While there is much to be thankful for about the modern world, there is no denying that it can, at times, feel overwhelmingly stressful. In response, more of us than ever before are turning to practices such as meditation and mindfulness, as we increasingly recognise the importance of nurturing our mental health.
Much has been made about decluttering the home to help achieve a sense of inner peace, but what about our gardens? Despite best intentions, a garden can often feel like yet another thing to keep on top of, and has the power to fill us with guilt and anxiety when we don’t have time to do so. What if there were another way? What if you could dramatically reduce the amount of maintenance needed while at the same time create a calming, restorative space in which you can truly relax and connect with nature?
Thankfully, green-fingered gardeners in Japan have been creating peaceful, meditative, low-maintenance zen gardens since the 11th century. Read on to find out how you can apply their ancient principles to your outdoor space, transforming it into a place to nourish your soul, rather than make demands on your time and energy.
What is a zen garden?
A zen garden reflects the natural world in a stylised, simplistic form, and is intended to be a place for quiet, meditative contemplation. Natural materials are intentionally placed to represent a concept or landscape – examples include rugged boulders to symbolise mountains; smaller, smoother stones and gravel to depict water; and pared back planting to denote the land. The sound and sight of moving water signifies spiritual cleansing.
Unlike traditional English gardens where abundance is key, when it comes to zen gardens, less is more. This is not about taking in grand vistas or busy, brightly coloured borders, but about sitting and observing the curve of a leaf, the grain of a rock, or the moving of a shadow across the ground.
Chief in the philosophy of zen gardens is the concept of yohaku no bi – meaning the beauty of emptiness – whereby ‘space’ is as, if not more important than any other feature in the garden. It is believed that clear, empty space is imperative for achieving a clear, empty mind.
Many famous examples of zen gardens can be found in Japan, including Ryoanji Temple and Tofuku-ji Temple, both in Kyoto. Closer to home, the Japanese Landscape at Kew Gardens, the Japanese Garden at Birmingham Botanical Gardens, and the Japanese Garden in Cornwall are good examples to visit.
For further reading, check out our Garden Design Ideas From Around the World blog post, where we consider the zen garden philosophy alongside other approaches from across the globe.
What are the benefits of a zen garden?
Whether you go in for meditation or not, there’s no doubt a zen garden can be beneficial for your mental health. While its soothing aesthetics alone are enough to quieten the thoughts, added to this is the all-important factor of ease.
We all know the weighty, nagging feeling caused by an untidy garden, and how this can put us off wanting to spend time in it. One of the major benefits of a zen garden is that it is staggeringly low-input, meaning less of that awful garden-guilt. What little maintenance there is, think raking and some occasional light trimming, is intended to be a meditative experience in itself.
Connecting with nature on a regular basis is known to have a profound effect both mentally and physically. It is therefore logical that making our gardens more appealing, ‘no-strings’ places to be has the potential to benefit our well being considerably.
Zen garden ideas for creating a sanctuary for calm
Loving the sound of a zen garden? Great! It’s time to look at practical ways of how you can make one for yourself.
Work with what you have
There’s nothing zen about ripping out an entire garden and shoehorning a load of ‘box-fresh’ plants and materials in. Before you start taking things away, have a good look – are there any plants you want to keep, perhaps an old, wizened tree or shrub? Are there any materials you can repurpose? Part of the zen garden philosophy is finding beauty in objects worn by age and embracing imperfection. Patio paving might make good stepping stones through an area of gravel, or maybe an old, stone planter could find new life as a water feature.
Use natural elements
Rare is the inner peace found from contemplating an expanse of astroturf or crazy paving. Try to use natural materials as much as possible – this really does make a difference to our subconscious response to an environment. And don’t stop at the hard landscaping! Furniture made from wood, rattan, wicker, canvas, or rope fits perfectly in a zen garden. When it comes to cushions and covers avoid bright colours, plumping for calm, neutral tones instead.
Incorporate a sense of transition
Whether this is an arch, gateway, bridge, or something more abstract, creating a distinct entrance to your zen garden gives a sense of separation from the outside world, and can help focus the mind.
Create a sense of seclusion
Privacy is an important part of the peaceful garden experience, as we all know the feeling of being overlooked or observed can act as a barrier to full relaxation. A natural screen such as bamboo or hedging can be used to zone off an area, and a pergola covered with climbers can protect it from the gaze of surrounding buildings.
Include an area of gravel
This traditional feature of a zen garden encourages a calm and tranquil state of mind both with its minimalistic appearance and the rhythmic sound of crunching underfoot. Raking curved shapes or waves into the gravel is also said to have a meditative effect.
Restrict your planting choices
When it comes to planting, keep it simple. A tranquil garden is not about ‘flower power’ or lots of bright colours, but instead low-key greenery and a restricted palette of plants. Try to think about the planting in terms of layers. Ground level planting might include some ornamental grasses, clipped evergreens, and perhaps one or two softly hued, aromatic, flowering perennials such as lavender. The mid-storey could be shrubs or bamboo, and the upper storey a few small to medium trees. See below for our top zen plant picks.
Go rock hunting
Find some large boulders or rocks that you consider to be beautiful and take time to arrange them with their best side showing. This might mean placing them on end or at an angle partially submerged in the ground to hold in place (think iceberg!). Try to ensure odd numbers, meaning groups of three, five, and so on. In celebrating the natural landscape, zen gardens rarely feature straight lines, even numbers, or symmetrical patterns. Remember you are aiming for a stylised representation of the natural chaos of the world.
