10 Amazing Zen Backyard Ideas for Home

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Last updated: March 25, 2023

In Japan, during Medieval times, purposeful type gardens were built as a place of refuge when things were hard. They were often built in temples where civilians would gather to meditate, and to find calm in a string of storms.

However, there is an open debate about Japanese garden design, and its symbolism around temples of Zen Buddhism and the buddha statue. It has made some Japanese in Kyoto angry.


The American view of Zen garden design is a myth that was created and staged by an American photographer. The image of a Buddhist monk, photographed from behind while meditating with Ryoan-ji temple and garden in the distance, is considered fiction according to Japanese professor Marc Keane. Marc is clear. Buddhist monks do use meditative gardens but actually spend all their time in meditation rooms.

It was the Muromachi period, however, that saw extraordinary cultural growth under the influence of Zen Buddhism.

The Ryoan-ji garden was not even made by a Zen priest, nor cared for by Zen monks, or used for Zen meditation. Professor Kane also states the Ryoan-ji is not even a Buddhist site but is based on Shinto, a religion with Japanese origins. This religion focused on gods and spirits, and the supernatural which followers believe inhabited all living things.

The Ryoan-ji, a Zen temple known as The Temple of the Dragon at Peace, is located in Kyoto, Japan. The temple and its garden are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and are also listed under Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto. The garden is one of the most immaculate and surviving examples of the “dry landscape”, a classic zen garden, featuring large stones and large boulders plus other formations, in a refined manner, with a pattern of smooth small pebbles, polished from rivers. The different elements and aesthetic appeal are meant to encourage meditation.

This garden design has visual appeal and offers quiet spaces for calm and balance. . These unique gardens started to appear in Japan between the 6th-7th century, known as the Asuka period.

Japanese merchants discovered these gardens in China and decided to bring back the styling ideas and gardening techniques. The Japanese also adopted close to 2000 commonly used Chinese characters, known as Kanji, but did not acquire the mandarin dialect.

Table of Contents

  1. What Exactly is a Japanese Zen Garden?
  2. Building Your Zen Garden Design
  3. Garden Designer: Your Small Backyard Zen Garden
    1. Rocks and white sand
    2. A Wood Piece
    3. Stone Elements
    4. Water Features
    5. Water lilies (Added Water Feature)
    6. Lights
    7. Lounge Area
  4. How to Build Your Zen Garden
  5. Frequently Asked Questions
    1. What Kind of Rocks are used in Zen Gardens?
    2. How Deep should Zen Garden Gravel be?
    3. What are the Elements of a Japanese Zen Garden?
    4. How Much Does a Zen Garden Cost?
    5. How do you Maintain a Zen Garden?
    6. What color is Zen Garden Sand?
    7. Why are Zen Gardens Relaxing?
  6. In Conclusion

What Exactly is a Japanese Zen Garden?

Classical zen gardens, also known as Japanese rock gardens, were white gravel rock garden dry areas that inspired calmness but weren’t necessarily used for meditation, as we’ve discovered. The first thing you notice is the minimal style using a logical layout of bushes, pruned trees like Japanese maples, cherry trees, evergreen trees, moss, water elements, natural stone, big stones, vertical rocks, and a raked sand garden or gravel (representing water ripples). It’s like you entered a small universe where you, the surroundings, and the serenity create the perfect escape!

We’ve enjoyed a similar experience in 5-star spa venues that recreate the small zen garden, include a hot tub, and various cold baths to wash away your stresses.

There are over 300 public Japanese Zen gardens to visit in the United States, even if American incarnations are not designed similarly as a residence of the chief monk of the temple in traditional Japan. 

A traditional zen garden is known as a dry landscape garden, as noted earlier. These gardens carry on the tradition with a modern twist. The best zen garden ideas consider features such as white sand, larger rock formations, wood, gravel, water plants, koi fish, a small pond, and larger stones. This is simple to create in a small area with enough space. They usually are enclosed by a wall or lattice fence and consist of little to no water or flowers.


Any garden designer will tell you when we do not see color, we tend to focus on shapes and texture, which is something much deeper when we consider the beauty of nature. Rather than see this in 300 different places around the United States, you can become your own zen gardener, building something in your own backyard even if you have a small yard.

