Creating a Zen garden: how to create a place of tranquility

Frederike
Frederike
Frederike
Frederike

I am a student of agricultural sciences and a real country kid. At home, I love tending my small vegetable garden and spending time out in nature. When not outdoors, I love to write. Beyond gardening and writing, however, I am particularly passionate about wildlife.

Favourite fruit: currants and raspberries
Favourite vegetables: salsify, savoy cabbage and potatoes

Many want to create a place of rest and relaxation n their garden. We give tips on how to create a Zen garden that provides inner balance.

raked gravel patterns surrounding moss
Zen gardens create spaces for relaxation [Photo: Thye-Wee Gn/ Shutterstock.com]

Gardens represent for many a place of rest and relaxation. The Zen garden in particular is said to have an exceptionally calming aura. Thus, the Japanese garden form is often associated with perfect harmony and aesthetics – such a garden is therefore considered the perfect place for mindfulness and meditation. In their homeland, the gardens are called Kare-san-sui, which translates to “dry landscape” and points directly to the main material of the Zen garden – namely, it is a stone garden. However, unlike rustic German stone gardens, Zen gardens are less colourfully designed and instead rely on clean lines that are ingeniously laid out. How you too can create a Zen garden, we reveal here.

Creating a Zen garden

Even in this country, the Japanese Zen garden is becoming more and more popular. If you are looking for inner peace and a place for meditation, this type of garden design is what you need. Creating a Zen garden is fortunately not difficult, so you can look forward to having your own aesthetic garden to admire and linger in.

The 3 main elements of the Zen garden

A traditional Zen garden classically consists of only three basic elements: Water, stones and moss. However, the first point in particular regularly causes confusion, as it is rare to find actual water in a Zen garden. In fact, this is symbolized by the large gravel areas that are typical of this form of garden design. Flowing surface gradients and patterns raked into the gravel enhance the impression of a body of water. Stones, on the other hand, usually represent island or mountains, but can also stand for groups of animals. In fact, moss is the only plant used in a traditionally constructed Zen garden. In the meantime, however, trees, especially topiaries and bonsais, are also frequently planted in Zen gardens, while flowering plants hardly play a role and are rarely encountered. The goal of the Zen garden is to create, with the help of its basic elements, an environment that should represent nature and reflect the proportions of forests, mountain ranges and rivers.

mossy boulder surrounded by white gravel
Traditional Zen gardens consist of only three elements: Gravel, stones and moss [Photo: twoKim studio/ Shutterstock.com]

Planning

Before you start creating a Zen garden, accurate planning in the form of a sketch is crucial. First of all, you need to clarify whether you want to arrange your entire garden in the Zen style or whether you want to convert only a separate area. The latter method is particularly popular, in which only a small part is converted into a Zen garden and separated from the rest of the property by a hedge or fence.

A place that is easily visible from the terrace or window is ideal, as it is especially the contemplation of the Zen garden that conveys peace and serenity. Here you should also already draw the various gravel areas and the positioning of individual plants and stones so that you can calculate the appropriate amount of materials such as gravel and sand. Ideally, the individual areas should be laid out in such a way that they appear as natural as possible – this means that the transitions between the areas are smooth and that at first glance there is no beginning or end to be seen.

Zen garden design

Once you have completed the sketch of your Zen garden, the work in the garden begins. First of all, all the lawns that are in the area of the Zen Garden must be raked, including the roots. To do this, remove about the top 20 centimetres of garden soil. Then place a garden fleece or other water-permeable sheet in the excavated bed – this will later prevent grasses, weeds or other plants from making their way through the gravel layer. It is not necessary to fix the film, as it is reliably held in place by the heavy gravel. Plants such as small bonsais or moss are planted by cutting crosswise into the film and planting the green garden inhabitants directly into the soil below. However, if you do not want to damage your garden fleece, you can put the plants in sufficiently large pots. Now you are ready to fill the area with gravel. The height of the gravel layer can vary according to taste – but care should be taken to ensure that the surface can be raked easily later without the tool damaging the film. Finally, place stones and decorations and rake the typical patterns into the gravel to give the Zen garden its characteristic look.

removing lawn area with shovel
Remove your lawn to prepare the Zen garden [Photo: ABO PHOTOGRAPHY/ Shutterstock.com]

How to design a Zen garden?

