How To Make A Zen Japanese Rock Garden

how to make a japanese rock garden for zen

If you enjoy a spot of horticulture, appreciate the aesthetics of Zen design, and dig DIY,  you might like to try your hand at a Zen garden, and this tutorial will show you how to make one.

Recommended items 

  • Plants. The best plants for a rock garden are foliage and texture plants. Good options include bamboo, Japanese maples, hostas, nandina and conifers. Shade-loving bloomers include azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias.
  • Special gravel or white sand. Typically Zen gardens use 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 
  • Rake
  • Maybe a Buddha statue
  • For a Desktop one, white sand or gravel may be the only feature
plants for zen garden
The best plants include bamboo, Japanese maples, hostas, nandina and conifers.

How To Make A Zen Garden – 7 Steps

So now we have covered the basics, and you know the items and equipment you will need. Now let’s get down to details.

1: How large to make it

Naturally, when you’re making a rock 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 one) 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 ones are much easier to maintain. But with a large outdoor one, you get more space for mindful raking, and you can also potentially use it for Zen Walking Meditation.

2: Make Sure It Suits Your Home

Whether indoors or outdoors, you should coordinate your 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.

3: Where to put your zen garden

When it comes to making a garden, your first decision will be where to put it.

One of the main books about rock garden landscaping is Sakuteiki [1]”. 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”.  [1]

Therefore, you should avoid putting them in areas surrounded by water.

japanese rock garden

You can choose to make a small indoor one or a large outdoor one.

4: Prepare the space

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 one 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 an outdoor zen garden:

  1. Mow the lawn low. Go over it repeatedly.
  2. Cover the lawn with newspaper stacked 12 sheets high. Overlap the edges.
  3. Cover the top layer of newspapers with black landscape fabric.
  4. Add a layer of mulch over the fabric. Rake the mulch until it is evenly spread.
  5. Get rid of any big rocks around the edges.
  6. Pour gravel or sand on top of the mulch. Spread it evenly with the rake.
  7. Leave for three weeks. Then spread extra gravel or sand on top.
How to build a zen garden.

Indoor Zen Garden:

  1. Get a topless wooden box (or create one)
  2. Fill the box with sand or gravel (see point below)
  3. Spread the sand / gravel evenly

 Desktop Zen Garden

For a desktop one, 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, make sure you have enough space for both the garden and your work.

desktop zen garden
A desktop Zen garden is a quick and easy option

You now have the basic space filled with sand or gravel. That’s the hardest part done. The rest is fun.


desktop zen garden

If you are looking for the best desktop 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.

5: Add the rocks 

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. They represent mountains and also the figure of Buddha. Large gardens may use a rock as a welcome sign.

Here are the most important tips for setting the rocks.

  1. The best-looking side of the rock should always be facing the viewer.
  2. There should be more horizontal stones than vertical stones.
  3. Do not place rocks in straight lines.
  4. Use groups of one to three rocks.
  5. Use rocks of different colours, shapes and sizes.
  6. Any rock you cannot find a place for should be positioned randomly to add spontaneity.

6: Fill it with sand and gravel

  1. Today, most people choose to use gravel instead of sand because it holds its position longer—especially in an outdoor one. This is less important with an indoor one.
  2. 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 the act of meditative raking.
  3. 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.
  4. Use swirling patterns to represent water.

7: Add decorative features 

When you add stones, water features, and other decorative items, the aim is to do what Shakespeare said and “Hold a mirror up to nature”. You want to imitate the appearance of nature.

The best options for decorations are water features, shrubs, plants, moss, and black stones.

zen garden decoration with water features, shrubs, plants, moss, and black stones.

8: Maintainance 

One of the essential duties is to maintain your 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.

For an outdoor 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.

6 Benefits of Zen Gardens

There are many benefits of Japanese 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.

1:  Relieves Stress

When you make one 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 to help you find inner peace.

The slow movement of the rake on the sand slows your mind. And the sand creates one long sheet of white so that the only thing we see is white. In other words, there aren’t the usual distractions all around you. The visual simplicity of the 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 its 24 character strengths and virtues [2]. 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.

When you make a Zen Garden you train your mind to appreciate three particular kinds of beauty:

  • Kanso (simplicity)
  • Fukinsei (asymmetry)
  • Yugen (subtle grace)
  • Read more about these 3 on PresentationZen

3: It activates your creative brain

Whether you have a small one 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: Zen gardening improves your discipline

Building a garden is one thing. Maintaining one is something else. It takes discipline and patience.

This is especially true if you have an outdoor 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

Everything about it 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.

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:  Mindfulness At Work

If you buy a desktop one 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.

Indeed, putting a Desktop Zen Garden on your office table is a great way how to be mindful at work.


I love the process of zen gardening. Not only do you get to enjoy the mindful activity of landscaping, but you end up with a stunning spiritual space to relax in.

You might wonder what the garden is used for. After all, there aren’t any flowers, and it doesn’t really grow. It’s not your typical backyard. So, what’s the point?

A Zen 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 one is in itself a mindfulness activity.

Making a garden is actually a traditional form of Zen Meditation. You move the rocks mindfully, rake meditatively, and always aim to be calm while tending to the garden. It’s more about how you make it rather than what you actually make.

japanese rock garden
Zen Gardens are designed to imitate nature and for meditation

You might also like to read my article How To Make A Meditation Space At Home.

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By Paul Harrison

Paul Harrison BSc is a qualified meditation teacher who believes in genuine, authentic meditation. He has more than 15 years experience in teaching meditation and mindfulness both to individuals and to corporations.


  1. I love the large area zen gardens , so peaceful looking.
    I am going build a small one first. I have a large area to build my dream zen garden after my prototype. Thank you for the building tips!

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