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How to Make a Zen Garden

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Zen Garden Design
A Zen garden with circles traced in crushed white gravel, a stone lantern, some plants and black rocks and stepping stones.

Zen gardens, which are like miniature landscapes, typically have simple, minimalistic designs. Flowing water is often represented by sand or fine gravel raked into curving lines. Boulders and large stones stand in for islands.  

Many Zen gardens are also enclosed by walls. If you don’t have an enclosed garden space, use a bamboo screen, fence panel or lattice fence around your garden or on at least one side. If you enclose the garden completely, add a gate for easy access. 

Choose a Site for a Zen Garden
Someone raking leaves from a lawn to make a place for a Zen garden.

Consider putting your garden in an area you can see from inside your home. Choose a flat site that gets sun or shade, depending on the kind of plants you want to grow. Keep in mind that traditional Zen gardens don't use many plants.

Level the ground for your garden with a rake and remove stones, roots or other debris. Then tamp down the soil to make a firm foundation for rocks, lanterns and other elements you want to use that might tip over.

Dig Holes for Plants and Rocks
Someone digging a hole in the ground for plants in a Zen garden.

Use a shovel to dig holes for your plants and put some organic matter in the holes, if needed, to improve the soil. Read the plant tags or labels to know how much sun or shade they need, arrange them any way you like and re-fill the holes. 

You may also want to dig holes to partially bury any big stones or rocks you will use, although very large boulders are usually left above ground. Some Zen gardeners bury tall, narrow rocks, leaving only the tips showing, to symbolize trees. If the rocks are going to represent natural features, arrange them naturally, not in straight lines or formal patterns. 

Lichen or moss-covered rocks are a nice touch for shady areas. They can be partially buried or left unburied. 

Cover the Garden with Landscape Fabric
Someone using a hammer and garden staples to hold landscape fabric over the site for a Zen garden.

When you're finished with the plants and rocks, put a layer of landscape fabric over the garden and cut out holes for them. Top the fabric with a few inches of fine gravel, pebbles or crushed granite chips, using a hoe to spread it around. The landscape fabric will help hold the soil in place and discourage weeds from popping up.

Add sand, if desired, and rake swirls or patterns into it. Change the design whenever you're ready, or repeat it if it's disturbed by wind or rain. 

Use dark sand or gravel if your Zen garden gets a lot of sunlight and glare is a problem. 

Zen Garden Plants
A pink camellia blossom for a Zen garden.

Be safe and don't use toxic plants or plant parts if children and pets are around.

Remember, Zen gardens don't use a lot of plants. Instead, choose specimen plants for color, texture and interest in different seasons, such as spring-blooming shrubs and dwarf pines that stay green year-round.

Foliage plants to grow include:

  • Moss
  • Ferns
  • Creeping thyme
  • Yews
  • Junipers
  • Nandinas
  • Conifers
  • Japanese maples

Flowering plants include:

  • Azaleas
  • Rhododendrons
  • Camellias
  • Ornamental cherry trees
Small Backyard Zen Garden Ideas
A small Zen garden in a backyard, backed by a bamboo screen, and made with white pebbles, a stone lantern and planted with ferns and a red Japanese maple tree.
  • If your backyard is small, make a Zen garden in one corner, using an existing fence or wall behind it. 

  • Scale down the ideas in this guide for making a small backyard Zen garden. Use a small sculpture as a focal point and add a few dwarf or miniature plants. Moss is an excellent ground cover for a shady area.

  • Although authenic Zen gardens are typically dry landscapes, consider adding sand, gravel and a few plants around a small water feature, such as a fountain, or use a pond kit. If it's large enough, a pond could hold one or more lotus or other water plants.

  • Turn a narrow alley between your house and a fence or wall into a Zen garden.  

  • If you have a pavilion or arbor in your backyard, landscape around it with a few Zen garden elements. Add uplights to nearby trees so you can enjoy the space at night. 

  • For a minimalistic garden in a small space, surround a boulder or interesting-looking rock with sand and rake a design into it. 

How to Make a Mini Zen Garden
A mini Zen garden with sand, pebbles, a succulent, a small rake and a small Buddha figurine.

Use a shallow, decorative planter to make a mini Zen garden. Choose a small, potted plant, such as a slow-growing, low-maintenance succulent. One  plant is enough for a mini garden. 

Pour some sand into the planter and put the potted plant, still in its container, on top of it. Add more sand to help hold the potted plant in place. If you want a second color of sand, use it to make a design on the first layer. 

Use a few pebbles and a small figurine for decoration. You can also trace a design in the sand with a bamboo skewer. Change the design anytime you like. This mini Zen garden is fun to keep on a desktop or give as a gift.

Follow the care instructions for your plant on how much light, water and fertilizer it requires.