Image: Alexander Baumann /

Zen Garden Ideas: 9 Tips for a Calming Oasis at Home

by Cristina Oprean
4 min. read

Originating from Japan, zen gardens were traditionally a retreat for monks seeking a tranquil place to reflect on the teachings of Buddha. Nowadays, they’re popular worldwide for their simplicity, low maintenance and the feeling of serenity they create. Also, they’re perfect if you don’t have good soil in your garden.

Here are some zen garden ideas to help create your own oasis of calm at home.

Create Raked Gravel Patterns

raked gravel and rocks in zen garden

Image: Serg Zastavkin /

Zen gardens are an interesting concept because they are, essentially, dry gardens that aim to create the illusion of water. To achieve that, you will need gravel as your landscaping foundation. Aim for natural hues and neutral shades, and use a rake to create curved lines that mimic waves and ripples. As an added bonus, raking your gravel can be extremely therapeutic. Avoid using sand, though, as it won’t hold its shape well and will be easily disturbed by rain, wind or animals.

Use Rocks to Create a Miniature Landscape

Image: David Maska /

Rocks are another key element in a traditional zen garden, used to portray landmass jutting out from the “body of water” represented by gravel. The shape, size and placement of your rocks are essential. You don’t want to use rocks that are too small or large decorative boulders. Instead, pick rocks with interesting shapes and textures and aim for a natural look and color. To get a better idea, imagine that you’re watching a landscape from high up in the sky and pick the rocks that best represent what a miniature mountain or island would look like.

Lay Down a Stone Pathway

rock pathway in zen garden

Image: Sakarin Sawasdinaka /

Flat rocks and stones can be used to form pathways. For example, natural stones like river slabs can make a fantastic stepping stone-style path, offering an authentic look and tying in with the idea that your gravel represents water. They also make raking your gravel easier and encourage you to slow down as you walk on them, judging each step and aiding in mindfulness.

Build a Dry River and Waterfall

You can take the illusion of water further by building a dry river or dry waterfall. Pick some moss-covered rocks and lay them down in a winding row to imitate the damp bank of a river, or pile a few stones in cascading layers to suggest a waterfall.

Add Interest with Small Plants

blue flowers in zen garden

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A few carefully selected plants will help complete the picture and liven up your garden. Irises, peonies, hydrangeas, camellias and shade-loving hostas are beautiful choices for growing in a corner of the garden or for bordering a dry waterfall. Japanese grass or Hakonechloa is another excellent pick, and because it’s drought-tolerant, it won’t mind growing along a dry river bed. Finally, don’t forget about moss, which will help you complete the illusion of flowing water.

Plant a Single Tree

colorful tree in zen garden

Image: Sergii Kovalov /

There’s something contemplative about the look of a lone tree. Planted among the rocks and gravel, a single tree or shrub can easily become a focal point without stealing the show. For an authentic look, pick a species that’s common in Japanese gardens, such as maple, cherry, plum or cedar. You can also plant coniferous shrubs such as juniper or black pine, but go easy on the pruning. Topiary, or worse, artificial shrubs, have no place in a true zen garden.

Bridge the Elements

miniature tree in zen garden

Image: EvgeniiAnd /

A small bridge can make a stunning centerpiece in any zen garden. Remember that gravel and its swirling patterns represent water, so you can add one even if there’s no actual water for it to cross. A bridge can also bring a little color to your zen garden. Unlike most features that are best left in natural shades, you can paint your bridge in a bold yet traditional red and black combo.

Appeal to the Senses

A zen garden should be a full sensory experience. Catching the eye is easy enough, but smelling and hearing can go a long way towards helping you be at one with the world around you. Sounds are essential in helping you meditate, and a bamboo chime will heighten the feeling of peace and contentment. Meanwhile, a fragrant plum tree, a trailing wisteria or blooming peonies will greatly help your immersion.

Embrace the Concept of Wabi-Sabi

Wabi-sabi is a Japanese aesthetic concept focusing on the acceptance of imperfection and the transient nature of the world. Allow the moss to cover your rocks and embrace their unique, jagged looks. Let wooden surfaces fade with age, and let your plants grow to their heart’s content. Let the rain disturb the gravel and then rake it again the next day. In a zen garden, your goal is to discover wisdom in imperfections and find serenity in acceptance.

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