Andrea helps people design their homes and gardens. She likes to use Western Astrology and the Chinese Zodiac to help build templates.
Designing a Zen Garden
A zen garden is meant to be a separate space in your yard for meditation, practicing yoga, and gaining knowledge. The space is focused around rocks, muted colors, fountains, and other elements.
The zen garden is usually separated from the rest of your yard with a fence, shrub border, or bamboo wall. Zen gardens were first created as nature spaces outside temples of Zen Buddhism in Kyoto, Japan. This was during the Muromachi period.
Aspects of traditional zen gardens can be incorporated into any home garden. The size of your yard space doesn't matter as much as the way you shape it.
Stone gardens have existed in Japan for more than a thousand years. The zen gardens were written about in the 11th century by Tachibana no Toshitsuna. Zen gardens were an adaptation of Chinese garden philosophy.
Pick a Site
For your zen garden, select a flat space that's in a corner and out-of-the-way. The garden should have contrasting materials from the rest of your yard.
- This should be a space where you can let your thoughts wander, do yoga, read a book, or find your creative side.
- After picking the site for the zen garden, take measurements of the space.
- Visualize it before you begin working on it.
I would encourage looking at a multitude of zen gardens before you create yours. You want to be inspired and know what is out there. Read books, watch YouTube videos, and look for images online. A Pinterest board is a great way to get started. A giant vision board also helps. You could cut out magazine photos and make a collage.
There are seven guiding principles to zen gardens:
- Austerity, Koko
- Simplicity, Kanso
- Naturalness, Shinzen
- Asymmetry, Fukinsei
- Mystery or Subtlety, Yugen
- Magical or Unconventional, Datsuzoku
- Stillness, Seijaku
Your garden should attempt to promote all seven of the guiding principles. You can do this by opening up the space, adding art, adding seats, and arranging rocks.
Drawing a design of your garden may help you to achieve your goals. If drawing isn't your talent, skip this step. If you do draw a design, you'll want to keep scale in mind. If you have a small zen garden then giant stones might overwhelm it.
You want to be able to comfortably walk in your garden. It shouldn't be too cluttered or difficult to step into it.
Keep in mind zen designs are flexible. There are several ways to create a garden, and you don't have to stick to all the traditional rules. If it makes you happy and gives you the desired calm that you want then you are on the right track. (This space is for you and your household. Build a community zen garden if you want it to have community standards and community appeal.)
A zen garden gives you a quiet, private space to appreciate beauty and life. Both the rocks and gravel give you a chance to express your spirit in nature.
Everything to Know about Rocks
In the zen garden, the rocks can be used to represent different facets of life. It is fairly common to use the rocks to represent landscapes and landmarks. The rocks often represent mountains, but they can also be used to represent castles, beasts, people, caves, dungeons, forests, and the cosmos.
The selection of rocks and their placement are both integral to a zen garden's design. The Sakuteiki, the Records of Garden Making, is an old text that laid out specific rules for placing your rocks. It warned that if the rules weren't followed then misfortune would follow.
Here are some of the rules in the Sakuteiki:
- Make sure all the stones are placed with their most attractive sides showing.
- If a rock has an ugly looking top, you should place it on its side where it looks better.
- If there is a stone that appears to be running away then there should be a stone that appears to chase it.
- There should be more horizontal stones than vertical stones.
- If there are leaning stones then there must be supporting stones.
- Tall vertical
- Low vertical
Rocks resembling mountains are usually igneous volcanic rocks. Smooth, sedimentary rocks that are round are generally used for borders. These are usually added around gravel rivers or lakes.
In Chinese gardens representative of the Song Dynasty, rocks that have idiosyncratic features are often the stars or main attractions of the garden. This includes rocks that look like animals or have unusual colors. In Japanese gardens, individuality doesn't play a central role. Instead Japanese gardens focus on harmony, sharing, and charity.
Rocks rarely are placed in straight lines or in symmetrical patterns. They're often placed in groups of threes. Often in a trifecta of rocks, a big rock represents Buddha, and the two little rocks represent his attendants.
The rocks should vary in color, size, and shape, but avoid bright colored rocks or other features that would be distracting or draw too much attention to them.
