How to Build a Sand Garden

What You'll Need
Rocks (varied sizes, shapes, colors)
Soil tamper
Shovel
Rake
Sand
Gravel or crushed granite
Tape measure
Plants, benches, lanterns, and statues (as desired)

In a world that’s constantly on the go, it’s important to create spaces in which to relax. Sand gardens, also known as zen gardens, are a great example of this kind of environment. Especially if you're feeling stressed by the pressures in your life, you might want to consider incorporating one into your outdoor design.

These dry landscape gardens originated at Zen Buddhist temples, conceived as an imitation and simplification of nature to provide a tranquil place for the pursuit of inner peace. Typically made of sand, gravel, and rocks, they may also contain small bushes or shrubs, as well as benches, statues, and water features.

The repetitive movements of raking the sand encourages a meditative relaxation by focusing your mind on a simple, pleasant task. Meditation offers a host of benefits, reducing depression and stress, increasing productivity and mindfulness, and improving overall health outcomes for a whole range of conditions.

1. Choose a Sand Garden Size

Sand gardens can be built inside or outside and can be as small or as large as you wish. In fact, you can even make one small enough to fit on your desk to have a constant source of relaxation by your side. That’s why the first step in creating yours is to decide what scale you’re going for. The instructions below are for an outdoor zen garden, but if you’re building a tabletop one, you'll follow pretty much the same process in miniature.

2. Choose the Site

Pick an area that's relatively level, and as far as possible from any excess noise. Measure and mark the space—rectangle or square shapes are the easiest to build and maintain, but there's no rule against curved edges.

a shovel digging sand

3. Dig Out the Space

After you mark your space, dig it out to a depth of four inches. Use a tamper to compact the soil.

4. Line the Space

Use edging stones to line the perimeter of your garden. These can be rocks found around your yard or purchased at your local hardware store or nursery. Consider varied sizes, shapes, and colors for an eclectic aesthetic.

5. Map Out the Inside

Sketch out what you want the inside of your sand garden to look like. You can include items such as larger stones, plants, benches, lanterns, or even statues. Feel free to use as few or as many of these features as you feel inclined to. Don’t overcrowd your space, though. Too much clutter can get in the way of your peaceful repose.

Buddhist tradition says placing items in odd numbers—mainly three or five—will enhance the harmony of the space and add to the feeling of cohesion.

6. Dig Holes and Add Plants

Dig a hole at least six inches deep for each large stone you plan to insert. For each plant you plan on adding, dig a hole two inches deeper than the root ball. Center the plants in their coordinating holes and press soil back over the roots, then give them some water to welcome them to their new home.

sand garden rake

7. Spread the Sand

You may want to add gravel or crushed granite to your sand mixture to help it retain shapes. Use a rake to even out the mix across the area, and to draw tranquil ripples in curving waves. The sand should come up two inches on the rocks in and around the garden. The ideal overall depth is three or four inches.

8. Add Other Items

Benches, lanterns, and statues are all popular adornments for zen gardens. The items you incorporate should have a symbolic value to those who use the garden.

9. Practice Mindfulness

Once it’s all set up, the only remaining task is to carve out the time in your days to enjoy your new peaceful space. It can be harder than you might think, especially at first, but even sitting quietly for five minutes a day is enough to confer real psychic and physical benefits.

Zen gardens are, of course, just one way to increase peace and beauty in your outdoor spaces. As you consider a landscaping upgrade, take a look at other contemplative design possibilities too, like rock gardens, Italian gardens, and xeriscaping.