How to Create Your Own Backyard Japanese Zen Garden

How to Create Your Own Backyard Japanese Zen Garden - Etshera

Japanese gardens connect people with nature. They offer a sense of peace and harmony that promotes being present and mindful in the moment—what more could we want from our garden in today’s busy and hectic modern world?

Japanese gardens are valued for tranquility and Zen gardens, in particular, offer a spiritual journey that means different things to different people. 

They can also be created in your own backyard…

Some Background: The Japanese Dry Landscape Garden

Three basic elements, common to all Japanese inspired garden space, are stones, water and plants. Stones offer structure for the landscape. Water and plants are life-giving forces. 

There are multiple types and subtypes of Japanese gardens. These include the study garden, the strolling garden and the tea garden. Each inspires its own set of garden ideas.

Japanese Zen gardens are one best-known type, originating in the 14th to 15th C. 

Authentic Zen Garden Tip: Shared design principles amongst Japanese gardens include asymmetry and grouping plants in odd numbers of three, five or seven.

Japanese Zen gardens are dry landscapes, also known as Japanese rock gardens. They are traditionally found in courtyards at Zen temples. 

Zen gardens are dry landscape gardens in which gravel and sand represent oceans and rivers. - Etshera

These minimalist courtyard gardens were used by monks for practicing meditation. They can still be experienced as a special expression of Zen enlightenment.

Authentic Zen Garden Tip: Unlike other Japanese garden styles, the dry landscape garden omits a key element, the water. 

In a dry landscape Zen garden, water becomes symbolic rather than literal. Water is replaced by gravel or pebbles or sand, which is raked to give the impression of movement. 

A patch of sand represents an expanse of dry ocean or river with a rippling current. Large rocks or boulders are set vertically on the gravel, and these represent islands or mountains. 

The skill of stone setting in the dry landscape is an important aspect of zen gardening. Stone setting is more about creating the empty space between the stone groups, rather than a strategic placement of the stones themselves. There’s a Japanese concept for this: yohaku no bi, which means the beauty of empty space.

Large rocks are placed in a dry landscape garden with careful consideration for the empty spaces in between. - Etshera

While dry landscape gardens are most notable for gravel and rocks, plants also play an important role. Plant subtly and enjoy the results. 

Authentic Zen Garden Tip: Classic plants for a Zen garden include topiaries, bonsai, dwarf conifers, pines, Japanese maples, Acer palmatum, azaleas, rhododendrons, bamboo, creeping ground covers, ferns and mosses.  

In your backyard Japanese inspired Zen garden, sand is raked into a round, spiral or rippled pattern that represents the sea. Rocks are placed on top of the sand to form a soothing pattern. 

Plants are added but kept to a minimum. Low spreading plants create the right look and happen to be an economical choice for a backyard Zen garden on a budget. 

The planting in a Zen garden tends to be minimalist and often includes moss and bonsai. - Etshera

The overall effect of your planting should encourage introspection and meditation. Never shock and awe.

Creating Your Own Backyard Zen Garden

To DIY a backyard Zen garden you will need five main ingredients (in addition to all your ideas!): 

  1. Outdoor space

  1. Gravel and a rake for creating designs (symbolic water element)
  1. Boulders or larger rocks
  1. Plants and shrubs

  2. Roof tiles to create a border

Most of the elements, rocks, pebbles, white gravel, can be sourced at your local landscape supply center with simplicity. Exceptions are only the roof tiles and the outdoor space itself! 

DIY Project Tip: Finding space for a garden is about finding creative ways to make use of what you have.

Backyard, front yard, rooftop–any outdoor space has potential to become a mini zen garden. Tile can be purchased at a building center, or better yet, check your local online classifieds free section. 

Budget Tip: Roof tiles are often discarded in demolition jobs and can be picked up at no cost when they’re otherwise headed to a landfill.

You’ll want to find a state of Zen as you work on your garden. On hot days, drink plenty of water and stay hydrated. Wear an ultra-quiet neck fan that provides a cool stream of refreshing air. Lose yourself in the peaceful moments of gardening and trust your intuition.

Fortunately the main ingredients of a traditional Zen garden tend to be available at a low cost or present low cost alternatives. Your Zen gardening experience should feel relaxing, not stressful as you break the bank. 