Suteishi is the act of placing random single rocks throughout the garden to create spontaneity. The rocks are considered nameless and discarded.
Rocks that have eroded are often used to represent seafaring areas, waters, waves, and beaches. Rocks in water may represent islands or continents.
Popular Rock Symbols
- Horai, the legendary home of the Eight Immortals
- Cranes in flight
- Swimming baby tigers
- Geometry principles
Sand and Gravel
White sand and gravel are also common features of a zen garden. People will rake through the sand to create designs. This is seen as a meditative and healing practice.
The white sand has also been used to represent purity, spirit, shrines, temples, and palaces. The color white in many Asian cultures connects to spirituality and realms outside nature.
Gravel is more common in zen gardens than sand. Gravel is less disturbed by weather.
Samon or hōkime is the act of raking gravel into waves or rippling water patterns. Zen priests make these patterns to help them concentrate. Developing aesthetically pleasing patterns is considered a creative and challenging endeavor. (An endeavor that is deemed worthwhile.)
Shirakawa is a black granite from Kyoto. It is desirable for gardens because it can hold raked grooves extremely well. But Shirakawa is now part of a protected waterway, making it illegal to harvest it.
Other Features of Zen Gardens
- Shrubs are often used in place of rocks.
- Moss is used to create ground cover. Moss covered rocks relate to a forest.
- Statues serve as inspiration for meditation. Art is meant to encourage you to open your mind and allow yourself to daydream.
- The pathway to your zen garden should have different materials than the garden itself.
- Straight paths look formal. Winding paths encourage lingering and observing. Winding paths are recommended.
- Seats should be set in a way that you can view the garden.
- Water features are often added to block out urban noise. It's way kinder on the ears to listen to waterfalls than honking cars.
- Add lanterns and solar lights. You want the lighting for your zen garden to be lovely.
You don't want to overwhelm your garden with greens. I would encourage plants that stay low to the ground rather than vines and other plants that climb up.
Flowers are atypical for a zen garden. You don't want your zen garden to have troubles with weeds, thorns, and wild plants. These can overwhelm the space. You want plants that are in neutral shades of green and are easy to maintain.
The plants should be agreeable with each other and blend well together. Just like the rocks, you don't want a star attraction plant. Everything should flow into one cohesive whole.
Plants that I would recommend for a zen garden include: bamboo, creeping ground covers, ferns, mosses, sedges, mushrooms, Japanese maples, and bonsai trees.
Don't Neglect Your Zen Garden
Overall, zen gardens are easy to maintain. You don't have to worry about cutting back rose bushes, trimming vines, and monitoring vegetables and fruits. You will still want to monitor the space and make sure it stays clean.
For any type of garden, it's bad to neglect the space. In feng shui, neglecting your garden creates negative chi. It can result in rusted materials, deformed crops, polluted waters, and bird poop covered statues.
It's important to keep patterns crisp and the gravel looking fresh. Raking through the gravel will help you to monitor it. You should sweep away debris, acorns, pollen, and dust.
Pick up Leaves
Especially in fall, your zen garden might get overwhelmed with leaves. You want to discard the leaves, perhaps turn them into mulch for another part of your yard. The zen garden is a space that minimizes flora and focuses instead on rocks and sediments.
Once a month, turn off any fountains and scrub them down to remove built-up minerals. Clean the inside and outside of the fountain as much as possible and look for any signs of deterioration, wear and tear, or damage to pumps. You want your fountains to look fresh, not abandoned.
Your statues are prey to bird poop and debris. You should also clean these down once a month and check for any signs of damage. If you want some whimsy: add different accessories to your statues to liven them up and give them some personality. This includes: necklaces of bells, hats, beaded jewelry, shiny stars, or having them hold rounded rocks, etc.
Check Water Quality
You want your water to look clean. You don't want the water to be cloudy, discolored, or smelly. The water should have a healthy pH level. Leaves should also be removed as well as other debris or fallen items. Ideally, water from your fountains, waterfalls, and ponds will flow toward your home. Water's flow is considered a metaphor for wealth and its flow.