Your entire backyard could become the perfect place for some elaborate designs, using the natural landscape and a stone path in a large outdoor space, to help create your own peaceful zen garden.

Handmade items can serve as focal points of the garden, such as a large potted plant or bench with greenery for a statue. Some gardens might contain water features which is a great way to serve as the focal point while the purpose of the garden remains the same; to become your own zen space.

Building Your Zen Garden Design

Did you know that more and more Americans have taken up zen gardening and landscaping to building their own DIY zen garden?

Before you even build your own garden and gather supplies, you need to decide how you are going to assemble this garden in the available outdoor area. Once you’ve figured this part out, you can then decide how you want to achieve your own zen feel.

While many traditional Japanese Zen gardens have great design and simplicity, you shouldn’t be afraid to experiment with your own look. The important thing is that there are no rules on how you build your own zen garden. If you plan to be in your garden regularly, you want to make it feel like the best place to relax. 

Some of our friends are big fans of the succulent zen garden, adding succulents with attached root balls into cacti soil, and surrounding all of it with a layer of rock. Depending on your layout, you could make this prominent with the use of a stone lantern, which could stand at the entrance of your mini zen garden or create a path towards it. Stone lanterns are made of mineral material elements such as cast stone and white concrete.

Before publishing this article, we decided to check out a local garden store. Wow! Succulents are popular! Enjoy the pics!

Succulent species are interesting since they can thrive in different temperate seasons, such as spring and fall. But there are summer and winter growing succulents too. Summer-growing succulents grow in hotter months, May to August before they become dormant over the winter months.

Garden Designer: Your Small Backyard Zen Garden

Rocks and white sand

If you’re interested in building your own miniature landscapes, then you can do so with as little as just rocks and sand.  The arrangements of rocks or vertical formations could be a great learning experience while being fun at the same time.

In ancient Japan, the people believed that you could make something out of anything, so they created landscapes out of these two things. Ripples were often created in the sand to make it look like ocean waves, and large rocks were placed to represent mountains. Fine gravel can also be used in place of sand if preferred.

Keep in mind that large rocks can overpower a small space, and small rocks get washed away if your garden space is on a larger landscape, where there is more space. There are many online examples of a Japanese stone garden for inspiration. 

A Wood Piece

Your garden idea may be well complemented by wood pieces; especially, if they’re accompanied by greenery. The natural tones of dark or light stained wood, next to greenery is a beautiful element you can incorporate when building your garden. Wood pieces such as wood pots or benches work well and potted succulents blend perfectly as green plants. If you’re looking for a more traditional Japanese zen garden idea, bamboo plants and wood might be a great idea. Bamboo is important in Japanese culture because it symbolizes prosperity. It is used often in their gardens as a bamboo water feature and you could even consider a bamboo fence.

Stone Elements

Stone can be used if it is preferred over wood. Stone elements look stunning as a stone pathway with greenery, a body of water, potted plants, and other living elements. Stone pots and statues can also become items of attraction in your garden because they’re unique, natural, and simple, much like traditional Japanese Gardens that would be built within stone temples.

Water Features

If you’re not committed to a traditional Japanese Zen garden and would prefer to add a different twist, adding a water fountain or a Koi Pond might fit what you’re looking for. You might find it extremely relaxing to have water running in your garden.

We’ve seen examples with running water and the sounds are so relaxing, it’s attracted birds and other creatures to enjoy in delight and frolic.  The essence of nature is beautiful.

Water lilies (Added Water Feature)

If you have added a fountain or a pond to your garden, adding water lilies is a modern tweak for your garden. They float gracefully on water and can serve as a beautiful addition to your garden as a natural element, and an element of color.


Adding lights to your garden is important if you intend to spend a lot of your time in your garden at night. If not, added lighting can act as a convenient decoration and landscape architects have a lot of expertise with this. The lights you choose should probably be solar or automated to turn off after a certain time to prevent any overheating. Fairy LED lights do not heat up during use and would be a great consideration along a stone pathway.

If you have a smaller yard, fairy lights would fit much better than larger lights since the lights are much, much smaller. It gives you more freedom to attract attention elsewhere. Stone lanterns are also another great source of light for your garden and offer a stone element.