1. Define floor plans and individual beds in your sketch
2. Cut the lawn to a depth of about 20 cm
3. Line excavated bed with water-permeable film
4. Insert plants by cutting the film in a crisscross pattern and planting the plants in the soil underneath
5. Fill bed with gravel
6. Insert stones and decorations
7. Rake gravel into shape

Plants for Zen gardens

Traditionally, only one plant genus is allowed in the Zen garden: moss. However, the design with mosses is not as boring as it sounds at first, because they actually have numerous variations to offer. Various native moss species such as the beard moss (Barbula) or some species of haircap moss (Polytrichum) are not only visually appealing but also particularly easy to care for. Moss substitute plants such as Irish-moss (Sagina subulata) are also particularly popular in Zen gardens. With its cushiony growth, this is an ideal and even more tread-resistant ground cover and is also considered particularly robust, which is why it is also suitable for semi-shady places. Cushion bolax (Azorella trifurcata), with its rosette-like growth, is also suitable for the Zen garden and makes a pretty eye-catcher. By combining different mosses with each other, interesting texture differences and thus unobtrusive eye-catchers can be realized in the Zen garden.

round shrubs in rock garden
Contemporary Zen gardens feature more plants [Photo: Sergii Rudiuk/ Shutterstock.com]

Besides the various mosses, other plants are increasingly cultivated in modern Zen gardens. Of particular importance here is the bonsai, i.e. the miniaturised growth form of well-known trees, which also has its origins in Japan. Although cypress trees (Cupressus) are also suitable for the Zen garden, conifers are especially popular. Especially pine varieties such as Japanese black pine (Pinus thunbergii), girl pine (Pinus parviflora) or Japanese red pine (Pinus densiflora) are welcome guests as a sign of longevity and strength. The Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) is suitable as a special eye-catcher, and has stunning and intense autumn colours. However, Japanese yew (Taxus cuspidata) or boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) can also be suitably used as topiary. Bamboo species (Fargesia murielae), which do not form runners, also act as eye-catchers in Zen gardens thanks to their Asian charm.

Stones

Stones have a special meaning in the Zen garden and often have an even higher value than plants. Symbolically, they often represent mountain ranges or islands and not infrequently form the focal point in the garden. However, they should never be placed symmetrically or even in geometric shapes – since the Zen garden is based on natural proportions, a natural asymmetry or wave pattern is preferred. For this reason, stone groups often consist of an odd number of stones, which are composed of a large main stone in the center and several smaller secondary stones. The type of stone is usually of less importance and can be selected according to individual taste. However, hard rocks such as granites or basalts are particularly suitable due to their high resistance. You should commit to one or two types of rocks, otherwise the Zen garden will quickly look too restless. From an ecological point of view, it is recommended to use regional types of stone.

Tip: Erratic blocks, which can be found in many regions, can also be beautifully displayed in the Zen garden.

Zen garden decoration

Even though the classic Zen garden is completely devoid of decoration, many owners want to add the finishing touches to their garden with a few pieces of art. In this garden, however, the motto is “less is more” – limit yourself to a few meaningful decorative elements so as not to disrupt the clean, natural lines of the Zen garden. Stone elements, for example, sculptures or lanterns fit especially well with the style of the garden. Buddhas are also a great fit due to their Asian origins and calming charm. Bamboo items, pagodas or water basins are not classically included in Zen gardens, but they can become great eye-catchers.

raked gravel garden and red trees
Decorate your Zen garden with different stones [Photo: CHEN MIN CHUN/ Shutterstock.com]

How to care for your Zen garden

Not only is the mere contemplation of the Zen garden said to have a calming effect on the mind, but working in it is also considered almost meditative. The fact that working in a Zen garden also has a positive effect on the body is a real stroke of luck, because only with regular care can you enjoy your garden for a long time. Typical tasks that need to be done from time to time to maintain the garden include picking up leaves and other plant matter, sweeping paths, and pulling weeds. While doing so, make sure that your thoughts are completely with yourself and your work – this way, the cultivation of the Zen garden has a particularly meditative effect. Raking the gravel areas also has a calming effect. Here you can also live out your creative streak and draw various wavy or straight lines in the gravel. If you have chosen plants in the Zen garden, they must also be looked after. Specifically, regular pruning (at least twice a year) of topiaries is necessary to maintain the clean lines of the Zen garden. In the case of pines, the young shoots should additionally be cut off – in this way, you can ensure that trees remain particularly small and flat.

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