Focus on simplicity. With savvy shopping and rock-sourcing skills, backyard Zen garden ideas on a budget can be brought to reality!

Let’s discuss each of the five elements in more detail…

Urban Space for Small Backyard Zen Garden Ideas

Japan today is densely populated in the cities. Gardens that make use of small spaces are everywhere, keeping the natural world close and relevant. 

Attention to subtle details and simplicity is so much more important than vast space, which makes backyard Zen garden ideas on a budget such a reasonable dream. 

Minimalist backyard Zen gardens are well-suited to small city plots. Stepping stones at varying heights are aesthetically pleasing and intentionally slow a person as they venture along the winding path. A well-placed path makes the walk through a small backyard space feel like a tranquil journey.

A little backyard patio can also be nice. The garden path detours around stones, shrubs and gravel patches with the intent of reshaping a sense of time and with the effect of using space wisely. 

A small backyard, narrow side yard, rooftop (the sky’s the limit!) Japanese inspired Zen garden is about savoring an experience rather than taking up space. 

Authentic Zen Garden Tip: Many zen gardens are surrounded by walls. If your backyard isn’t enclosed, a bamboo screen or lattice panel can create the effect.

A mini Zen garden could be built on a rooftop patio—if that’s the outdoor space you have available. A front yard or a narrow side yard, even unusable shaded areas can work too. 

Classic elements of carefully raked sand or gravel and precisely placed rocks and pebbles are the main components of a dry garden, which can be arranged almost anywhere to create a serene scene. 

In the case of your backyard Zen garden, minimalism is the theme. Bigger isn’t better. Encourage contemplation with zero drama. A small tree, large stones, raked gravel. A carefully ordered garden can be the perfect Zen experience.

Gravel and a Special Rake

Pea gravel or chip gravel, fine gravel or sand or pebbles, all work as basic supplies for creating your Zen garden ideas on a budget. The main consideration is the color of the pebbles. For a traditional look you will want to stay away from any brightly colored, overly shiny or dyed rock.  

Authentic Zen Garden Tip: Choose natural, subtle tones that haven’t been chemically altered.  

For an especially low maintenance Zen garden, lay the gravel over landscape fabric. This extra step is worthwhile because it helps keep out the weeds, which can, over time, grow up through the gravel. Simply roll out and cut the landscape cloth to fit around your planting. 

Use a rake to create soothing designs like ripples on water in the gravel or sand. - Etshera

Any good quality garden rake allows you to make soothing patterns and create designs in the gravel like ocean waves. You can get a more traditional look with a wooden rake, usually available at garden centers.

Authentic Zen Garden Tip: Try raking ripples or swirls in the gravel to give a watery appearance, like waves or a current in a stream. 

An important activity to maintain your Zen garden is the re-raking of the watery designs after the elements, or people or pets in your yard, have disturbed them. Leave your rake near the gravel patch as a focal point, to be used regularly whenever you’re in the garden. 

Zen raking should feel relaxing and offer a quiet, contemplative moment.

Boulders and Larger Rocks

Because the gravel symbolizes water in a Japanese dry garden, the large rocks or boulders that you place in your backyard gravel patch are meant to represent islands rising out of the ocean or river.

Safety Tip: Choose rocks you can lift comfortably without injuring yourself or ask for help from a strong friend. Remember to lift with your legs, not your back!

Boulders and other elements can be sourced at your local landscape supply shop or repurposed from other places in your garden for Zen garden ideas on a budget. Select rocks that can stand on end without tipping over.

Every stone in a Zen garden is carefully considered and placed. Rocks should be set vertically and be a natural color that blends in with the surrounding landscape. Gravel or sand takes the place of water features for the same gentle effect.

Authentic Zen Garden Tip: Setting rocks in your Zen garden is about creating the calming empty spaces in between.

Larger stones and small rocks with interesting shapes might make you think of a tortoise on your island. Or maybe a sacred mountain rising from the sea. 

Find the symbols that make sense to you and make you feel good. This is your mix of tradition with personal taste.

Minimalist Planting 

Lawn lovers often spend years fighting for their grass in a war against the moss. The Zen gardener is at peace with it! 

Rich green moss is nurtured and valued in the Japanese garden alongside other natural elements. Moss softens hard edges and creeps over pathways to create a special, quiet feel.  

