I wanted to share with you the history of traditional Japanese Zen Gardens, how this practice has adapted into what it is now, and how to create one in your own outdoor space.

Related: Backyard Zen Garden Ideas | Types of Gardens | Garden Step Ideas | Plant Garden Ideas | Japanese Garden Ideas

History of the Zen Garden

Before these types of gardens were referred to as Japanese Rock Gardens, they began their existence as Japanese Zen Gardens. Zen gardens have been around ever since the Heian period stretching from 794-1185.

The original Japanese Zen gardens were built within Zen Buddhist temples. The gardens themselves are traditionally built in contained areas and bring about a feeling of tranquility. The small “dry landscape” as they are often called, is meant to represent the rugged Japanese mountainous and oceanic landscape.

A serene zen garden of rocks, shrubs and trees that complement the Japanese temple.

The reason for the creation of these zen gardens was to provide a tranquil place for the Buddhists to meditate, but still feel the force of nature within their confinement. Within this tiny landscape, large rocks are meant to represent mountains, small shrubs represent island wildlife, and the sand or white gravel represents the sea.

Important Details of Zen Rock Gardens

With traditions so old and particular, they usually come with a set of rules. There is actually a manual of Japanese Gardening called the Sakuteiki (which translates to “Records of Garden Making”) that has a specific section describing the art of “setting stones” or ichi wo tateru koto which translates directly to “the act of setting stones upright”.

The correct placement of large stones is by far the most important detail of creating traditional Japanese Zen Rock Gardens. In the past, these stones symbolized spiritually significant mountains, like the Penglai Mountain. In the Sakuteiki, it states that if the rules of rock placement were not met, that the gardener would suffer misfortune.

This zen garden has decorative rocks, sand with patterns and a surrounding grass lawn for a color contrast.

Within the Japanese gardening manual, it also speaks of the significance of sand in the rock garden. The sand is meant to symbolize purity, and act as a visual representation of the ocean. The ocean itself represents emptiness and distance — which are both important themes in meditation practices.

You’re probably familiar with the art of raking sand into fluid patterns – very similar to the art of Mandala making. This rippling in Japanese culture is known as samon or hokime. 

Bonsai trees are often present in Japanese Zen Rock Gardens as well. Otherwise, small shrubs and plants represent island vegetation. Modest mosses and pruned trees complete the minimalistic and tranquil dry landscape that is the Japanese Rock Garden.

This zen garden has a alrge decorative rock formation adorned with gravel and various flowering shrubs.

What You’ll Need to Make Your Own Zen Garden

These types of gardens require far fewer materials, but they aren’t as simply created as you may think.

  • feature rocks
  • border rocks
  • sand or white gravel (white gravel is used nowadays because it’s less vulnerable to wind and water)
  • landscaping fabric
  • nails or a staple gun
  • steel garden rake
  • wooden zen rake
  • shovel
  • tamper

Getting Started

First and foremost, you’ll need to choose what plants you would like to have present. Since you probably don’t own a copy of the Sakuteiki, you can have a little bit more freedom of what plants you’d like to choose. Some plants that are very compatible with this mini dry landscape are as follows:

This is a serene bamboo forest surrounding a walkway with lighting.

  • Chinese lanterns

This is a close look at a Chinese lantern plant with bright orange fruits.

  • Creeping Junipers

This is a close look at a creeping juniper planted on a graveled zen garden.

  • Creeping thyme

This is a close look at a creeping thyme planted on a graveled zen garden.

  • Crimson Queen Japanese maple

This is a beautiful crimson queen Japanes emaple tree that dominates the zen garden.

  • Ferns

This is a close look at a lone fern growing on a zen garden.

  • Moss

This is a close look ar decorative rocks in a zen garden covered in moss.

  • Weeping snow fountain cherry

A close look at weeping snow fountain cherry blanketed on a wooden fence.


Once you’ve decided on your plants, pick the area in your yard that is most suitable for those kinds of plants. Do they prefer full sun, partial shade, or full shade? They will be growing in soil, not sand, so there’s no need to fret over choosing plants that thrive in rocky soil.

Now it’s time to plan out your miniature dry landscape. Traditionally, rocks were never placed symmetrically or in an organized fashion. Since Zen Rock Gardens are meant to imitate the rugged mountainous landscape of Japan, the rocks are situated in a way that mountains randomly occur in nature.

This is a zen garden with decorative rocks, patterned sand and shrubs topped with trees.

Creating Your Zen Garden

  1. Completely clear out space where you’d like to place your rock garden
  2. Remove the top few inches of soil with a shovel
  3. Take your steel garden rake and even out the surface
  4. Take your tamper and really flatten out the surface of the soil until its completely even and packed
  5. Lay your landscaping fabric neatly over the flattened area
  6. Place your border stones around the border (this is a way to contain the sand or white gravel, and to keep the landscaping fabric in place)
  7. Cut out holes in the landscaping fabric where you would like to place your feature stones and plants
  8. Dig holes within the cutout holes in the landscaping fabric where you would like your large feature stones (by having them partly buried, it creates a mountain and shore effect)
  9. Dig holes within the cutout holes in the landscaping fabric where you would like your plants
  10. Install your feature stones and plants
  11. Fill out the rest of the area with sand or white gravel

And there you have it! Very simple aesthetic, and very simple creation. Now it’s time to take the zen garden rake and create your very own hokime ripples!

This is a close look at the patterned sand and decorative rocks of a zen garden.


What are zen garden plants?

You can get creative with what kinds of plants you would like to incorporate into your zen garden, but don’t forget to take into account where you live and what kinds of plants will be successful. Traditionally, plants like umbrella pines, weeping mountain snow cherry trees, Japanese grass, Chinese lanterns, crimson queen Japanese Maple, and creeping junipers are used in zen gardens.

How does a zen garden work?

This is a rather passive type of garden. The practice is less about tending to the plants, and more about tending to the patterns in the sand.

Where do I buy a mini zen garden?

What are zen gardens used for?

Zen gardens are intended to encourage an air of tranquility and peace. Their purpose is not to cultivate tons of harvestable plants or a thriving and showy garden. They were originally created as a place to meditate and reflect.

Where do I buy zen garden sand?