You want your flora to be separated from the rocks and gravel as much as possible. Occasionally, some sneaky weeds might find their way. It is important to get rid of weeds as quickly as possible, so they don't spread and destroy your zen garden. You don't want the weeds to invite themselves into your space and make the garden their permanent home.
Plants overall should be manicured. Prune, shear, and shape plants. Remove items that show decay or no longer appear to fit in the zen garden.
Trim back branches, especially if the branches are getting awfully close to your house. Trim down tall plants. A zen garden is about horizontal space, not vertical space.
If your zen garden starts to feel overwhelmed, you should practice generosity. Consider giving away pieces of your garden to a new zen gardener.
You could also trade pieces. I would encourage donating and doing green or sustainable practices with your zen garden.
You want to respect pieces from your zen garden and not simply throw them away. Some pieces might belong well at a community botanical garden, or simply inside your house.
The Early Development of Zen Gardens
- Zen Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the late 12th century. It was popular among the Samurai class and other military members. They saw zen gardens as a form of self-discipline.
- Zen gardens were popularized during the Muromachi period in Japan. This period occurred roughly around the same time as the European Renaissance.
- Zen gardens became popular around the time of Japanese ink landscape paintings. The art takes a simplified approach to nature.
- Zen gardens have taken on other religious identities besides Buddhism. Ōtomo Sōrin built a zen garden where the rocks appeared to form a cross. He was a convert of Christianity.
- During the Muromachi period, the traditional Japanese tea ceremony came into fruition.
- Shoin architecture was popularized during the Muromachi period.
- Noh theater also became popular during the period.
The first zen temples in Japan were based off Chinese gardens, lakes, and islands. In the 14th and 15th centuries, zen gardens took on new appearances to be centered around meditation.
- Petrified landscapes have the illusion of suspending time.
- The Temple of the Perfumes of the West, Koke-dera, is considered the first garden to take on the more meditative look.
- Kameshima was a zen garden. It looked like a turtle swimming in a lake of moss.
Zen Gardens and Earth Feng Shui
Zen gardens operate on many of the rules in earth feng shui. The rock garden should avoid having too many wood features. Wood is the destructive element to earth in feng shui. You should avoid vertical features, too many plants, lots of green, and bright colors. Zen gardens are considered a space to connect and bring heaven to earth.
Traditional zen gardens have muted colors. Spaces dedicated to the wood element in feng shui are lush, vibrant, and youthful. Wood spaces are more like rainforests or jungles. Zen gardens are shaped and refined.
- In feng shui, earth is supported by fire. Earth supports metal.
- Earth is destructive to water. The water element should be a minimal feature in a zen garden. The sound of water, the splash of a fountain, and a koi pond can help build a sense of serenity.
Earth is considered the most malleable element in feng shui. It is considered the transitional element between seasons. The elements in the Chinese Zodiac occur in the following order: water, earth, wood, wood, earth, fire, fire, earth, metal, metal, earth, water.
Earth occurs four times in the Chinese Zodiac. All of the other elements occur twice. Earth helps to transition one season to the next. Consider earth like sunrise and sunset, the time when both day and night are occurring.
Earth is also considered a hybrid of yin and yang. It's represented by squares, flat spaces, and level ground. Earth is about equanimity, sharing, sustainability, and creating a lasting legacy. The element in Western Astrology is the slowest to move, but it has long term impact.
Four animals in the Chinese Zodiac represent earth:
- The Ox — Yin
- The Dragon — Yang
- The Goat — Yin
- The Dog — Yang
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Andrea Lawrence
Andrea Lawrence (author) from Chicago on May 13, 2021:
Zen gardens can definitely make for lovely settings.
Andrea Lawrence (author) from Chicago on May 13, 2021:
They're definitely beautiful in their own way! I love to write about this stuff, and I want it to be an enjoyable experience for readers.
Lady Dazy from UK on May 13, 2021:
I enjoyed reading your article and I especially liked looking at the pictures of the lovely garden ideas.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on May 12, 2021:
Thanks for writing about what it takes to create a zen garden. I have viewed some of them in Japanese gardens as a part of the overall scheme. They are beautiful in their own way.