Add a water feature
Though not essential (many zen gardens are what is referred to as ‘dry gardens’ where an inert material such as gravel represents water), a water feature can play a part in encouraging mindfulness in your garden. This can be especially handy in urban or built-up areas, where the babbling sound can help divert your attention from noise pollution. The water feature doesn’t have to be large; a gentle, continuous trickle can be all the mind needs to focus on.
Include ambient lighting
Some soft, low, warm lighting will make a zen garden as welcoming after dark as it is during the day. Use these for beauty, rather than function, i.e., positioned to light up the trunk of a tree, or a rock, as opposed to a path or seating area. Again, try to choose light fittings made of natural materials, such as clay, wood, or marble.
Harmony and oneness with nature comes not only from plants, stones, and water, but from the presence of other living creatures. Picture a deathly silent, completely static garden – not a bird or insect for miles. Unsettling, isn’t it? Now picture that same garden humming with bees and hoverflies, birds singing, butterflies dancing in the air. Did you feel your shoulders drop?
Welcoming wildlife in is a crucial part of creating a successful meditation garden, which is why although we say this approach isn’t about flowers, it remains important to include a few flowering plants. Other measures such as avoiding pesticides and weedkillers, and putting out a natural bird feeder can play an important role in encouraging wildlife to share your space.
The best plants for a zen garden
When choosing plants for your zen garden, the biggest priority is an easy, reliable, low-maintenance nature. Beyond this, you may wish to look for plants that have a long period of interest, provide movement and sound, offer seclusion, or encourage wildlife.
Here are a few suggestions to get you started:
Grasses create a natural, light, airy look while also being spectacularly easy to care for. Larger species such as pampas grass make excellent screening.
Nothing creates that sense of calm seclusion like bamboo. Its slender stems are dense enough to make an effective screen, yet still allow welcome glimpses of light through. Grow in containers to prevent invasive spreading.
Thriving with the minimum of fuss, this flowering shrub will provide you with beautiful summer blooms which continue to look good well into winter. Choose a subtle, muted colour to fit your zen garden (perhaps giving those hot pink varieties a miss this time!).
A perfect choice for pared back, soft-hued planting, lavender releases gorgeous aromas and is an absolute magnet for pollinators. Planting in generous drifts rather than the odd, lonely plant here and there gives best results.
A few nicely shaped evergreens woven throughout your zen garden will provide a sense of structure and rhythm, as well as looking good all year round. We love Japanese holly for this, though yew, box, or pittosporum all make equally good candidates.
As well as evergreens, include deciduous plants to enable quiet contemplation of the changing seasons. For hedging, it is hard to beat the mighty beech – its fresh, green leaves turn a glorious, gingery gold in autumn, and then rather than dropping, tend to remain on the plant until spring.
To carry on zen plant hunting, head over to browse the rest of our Garden Plants.
Zen garden ideas on a budget
The beauty of zen gardening is that it can be done on any scale and doesn’t need to break the bank. It can even be as simple as taking a corner of the garden, decluttering it of anything your mind finds busy or distracting, installing a comfortable seat, and immersing yourself in the sights and sounds.
Search second hand websites and junk shops for appropriate garden furniture, and head to local plant fairs and seed swaps for low-cost planting. Contact landscape gardening firms to see if they have any gravel or stones going spare. These are often removed from clients’ gardens to make way for new landscaping, and you may find the contractors are only too happy for you to take the ‘waste’ off their hands.
Zen garden ideas for small spaces
With their emphasis on space and simplicity rather than abundance and variation, zen gardening is an ideal approach for a small garden. In fact, the sense of being enclosed often found in a small space can be helpful in achieving a relaxed, meditative state of mind.
Container-grown plants can be useful in courtyards that have little or no soil space – think bamboo, ornamental grasses, topiary, and perhaps a small shrub. Outdoor mirrors on the wall or fence can create a sense of light and space, and the sound of a small water feature can help the mind travel beyond immediate boundaries.
How to make a zen gravel garden
Before we go, it would be remiss of us not to point out the proper way to create an area of gravel in your garden, and by this we mean:
- Clear the area of plants, weeds, roots, and stones.
- Scrape away the top layer of existing soil (around 10cm) with a shovel.
- Use a soil rake to level, then tamp down with the flat end.
- Lay a weed suppressant over the entire area, securing around the edges with ground pegs.
- Install some form of edging to contain the gravel, perhaps driftwood, logs, or stones inserted into the ground.
- Cover with gravel, at a depth of approximately twice the size of the individual pieces of gravel.
- Rake level.
Failure to include a weed suppressant in the process is almost guaranteed to land you with the distinctly un-zen task of constant weeding! And a lack of edging would spell a lifetime of retrieving escapee gravel from the rest of the garden. Don’t say we didn’t warn you!
We hope you’ve enjoyed our guide to zen gardening, and now understand it as not just another wellness buzzword, but as an ancient practice designed to offer connection with nature and peace of mind. By applying these techniques to your own garden, there will be no need for ‘forest bathing’ or expensive meditation retreats, as you will have these opportunities, quite literally, on your doorstep.