The Zen Garden How To | Minimalist Hobbies Series

Source: WindRiver on Flickr.

“Blessed are they who see beautiful things in humble places where other people see nothing.
— Camile Pissarro

In my research of the most minimalist hobbies, I found the Zen Garden, often called the Japanese Rock Garden. Here’s a great explanation from Ono Kenkichi and Walter Edwards: Bilingual Dictionary of Japanese Garden Terms, and Gunter Nitschke, Le Jardin japonais:

The Japanese rock garden (枯山水 karesansui) or “dry landscape” garden, often called a zen garden, creates a miniature stylized landscape through carefully composed arrangements of rocks, water features, moss, pruned trees and bushes, and uses gravel or sand that is raked to represent ripples in water.[Edwards] A zen garden is usually relatively small, surrounded by a wall, and is usually meant to be seen while seated from a single viewpoint outside the garden, such as the porch of the hojo, the residence of the chief monk of the temple or monastery. Classical zen gardens were created at temples of Zen Buddhism in Kyoto, Japan during the Muromachi Period. They were intended to imitate the intimate essence of nature, not its actual appearance, and to serve an aid to meditation about the true meaning of life.[Nitschke] (Source of Citation)

Zen Gardens (or Japanese Rock Gardens if you prefer) originated during the Heian Period or before; the period in Japanese history marked by the rise of the Samurai class.

During this time the beauty of nature as well as the arts flourished, and the Haiku became a popular form of poetry because of it’s simple beauty and focus on nature. You can read my post about the history and how to’s of the Haiku here. 

The zen garden became a highly respected art form, and in Japan it maintains a high status in comparison to other forms of art.

In this post I want to explore some of the options you have, and the general steps you need to take if you’re interested in making a Zen Garden.

The Characteristics of the Zen Garden


“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.
-Steve Jobs

1. Sand, gravel, and rocks: The largest space is taken up by either sand or gravel, although some people get creative and choose a different base like crystals or aquarium pebbles. Rocks or boulders are oriented in a minimalist manner to promote a sense of balance. Moss, small trees /shrubs, mounds of dirt, and other materials are traditionally used in moderation, but are used at will by most western zen garden hobbyists.

2. Symbolism: The classic zen garden contains some form

of symbolism. Many ancient zen gardens represent locations, the boulders or mounds depicting mountains, and ponds representing lakes. Other zen gardens held political symbolism, and still others are life metaphors symbolizing whatever aspect of life the creator wanted to meditate on.

3. Minimalism: A cluttered zen garden is not a zen garden. The purpose of a zen garden is to provide a place of contemplation or meditation, which requires minimal distraction.

The Zen Garden “How to”

“Sacred spaces can be created in any environment.
-Christy Turlington

The zen garden ranges widely in shape, complexity, and size. Buddhist monasteries such as Ryōan-ji (The Temple of the Dragon at Peace) host large and complex zen gardens for people to walk through in contemplation. On the other hand, many people make or buy desk zen gardens, to remind them of peaceful contemplation as opposed to workplace stress.

This overview will give you a general zen garden “how to”, that can be applied to any zen garden, big or small.

1. Choose your size: As I already mentioned, there’s all sorts of options available, from yard-sized to the miniature desk zen garden. To start you need to weigh those options. Consider what your purpose is, and where you want to put it.

2. Pick a design: There are many different patterns and styles of zen gardens, and one of the best things you can do before you begin building is browsing through images of zen gardens to get an idea of what you want for your own. If your garden has symbolism, you’ll need to arrange your symbolic features in a minimalist and aesthetic way, and observing a number of styles will give you a good idea of what to expect. If you want to do it entirely on your own, draw a sketch of what you want your garden to look like, or design it on your laptop with programs like paint or gimp.

3. Obtain your materials:

All you really need is sand and a few rocks. But here’s a full list of optional materials:




-Wood for boundaries,


-Pond liners

-Koi Fish

-Extra dirt

-A rake (Traditional or regular, either work, although the traditional is better for creating artistic patterns)


-Signs for quotes, prayers,  or reminders

White sand is what I would advise working with, but as you can see, there are many other options that may interest you. If you already have trees or shrubs in your backyard, you can construct your zen garden around it.

4. Build your zen garden: As with most hobbies, you can keep it simple, or get deeply involved. Since the overall goal is to achieve a balanced, peaceful, and simplified state of mind, I would advise the former. Mos zen gardens should be as simple as dumping the sand, placing the rocks, and raking. Keep in mind the purpose of your garden, as well as the ideal characteristics it should have.

Styles and Designs

Here are a few zen garden designs to give you some ideas:

Good luck, and have fun!