Authentic Zen Garden Tip: A Japanese Zen garden is not about splashy planting, heady scents or a vibrant tree that steals the show. 

Zen planting is an art of subtlety. No tropical plants! No lawn, no grass. No splotchy colorful foliage. No real water features, no water lilies, and nothing that doesn’t suit a small budget. 

Authentic Zen Garden Tip: The overall effect is meant to be of harmony with nature. 

The natural quality of the traditional zen garden lends itself to your guiding intent. A backyard Japanese garden is not a showy display of colorful flowers. It is a place for bonsai trees and natural elements.

Plant choices tend to be evergreen. Green foliage, small trees, small plants, shrubs and low ground covering plants, all work well. Overall, the plants are meant to be chosen as part of a harmonious whole, rather than as individual pieces. 

Planting Tip: Availability of sunlight versus shade in your garden also affects which plants you choose. 

Plants and shrubs in a Japanese dry landscape should blend quietly with their surroundings. The planting is minimalist—never about drawing attention to one stand-alone specimen or focal point, and always contributing collectively to the overall effect of synchronization.

Roof Tiles

Zen gravel gardens look especially good when edged with roof tiles. This type of border mirrors Japanese traditions and can be assembled on a budget.  

Authentic Zen Garden Tip: Lay roof tiles made of slate or flagstone to create a border around your gravel “ocean” or “river.”

Source natural-looking tiles. These will be tiles crafted from slate, bluestone or flagstone. Concrete pavers might be easier to find and cheaper to buy, but roof tiles will look less Western and offer a more traditional Japanese look.

Traditional Japanese roof tiles can be salvaged and repurposed to line the edges of gravel or sand features in a backyard zen garden.

Easy Care of your DIY Backyard Zen Garden

Japanese Zen gardens have a special, calming effect. They are places of serenity, contemplation and meditation. Zen gardening is about finding a connection to the natural environment–not about adding work into your already busy schedule. In particular, Zen gardens are structured to put your mind at ease. 

Authentic Zen Garden Tip: Let the Zen effect guide your decision-making as you bring all your small backyard garden ideas to life!

Japanese dry gardens are designed specifically to embrace minimalism and promote contemplation. Their rock and stone-heavy elements have the extra special benefit of being low maintenance. 

A backyard minimalist Zen garden is surprisingly simple to maintain. Larger rocks don’t require water to grow! And there are no weeds. The best plants are hardy and evergreen; they’re great outdoors all winter long and excellent for small backyards.

The water feature of the Zen garden is the lowest maintenance of all because it’s make believe! Dedicated space for sand or gravel and natural stone means never cleaning a filter, replacing a pump or fishing out dead leaves.

Authentic Zen Garden Tip: The upkeep becomes more of a ritual than a chore. 

The act of gardening involves the gentle raking of gravel along with some thoughtful pruning—not the hardcore weeding, constant watering or harvesting associated with other, high maintenance garden styles.

Zen Garden or Tea Garden?

Japanese gardens can be a special place to enjoy a cup of green tea. Tea was introduced to Japan from China in the 9th Century, and originally used for rituals in the monasteries where Zen gardens originated.  

Japanese History: The traditional Japanese tea ceremony became a practice of its own. Chado is the Japanese word that means “the way of green tea.” 

Chado centers on the concept of the host and the guest spending a heartwarming moment together over a bowl of matcha. This practice is always enjoyable in a garden setting with the sounds or sights of flowing water. 

Traditionally, the garden that surrounds the tea house is called Roji. Roji is a place for quiet reflection on the beauty and art of living at one with nature. A pathway of carefully placed stepping stones lined with granite lanterns leads through the woodland garden to the tea house.

Elements of the Japanese tea tradition can inspire modifications to your backyard zen garden. - Etshera

In the case of your own backyard Zen garden—where tradition is modified to fit with urban settings and alternate cultures—adding a seating area where friends can enjoy a cuppa is a unique way to celebrate two types of Japanese traditions.

Authentic Zen Garden Tip: Your DIY Zen garden can be the perfect place to divulge your cares and release the stressors of the everyday world—over a cup of tea. 

With the addition of some DIY garden seating and simple patio design ideas, a backyard Zen garden builds on old traditions in new ways to offer a soothing place for a hot beverage by the ocean of gravel.

