Elements of a Zen Garden

Water, stone, flowers and leaves representing yin and yang in a zen garden.

A Zen garden illustrates the influences of Buddhism to form a spiritual landscape that is more than simply a delight for the eyes. Creating a Zen garden combines principles of nature with traditional Eastern spiritual beliefs, teaching garden visitors how to look at a landscape in a different light.

Zen Principals

If you are not familiar with the Eastern principles of yin and yang, it is helpful of think of them as opposites. Yin is dark and feminine; yang is light and masculine. They are night and day; they are opposite sides of a coin; both are necessary to make up a whole. A Zen garden aims to incorporate many yin and yang features into the garden. For example, a typical Zen design is a cherry tree beside a stone wall. The cherry tree changes throughout the growing season, illustrating the transient nature of life, while the stone wall signifies endurance or permanence.

Likewise, a rock feature such as a stone lantern might be challenged by a rippling brook beside it. Pairing opposites throughout the Zen landscape is the overriding design principle behind these gardens. Of course, there are thousands of ways to reflect yin and yang (or in and yo as they are known in Japan) in these gardens. Eastern gardens typically seek to reflect or imitate nature, unlike Western gardens, which generally can be seen as man's attempt to control nature.

TIP: Our expert gardening advisor, Rachel Klein adds, "Remember that an important element of the zen garden is simplicity. Although there are a number of elements you could incorporate into your garden, choose only your favorite few. Too many rocks, plants, or elements may make the garden overcrowded or busy."

Garden Features

Opposites are relatively easy to install in the garden. Consider vertical features like birdbaths, trellises, arbors, trees and pagoda style gazebos set beside horizontal features like a path of flat river stones, a flowerbed, a garden pond or a sea of grass. Pairing any such features allows visitors to meditate upon them and interpret them in any number of ways. Color choice is another way to incorporate principle of yin and yang into your garden. Offer a shady patch of trees across from a sunny expanse of garden. Plant a few bright yellow blossoms (yang) near dark green plants like ferns (yin).

Install features that suggest something beyond what they are. A small cascade is not simply a trickle of water--it is energy and movement. A white rose is not simply a rose--it is innocence or inviolate beauty. Seeing natural elements with spiritual eyes requires some reflection so be sure to incorporate rustic seating into your landscape for visitors.

Rock Gardens

In dry gardens where a water element is not possible, use rocks, gravel, or sand to mimic the movement and fluidity of water. Round pebbles can be arranged in a fluid path like a dry stream. Chips of white quartz can be sprinkled atop this stream bed to imitate foam and water movement. Alternatively, layers of sand or gravel inside a containing wall can be raked in fluid and attractive patterns. Build a short (1 to 3 ft tall) containing wall out of wood or rock and fill it with either white sand or gravel. Use a rake with thick spikes to rake in patterns and designs that flow with the rest of the landscape. New designs can be raked in as often as every day and change the vibe of the garden completely. Use bigger stones within the sand or pebbles to represent islands in the sea.

TIP: Rachel notes, "Traditionally, zen gardens should be devoid of plant life. However, moss or small rock garden plants such as creeping phlox, rock cress, or even bonsai trees can add a splash of color and spice up the design. Miniature cedar, yew, and Japanese maple are some small trees that would look gorgeous in any zen garden."

Furthermore, many elements of the Zen garden are placed to encourage reflection about life and the universe. Features are artfully placed to reflect something not only of nature but also about life. For example a rock placed in the middle of a stream might represent the earth amidst a tide of change. A small basin might represent man's desire for purity. A grouping of boulders may represent a mountain range. Moss growing atop a decaying log might signify nature reclaiming man upon his demise. In this way, the gardener's views become very pronounced in the garden depending on how he represents them with natural elements.

Meditative Space

Any elements that instill a sense of reflection and peace are welcome elements in a zen garden. These can be as intricate as a koi fish pond with bridge, a Japanese tea house, or an arrangement of statues. They can be as simple as a collection of pretty rocks or driftwood that you've found along the way or that have significant meaning to you. Groupings of large stones or boulders create a stunning focal point for a zen garden. Traditionally, these boulders should be placed in the same positions in which they were found in nature. If this is not possible, as a rule of thumb arrange your rock formations with an uneven amount of rocks of varying sizes and leave uneven spacing between them. This makes the pattern seem natural.

All 5 Senses

Zen gardens are supposed to awaken the senses and make the viewer more attune to nature. For this reason, include other sensory elements besides just attractive design. A small wind-chime hung off the bough of a tree or the roof of a gazebo offers some simple music to compliment your simple design. Water features such as a trickling stream, cascade, or small fountain create soothing sounds throughout the day. Likewise, plants that have a delicate aroma also invigorate the senses. Miniature cherry trees, jasmine, gardenias, or lavender all add welcome fragrance to a meditative garden.

The Human Element

Visitors to your garden become features of your Zen garden themselves. A young girl stands besides a new planting of bamboo--they are both new to the world; they will blossom together. An elderly man stands beside a circular pool; he is completing his cycle of life. You, the gardener, bend over a flowerbed to weed--you are healing your garden and possibly your soil as you toil under the sun. There are many features to consider for your garden, but pairing them specially is what makes a Zen garden so different from other styles.

TIP: Rachel advises, "Zen gardens are meant to be admired. Be sure to include a large rock or bench for guests to sit and enjoy."