In this tutorial, we will look at how to make a Japanese Rock Garden (Zen garden) at home. You’ll learn the benefits of rock garden landscaping, how to use them for meditation, and how to tend to your sand/gravel in a mindful way.
If you love DIY and Zen, you will also definitely want to read my article How To Make A Meditation Space At Home.
There are many benefits of rock garden landscaping. It is about so much more than just the landscaping. The health benefits of rock garden landscaping include stress-relief, alleviation of anxiety, and a lovely boost in mindfulness.
And if you don’t have enough spare time to create a Zen garden the traditional way, you can always opt for the easier route. There are indoor Zen gardens for the desktop that come prepared, and you simply tend to the sand. Of course, for the full experience, you’ll want to create a large outdoor Zen garden.
I love the process of zen gardening. Not only do you get to enjoy the mindful activity of Japanese rock garden landscaping, but you end up with a stunning spiritual space to relax in. (You might also like to read my article about making your home Zen.)
Why make a Japanese Rock Garden (Zen Garden)?
You might wonder what a Zen garden is used for. After all, there aren’t any flowers, and it doesn’t really grow. It’s not your typical garden. So what’s the point?
A Zen garden, or Japanese Rock Garden, is a style of landscaping that aims to produce the most relaxing space possible. So in that way, it is similar to regular gardens. But, importantly, the actual process of making a Japanese Rock Garden is in itself a mindfulness activity.
The actual space itself is very minimalist. The gardens are usually quite small. Indoor Zen gardens might be a few feet squared. Outdoor ones possibly a few meters. Desktop Zen gardens are often literally just a foot or even less.
The size doesn’t matter too much. Japanese rock gardens aren’t like your regular gardening process where you’re creating a beautiful arrangement of flowers. Although there is an aesthetic element (they were designed to imitate the essence of nature), the main purpose of a Zen Garden is meditation.
Making a Japanese Rock Garden is actually a traditional form of Zen Meditation.
When you create your Zen garden, you are literally doing Zen. You move the rocks mindfully, rake meditatively, and always aim to be Zen while tending to the garden.
That’s why, when it comes to making a Japanese rock garden, it’s more about how you make it rather than what you actually make.
How To Make A Japanese Rock Garden (Zen garden)
When it comes to making a Japanese rock garden, there are only a few things you will need.
Here is what you’ll need to make a Zen garden:
- Plants. If you’re wondering what type of plants are used in a Zen Garden, they should be foliage and texture plants. Good options include bamboo, Japanese maples, hostas, nandina and conifers. Shade-loving bloomers include azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias.
- Special zen garden gravel or white sand. You might wonder what type of sand is used for a Zen garden. It is typically crushed granite or fine gravel. It should have a flat surface and should be angular, not round, so that it can be raked into patterns.
- Water features
- Maybe a Buddha statue
- For a Desktop zen garden, white sand or gravel may be the only feature
Best Desktop Zen Garden To Buy
If you are looking for the best desktop zen garden to buy online, I highly recommend AsanaLivings one. It is a high-quality build with a concrete base and comes with rake and rocks.
How To Make A Zen Garden Part 1: Design
So now we have covered the basics, and you know the items and equipment you will need to make a Zen garden. Now let’s get down to details. In this section, we will be looking at how to make a zen garden, starting with the design.
How large to make it
Naturally, when you’re making a Zen garden, you will want to ensure that it’s big enough to enjoy but also fits into your space. This will be entirely dependent on your living space (for an indoor Zen garden) or your garden space for an outdoor one. It is good to determine the size before you think about anything else.
Both large and small ones have their advantages. Naturally, the smaller desktop zen gardens are much easier to maintain. But with a large one outdoors, you get more space for your mindful raking, and you can also potentially use it for Zen Walking Mediation.
Make Sure It Suits Your Home
Whether indoors or outdoors, you should coordinate your Japanese rock garden’s design with the rest of your space so that it looks natural and has good Feng Shui. You want it to look as though the space is merging from the Zen garden to the rest of your garden. This will help you to feel a sense of oneness when you meditate in it.
Where to put it
When it comes to making a Japanese rock garden, your first decision will be where to put it.
One of the main books about rock garden landscaping is Sakuteiki ”. This is the original text that explains the art of creating these spaces. Speaking of the design of large outdoor Zen gardens, the book states: “In a space where there is neither a lake or a stream, one can put in place what is called a kare-sansui, or dry landscape”. 
Therefore, you should avoid putting them in areas surrounded by water.
How To Make A Zen Garden Part 2: Construction
So by now, you’re buzzing with excitement and looking forward to the actual creative process. So let’s look at how to make a Zen garden.
Set the space you’ll be making it in
Whether you’re creating one inside or outside your house, you will want to get the space ready for the sand and rocks.
If you’re making a Japanese rock garden outdoors, it will require lots of work because you will need to remove the grass and dig up the dirt to create the space for the sand and rocks to go in.
This is the same process as when you convert a grass yard to gravel.
To make a zen garden outdoors:
- Mow the lawn low. Go over it repeatedly.
- Cover the lawn with newspaper stacked 12 sheets high. Overlap the edges.
- Cover the top layer of newspapers with black landscape fabric.
- Add a layer of mulch over the fabric. Rake the mulch until it is evenly spread.
- Get rid of any big rocks around the edges.
- Pour gravel or sand on top of the mulch. Spread it evenly with the rake.
- Leave for three weeks. Then spread extra gravel or sand on top.
- Get a topless wooden box (or create one)
- Fill the box with sand or gravel (see point below)
- Spread the sand / gravel evenly
For a desktop Zen garden, you won’t really need to work on the space too much. Just make sure your desk is clean and cleared and that there is adequate space for it. If you work at the same desk, estimate the amount of space you will have for it bearing in mind that you will also be working at the same desk.
