Create an Authentic Zen Garden in Your Backyard

An oriental garden.

Our lives may be chaotic, but our gardens can be a place of rest and rejuvenation by adding a touch of zen to the landscape. Zen design focuses on peace, tranquility, and the ease of meditation.

It is important to incorporate the elements found in traditional zen gardens. The zen garden is all about subtlety and graceful form. No one part of the garden should overpower any other part. Each element should flow into the rest of the landscape, offering a place to think and be at peace with the world.

Nothing should distract you from your thoughts. Everything should encourage contemplation and rest. Here are a few of the elements that can help transform your property into a peaceful getaway.

TIP: Our expert gardening advisor Karen Thurber adds, "Both Chinese and Japanese gardens reflect nature. They do so on a small scale; rocks represent mountains or islands, sand or gravel can represent water, and paths represent your journey through life. Symbolism in the garden is an important part of design."

Water Features

This is perhaps the most important feature of the garden. No truly zen garden is found without some water feature, whether in fountains, water bowls, ponds, or waterfalls. The water is used to soothe the soul and quiet the mind, offering a subtle background sound with which to meditate. Unlike the high shooting fountains found in other garden styles, zen fountains are typically made of bamboo. Instead of shooting sprays of water into the air, they gently dribble water into a pond or water basin.

Water bowls are a classic addition to the zen garden, especially in areas where larger water features will not fit. Water bowls offer the same soothing sounds as running water but can easily be tucked into even the smallest areas.

Ponds are by far the most popular zen water feature, often found filled with koi and goldfish. Ponds offer the soothing aspects of water while incorporating the natural beauty of fish. Meditate away the cares of the day while resting beside the banks of a beautiful fish pond.

Waterfalls are also very popular in the zen garden because they offer a tranquil spot to rest and offer a transition from one elevation to another. Few yards are perfectly level. Most have dips or slopes that make landscaping troublesome. Adding a waterfall makes grading unnecessary, adding beauty while simplifying the process of creating a beautiful zen garden.

zen garden pond with stone bridge


There is a gracefulness to the gentle curve of a zen bridge, whether crossing a pond or stream or cleverly created dry river bed. They can be made of stone, wood, or bamboo. Be creative in your placement; bridges are meant to be a focal point, and a means to admire the chosen water feature. Some zen bridges have been created by placing granite slabs on supports, offering the illusion that they are floating on the water's surface.

Bridges are meant to be enjoyed, so make sure that their location maximizes their benefits.


Seen as bringers of good fortune and protection or merely used as a decoration, statues are found throughout traditional zen gardens. Some classic representations are animals, like herons and zen style dogs; mythical creatures, like dragons; and human forms, like buddas and warrior guardians. Statues can be used as a focal point, as a monument or reminder, or to add a bit of interest to lush garden areas. Statues can be small or large, depending upon the size of the property, but should be appropriate to the garden scale.


Placing stones is considered an art form in Asia. Stones can outline a plant bed or accent and give height to a water feature. Stones often direct the eye to various places throughout the garden, so they can be very valuable. Using a mixture of large, medium, and small stones, you can lend the appearance of a natural setting, created with peace and tranquility in mind. When properly placed, stones can actually soften the landscape and enrich the zen garden itself.

TIP: Karen suggests, "When placing stones in the garden, think in groups of threes, fives, or sevens; odd numbers bring harmony and movement to the garden."


Bamboo is not only an essential building material in Asia. It's one of the key materials used in zen gardens. Bamboo is used for fencing and enclosures, as well as water wheels and fountains. No garden would be complete without bamboo structures sprinkled throughout. Consider planting a stand of bamboo in your garden.

There are varieties on the market that are not as invasive as Asian bamboo but still offer the beauty and grace that a bamboo stand gives to the landscape.

TIP: Karen advises, "Look for bamboo that is described as "clump-forming." This bamboo will not be invasive. If you choose to plant a running bamboo, be sure to use a root barrier to keep it contained."

bamboo growing in a garden


Like the pathway of life, dry pathways are sprinkled throughout a zen garden. They help separate areas of the garden while offering easy passage from one point to another. You can form pathways with pebbles, sand, or even large slabs of granite. Whatever material you choose, allow the paths to meander through your garden.

Paths are meant to inspire contemplation, so allow the pathways to roam the way our minds should as we walk through the garden.


Light is a vital element in the zen garden. It offers balance and harmony while it lights the path. There are two styles of lanterns that you can add to a path. One is the ancient style of stone lantern, and the other is the rice paper lantern. The stone lanterns resemble small zen houses or temples, offering some "windows" for the glow of light to pass through.

Use a traditional oil lantern or use some of the newer solar-powered ones. Rice paper lanterns offer a peaceful glow on clear nights. There is nothing more romantic or more beautiful than a rice paper lantern burning through the darkness of a clear evening.


Like a gazebo, teahouses are open structures designed to protect the garden lover from the weather during the heat of the day or an unexpected rainstorm. Traditional teahouses take the graceful form of ancient zen buildings, with pointed, upturned roofs.

TIP: Karen adds, "Traditionally, a tea house was used to perform the tea ceremony. The garden leading to the tea house would have a winding path and a rustic feeling. The walk through the garden allows the guests to leave their worries behind, arriving at the tea house relaxed and ready to enjoy the ceremony."


Trees are essential because they provide the shade and height so important to the zen garden. Flowering cherries, Japanese maples, and magnolia trees are just a few of the favorites found in the traditional zen garden. The tree choices all center around color, fragrance, and texture. The same can be said about the plants used to under-plant the trees.

Hostas, lilies, peonies, nandina, summersweet, and cotoneaster are just a few of the popular plants used throughout the landscape. Don’t forget to add a stand of bamboo or a few well-placed cycads in honor of the ancient varieties present in the modern-day zen.

TIP: Karen says, "Fences play an important role in both Japanese and Chinese gardens. They are used to secluded the garden from the life outside. Leave your worries at the gate and find peace, rest, and renewal in the garden. Fences add a sense of security and enclosure. Fences are also used to define space in the garden and create an intimate feeling. Small breaks in the fence or the addition of a window will allow the garden to be revealed to you slowly, enticing you to look around the next corner."

Whether transforming your entire property or merely creating a small space to reflect a zen style, adding a few of these elements can quickly send you on your way to a beautiful zen oasis.