Challenges for the Backyard Zen Gardener

The challenge is making a Japanese Zen garden that offers order and calm to transport you away from the bustle of everyday life—all within a backyard city setting! This is a task that calls for creativity.

Check out our article about Cute Gardening Outfits

Authentic Zen Garden Tip: Bamboo is both a Japanese garden favorite and a potential solution to aesthetic challenges of backyard Zen garden design!  

Strategically placed bamboo shoots can be used to your advantage when the realities of a backyard setting are at odds with a Zen experience. Rustling bamboo makes a pleasant, soothing sound in the great outdoors.

Bamboo grows quickly and it grows tall and green—it’s exceptionally useful for obstructing views that might not seem so Zen… 

Most homeowners cringe because they know… That unsightly corner where you tuck the garbage bins against the shed? A live bamboo screen is the genius “Zen” solution!

Planting Tip: Confine bamboo to large pots so this famously invasive species won’t take over your garden!  

Then there’s the basic challenge of designing an interesting garden in a small yard on a budget—which can be solved by Japanese garden path traditions. The layout of your Zen garden can be structured around a winding path, often with a designated walking route amongst larger rocks. The path can be made of stones or slate that you purchase at your local landscape center. 

A live bamboo screen can be useful for creating privacy and obstructing unwanted views in a backyard garden. - Etshera

Better yet, collect stones over time that hold meaning for you. Your garden is all about creating a stress-free personal experience that feels right for you.

Backyard Zen Garden Inspiration

Before embarking on your DYI Zen garden project, it can be fun to find real world inspiration. One of the best places to get inspired is in an established Japanese garden. Fortunately many Japanese gardens are available. 

Here are some lovely examples of Japanese public gardens with Zen elements, very much worth a visit in North America:

  • Anderson Japanese Garden in Rockford, IL. A twelve-acre landscape of streams, waterfalls, winding pathways and koi-filled ponds, rated one of North America’s highest quality Japanese gardens for more than a decade.
  • Shofuso Japanese House and Garden in Philidelphia, PA. An authentic Japanese garden that offers gorgeous trees and architecture with a central building that doubles as an art museum with classic paintings by Hiroshi Senju.
  • Seattle Japanese Garden in Seattle, WA. A 3.5 acre sanctuary with winding paths and benches that invite viewing the garden slowly and mindfully in detail, for all of its stones, water, lanterns, bridges, buildings, plants and animals.
  • Portland Japanese Garden in Portland, OR. A peaceful garden nestled in the mountains, which Nobuo Matsunaga, former Ambassador of Japan to the United States, has called “the most beautiful and authentic Japanese garden in the world outside of Japan.”

There’s something special about meandering over an arched Japanese bridge, listening to the water flow, following the antique Japanese lantern path, resting in the shade of a cherry tree, enjoying a cup of green tea beside the ornamental lake... 

Get inspired by a visit to a public Japanese garden. - Etshera

Discover all of this and more in public Japanese gardens, then bring the backyard Zen garden ideas home with you!

Your Japanese Zen Garden: A Modern Expression of Celebrated Tradition

To create your dry landscape garden effect at home, place stones vertically and let the moss grow organically. Shop savvy and bring Zen garden ideas on a budget to life. Remove the lawn you never wanted to mow anyway and replace it with gravel or sand and winding stepping stone paths. 

Authentic Zen Garden Tip: Leave out a rake for the meditative ritual that’s reminiscent of monks at ancient temples, rather than a dreaded gardening chore.

The symbolism of the stones in a Zen garden is one of the most intriguing design elements. Upright stones give height and represent trees that will be the lowest maintenance trees you’ll ever own. Flat, horizontal stones represent water. Arching stones are fire... 

A rounded stone can become the back of your very own symbolic pet turtle! 

Zen gardens are all about personal moments of perfection. A bird song by the rustling bamboo. The snick of rain falling on natural stones. Calming dark green foliage. A cup of warm matcha in hand. Building your own Zen garden is about admiration for the philosophy of Zen in the form of emulation. And all DIY backyard garden projects are about hope... I hope you enjoy the journey as much as the end result. 

Ganbatte 頑張って

(I wish you good luck and best work)

A backyard Zen garden offers a peaceful getaway from the stresses of daily life. - Etshera