You now have the basic space filled with sand or gravel. That’s the hardest part done. The rest is fun.
Add the rocks to your Japanese Rock Garden
If you want to know how to make a zen garden properly you need to understand the meaning and usage of the rocks.
The Sakuteiki text describes in detail very specific ways to set the rocks. It also states that ill-fate will befall people who set the rocks in the wrong way.
Rocks are also called “Ishi”. They are the foundational element of Japanese gardens. They represent mountains and also the figure of Buddha. Large Zen gardens may use a rock as a welcome sigh.
Here are the most important tips for setting the rocks.
- The best-looking side of the rock should always be facing the viewer.
- There should be more horizontal stones than vertical stones.
- Do not place rocks in straight lines.
- Use groups of one to three rocks.
- Use rocks of different colours, shapes and sizes.
- Any rock you cannot find a place for should be positioned randomly to add spontaneity.
Fill it with sand and gravel
Here’s how to add sand and gravel properly.
- Today, most people choose to use gravel instead of sand because it holds its position longer—especially in an outdoor Zen garden. This is less important with an indoor Zen garden.
- When raking the gravel, meditate. The process of adding the gravel is about the mind as much as it is about the garden. Zen meditators use the term “Samon” and “Hokime” to describe this act of meditative raking.
- Using a wide-toothed wooden rake, rake straight lines across the sand or gravel, starting from one side and pulling the lake across to the other side in one continuous straight line. Then turn and repeat the process in the other direction.
- Use swirling patterns to represent water.
Add decorative features
When you add stones, water features and other decorative items to a Zen garden, the aim is to do what Shakespeare said and “Hold a mirror up to nature”. You want to imitate the appearance of nature in your garden.
The best options for decorations are water features, shrubs, plants, moss, and black stones.
Zen Garden Maintenance
One of the essential duties is to maintain your Zen garden properly. This is considered a practice of patience and mindfulness. You will want to keep the area clear of leaves and other debris.
Use the maintenance time as an opportunity for meditation. Whatever actions you take in maintaining it, do so in a mindful way. After all, the main point in the process is to train yourself to do tasks mindfully.
Love your garden and enjoy its upkeep. This is a spiritual space that you are designing for yourself. It should be created and maintained with love and affection.
For an outdoor Zen garden you will need to drain it regularly, otherwise, it will become full of rain. If your drain is on the surface make sure to install a filter to prevent the drain from getting plugged.
Benefits Of Rock Garden Landscaping
There are many benefits of rock garden landscaping. Let’s take a look at some of the best.
1: Relieves Stress
No question about it: The number one benefit of rock garden landscaping is that it relieves stress.
When you make a Zen garden you meditate on the raking of the sand or gravel. This is a deeply relaxing meditation. It relieves stress. The repetitive movement calms the mind, help you to find inner peace.
When we looked at how to make a Japanese rock garden, above, I mentioned that the single most important thing is to be mindful while making it. This is important.
They’re called “Zen gardens” for a reason.
The slow movement of the rake up and down the garden serves to slow your mind. And the sand creates one long sheet of white so that the only thing we see is the sand. In other words, there aren’t the usual distractions all around you, just one long wave of white, like an ocean. The visual simplicity of the Zen garden makes it incredibly relaxing. And the gentle bodily movement you make when raking is very calming.
2: Appreciation of beauty
Positive Psychology (a field of psychology that focuses on happiness) lists the “appreciation of beauty” as one of their 24 character strengths and virtues . If you appreciate beautiful things, you are more likely to be happy. This is why happy people tend to appreciate things like animals and flowers and other natural forms of beauty.
Above we looked at how to make a Japanese rock garden. When you create your own one you will train your mind to appreciate three particular kinds of beauty:
- Kanso (simplicity)
- Fukinsei (asymmetry)
- Yugen (subtle grace)
- Read more about these 3 on PresentationZen
Japanese Rock garden landscaping benefits us by making us more aware of these kinds of beauty, which in turn leads to increased levels of happiness.
3: It activates your creative brain
Making a Zen garden is an enjoyable creative experience.
Whether you have a small desktop Zen garden or a large outdoor Zen garden, you can express yourself creatively as you find new patterns for the sand or gravel and new positions for the rocks.
4: Landscaping improves your discipline
Making a Zen garden is one thing. Maintaining a Zen rock garden is something else. It takes discipline and patience.
This is especially true if you have an outdoor Zen garden. Indoor ones require minimal effort. But the larger outdoor ones require frequent raking and maintenance. Otherwise, it will become full of rainwater and debris such as fallen leaves.
5: It slows you down
My favourite benefit of rock garden landscaping is that it slows me down. Everything about a rock garden is designed to quieten your mind. That long sheet of white sand. The gentle movement of the rake. The gentle ripple effects that you create, that remind you of the ocean. The methodical placement of the rocks. It’s incredibly simple. And therein lies the beauty. For simplicity makes us feel more relaxed, calmer, and yes, it makes us slow down. After coming home from a hectic day and work, there’s nothing like tending to a rock garden. It’s perfect for slowing and calming the mind.
6: Desktop Zen Gardens Remind You To Be Mindful At Work
If you buy a desktop zen garden to keep with you at work, you will have a continual reminder to be mindful where you’re working. That one simple reminder can help you to slow down and be more relaxed, which will help with stress.
In this guide, we’ve covered everything you need to know about the creating and maintenance of these traditional Japanese spaces, and you’ve learned the benefits that they offer.
What do you think about them? And do you prefer the desktop, indoor or outdoor style?
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