Lounge Area

If you have a small space, you might not be able to add an elaborate design for this. If you can, a lounge area could serve as a meditation space, and allow you to enjoy your garden and backyard, especially in the summer months. Any aid to meditation must come with comfortable seating, so you’ll need to consider your options. When you have guests over, it also becomes a perfect spot to spend time with them.

How to Build Your Zen Garden

Once you’ve gathered all the materials, think about how you would plan and organize things. You can draw this out in a sketch, using pictures for examples and inspiration.

Build your enclosure. This enclosure will keep the outside world out, so your garden won’t be disturbed. A popular choice of fencing for many gardens is lattice fencing. It is a unique style of fencing that can be made out of many different types of material, such as bamboo wood. The earthy tones of a wood fence would add to the natural elements a zen garden should consist of.

Figure out where exactly you’re going to place your larger narrow rocks. You should do this beforehand because the rocks may be heavy or require added assistance. Once you’ve figured it out, you can place them in that area. 

If you’ve chosen sand or gravel to place in your garden, you then want to carefully spread it out around the rocks or anywhere else. Ripples to create wave-like patterns can be created by raking the sand or gravel in a circle.

Your focal point should then be added. If you’ve chosen a water feature, you might have to wait for it to be installed. If you’ve chosen a stone element such as a statue, consider its location, whether you want to serve as a focal point to other arrangements within your backyard garden. 

All of the little trinkets and added elements to your garden such as flowers, lights, greenery, or smaller statues and wood pieces should be considered and added last. Adding the larger things first makes it easier to figure out where the smaller things fit the best. The arrangement will be incredibly unique to your garden and based on your preference.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Kind of Rocks are used in Zen Gardens?

Fine gravel and sand are often used in zen gardens because it is much easier to rake to create the look of ocean waves or ripples in water. 

How Deep should Zen Garden Gravel be?

The gravel in your garden should be 3-4 inches deep. Be sure to spread the gravel evenly across your space using a small shovel.

What are the Elements of a Japanese Zen Garden?

Water (Not all of the time, some prefer dry landscape gardens as the people in ancient Japan did), rocks, lanterns, bridges, and plants. These are all the elements included in a more modern style of a Japanese garden, while traditional gardens in Japan only consisted of wood, plants, stone, and sand or gravel. 

How Much Does a Zen Garden Cost?

Larger zen gardens that need a lot of sand cost upwards of $200. Smaller gardens will cost significantly less since they take much less sand. Trinkets, wood pieces, lighting, and other additional items you add to your garden will vary in pricing, but don’t forget thrift stores, garage sales, and out of season sales, to better manage the budget.

How do you Maintain a Zen Garden?

You should frequently trim plants growing around your gravel and stone. They can grow into your gravel and stone and ruin the appearance of your dry landscape in the process. If you have a Koi Pond or a fountain, it’s important to make sure that any fish is well treated, alive and that the water is safe and clean. Your potted plants should be watered as required and fencing should be cleaned if dirty. This will maintain a professional, beautiful, calm look and feel.

What color is Zen Garden Sand?

Sand placed in zen gardens is usually white. This is because it is easier to mimic patterns when creating landscapes, such as a water landscape. The sand garden moves like liquid and is easy to shape into patterns that you want with a steel garden rake. It’s also most preferred because whether it’s night or day, the sand shines as though the sun is floating right above it. But if glare is a problem for any reason, using dark sand or gravel is possible. Keep in mind, white sand is the easiest to use and maintain.

Why are Zen Gardens Relaxing?

Zen gardens help with mindfulness and encourage meditation. Their simple design inspires calmness.  They were created with a purpose and self-reflection. You must look inwards, and absorb your surroundings. The colors, the textures, the shapes, the patterns are organized so that you can study them.

In Conclusion

We hope our list of zen backyard ideas was helpful. A Japanese zen garden is a simple way to add a unique feature to your home and property but also demonstrate your own philosophies. It’s a quiet space for relaxation and meditation at any given moment. While traditional gardens did not include lighting such as lanterns or water, there are no rules. It’s your choice how a natural zen garden should look.

You want it to feel like home in the end.

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