Creating and Designing a Zen Garden

Kathrin Auer Kathrin Auer

A Zen garden with gravel areas, topiaries and stones radiates peace and harmony. We have some tips about how you can create one yourself - both on a large scale and as a mini Zen garden.

Japanese Zen garden

A Japanese Zen garden creates an oasis of calm and invites silent contemplation

A Zen garden is a well-known and ever more popular form of the Japanese garden. It is also referred to as “kare-san-sui”, which translated means “dry landscape”. Stones play a pivotal role in Zen gardens. However, the design of the space between the rocks with gravel areas, moss, and selected plants is also extremely important. Generally, a Zen garden is an enclosed area that is surrounded by a wall, fence or hedge. In these fast-paced, hectic times in particular, spirit and soul can find peace in a Zen garden. You can create a mini Zen garden in your own four walls in just a few steps.

The garden style originates from the Japanese Zen cloisters. Zen - a method of Buddhist meditation - was brought to Japan from China by monks in the 13th century and after some time permeated into all areas of Japanese culture. The “emptiness” in the teachings of Zen Buddhism in particular gave the impulse for important developments in garden culture. A Zen garden forgoes the excessive use of strong colors, unnatural materials, and superfluous decorations. Instead, Zen gardens are primarily conceived as gardens for consideration; peace and restraint are central themes.

The principle paradigm for the Japanese gardener is nature. The harmony Zen gardens radiate is not the result here of a sophisticated plan, rather the result of a great deal of mindfulness. You should carefully observe how nature behaves in the forests, valleys, and rivers to gain a feeling for proportions and near-natural design.

The central elements of the Zen garden

Stones, plants, and water - these are the main components of a Japanese garden that should always form a harmonious unit. The element of water is symbolized by gravel in a Zen garden. Waterfalls are recreated by the rocks while stones in the gravel areas symbolize small islands in the sea. The gravel is often raked in order to reinforce the impression of water. Here, various patterns are carefully pulled into the gravel areas with a rake. Straight lines represent the leisurely flow of a wide current, wave patterns recreate the movements of the sea. Combinations of straight lines and circular and wave patterns around individual rocks or bushes are also popular.

Zen garden with gravel, stones, and plants

Stones, plants, and water form a harmonious unit in a Japanese Zen garden. The element of water is symbolized by the raked gravel area

Planning and Creating a Zen Garden

You don’t need a lot of space if you want to create a Zen garden. Even a small garden or a quiet corner can be transformed into a Zen oasis. Ideally, the space should be easily visible from a patio or a window. A subtle visual screen or a trimmed evergreen hedge can create suitable frameworks for a Zen garden. Make a sketch beforehand of how you would like to harmoniously break up the ground with stones, moss islands, and shrubs. To create the gravel area, first remove any weeds and roots and dig out the intended area to a depth of around 7.87 inches. The gravel grain size should be about 0.31 inches. You can mark the course of the various elements with twine and wooden rods.

Positioning stones and stone groups in a Zen garden

Stones form the stable basis of Japanese Zen gardens. They often represent mountains and islands and lend the garden tranquility and radiance. Hard stones such as granite, basalt, and gneiss in particular are extremely versatile. You should limit yourself to one or two types of stone for a harmonious interaction. You can also take inspiration from the types of stone which occur in your region. Stone groupings in Japanese gardens always consist of an uneven number of elements. This natural asymmetry is a pleasant contrast to the straight-lined architecture of structures. The focal point is often formed by a large, main stone, flanked by two small stones. Flat stones are perfect to use as stepping stones and lay through the gravel sea. They should have a diameter of 7.87 to 11.81 inches for a comfortable walking area.

Zen garden with stepping stones

How the course of a river meanders through the gravel sea around the path of stepping stones

Integrating plants into the Zen garden

Flowering plants play a subordinate role in Zen gardens. Instead, evergreen topiaries are of central significance. Conifers and certain cypresses are suitable as garden bonsai trees. The Japanese associate pines in particular with stamina, strength, and longevity. Popular species of pine in Japanese gardens include the Japanese black pine (Pinus thunbergii), the Japanese red pine (Pinus densiflora), and the Japanese white pine (Pinus parviflora). However, black pines (Pinus nigra), mountain pines (Pinus mugo), and Scotch pines (Pinus sylvestris) are also suitable for topiary. Junipers (Juniperus), English yew (Taxus baccata), and False cypress (Chamaecyparis) are also highly attractive as topiary. If you don’t want to forego color in your Zen garden, you can plant select Magnolias (Magnolia) or Japanese Azaleas (Rhododendron japonicum) . Individual Japanese Maples (Acer japonicum) are an eye-catcher in the fall.

Mountain pine (Pinus mugo)

The Mountain pine (Pinus mugo) is extremely appealing as topiary in a Zen garden

Mosses are essential in Japanese garden design. You can use moss to create connections between individual elements in the Zen garden. However, most species of moss require high levels of humidity. Scottish Moss (Sagina subulata) is suitable as a mossy cushion plant for the semi-shade. You can use Green Carpet (Herniaria glabra) as an alternative for dry, sunny locations. Yareta (Azorella) also thrives in the sun.

Properly caring for a Zen garden

A Zen garden requires regular care. Topiaries in particular need to be pruned at least twice a year. This is less about the result and more about the meditative, mindful work in the garden. Whether picking up leaves, pulling weeds, or sweeping the path: Let your thoughts be entirely about the task in hand. You can achieve a highly calming effect on the spirit if you occasionally rake straight or wavy lines in the gravel areas. It can also be meditative to clip off the shoots of the pines. This is necessary if the trees are to remain small and flat.

Creating a mini Zen garden

Mini Zen garden

All you need for a mini Zen garden is a container, fine sand, a pebble, and a small rake

If you don’t have your own garden you can create a mini Zen garden and place it in your living room, for example. The same design principle applies as it does for big examples: Less is more. For a miniature garden in kare-san-sui style, all you need for a basis is a container, fine sand, gravel, and a small rake. Choose a simple wooden container, or a glass bowl, for example, and fill the container with sand. You can now position one, three or five gravel stones, depending on the size of the container. Pull lines in the gravel and circles around the stone with the rake to further emphasize the element of water. If you have more space you can also place a knotted piece of wood as a miniature tree. Lichens and moss can be fixed to the wood with wire to recreate the shape of Japanese trees.

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