Original Zen gardens were created by Zen Buddhist monks in Japan. They were simple in style and designed primarily for mediation. But centuries ago, emperors incorporated elements of Zen gardens into their huge imperial properties, and these dazzling designs are now well-known tourist attractions.
However simple or illustrious, every genuine Zen garden embodies the principles of Zen philosophy and aesthetics. They also incorporate design features and garden ideas that you can emulate in your own backyard Zen garden. All you need to create an elegant, budget-friendly Zen garden is creativity and careful planning.
4 Great Zen Garden Ideas on a Budget
Zen garden ideas on a budget can come from numerous sources including printed books, online articles, and famous Zen gardens that embody Japanese design. There are also some incredibly talented contemporary landscapers in North America who specialize in creating Japanese-inspired gardens, including Zen gardens.
By exploring and researching, you will quickly discover that stone and moss gardens, symbolic rocks, and raked gravel are all key features to include in a Zen garden. And all are potentially free or surprisingly inexpensive.
But it’s not so much what you include in an authentic Zen garden. Rather, it’s the way you present and use the various elements.
There is tremendous symbolism in authentic Zen gardens. For example, you might find a few large rocks arranged to suggest a mountain, a group of small trees representing a forest, or an imaginary river of life created with round stones or gravel.
These 4 Zen great Japanese garden ideas are ideal for anyone working creatively on a tight budget. They all fit the elements you need for authenticity in a Zen or even a mini Zen garden.
Japanese Water Basin
One of the simplest Japanese garden ideas to simulate is the traditional Tsukubai. Perhaps the most famous internationally is the much-photographed Tsukubai at Ryoan-ji, one of the most famous Japanese Zen gardens in the world.
If you’re lucky enough to visit Ryoan-ji, you’ll find it on the northern side of the priest’s chambers. The round basin was crafted to look like an old Japanese coin, with four characters written at four points along the sides. When read together (Ware Tada Taru wo Shiru), they mean “I am content with what I am,” a proverb attributed to Gautama Buddha.
Traditionally, a small basin similar to this one was provided in Japanese Buddhist temples so visitors could purify themselves by the ritual washing of hands. Water flows into the basin via a bamboo spout, keeping the water clean.
You can use any stone or simulated stone basin for effect. But, for authenticity, plumb in a simple bamboo fountain as the contemporary Portland landscapers at Ross NW Watergardens do.
Imaginary River of Life
You’ll find stone or gravel rivers in countless Zen gardens globally. One thing they all have in common to one another is symbolism.
For example, the Daisen-in Garden at Daitoku-ji in Kyoto, Japan, has a dry river landscape that is a metaphor for the journey of life. Its famous stone garden is divided into four parts, each symbolic in a different way.
A stone waterfall represents the beginning of life. This “flows” into the dry river of life that illustrates the stages of human existence. It then moves onto an intermediate stone sea and finally into a flat ocean of white gravel that symbolizes the void of death.
While this might sound complicated, an imaginary river of life isn’t difficult to create, as an article on Japanese Style Gardens in Own the Backyard shows. It features a very simple idea of a river of life created in a suburban garden where Japanese mondo grass has been used as the adjacent ground cover.
The location photographed is quite large, but the idea can easily be adapted for just about any backyard Zen or mini Zen garden.
Unless you’re building a rock wall, rockery, or some other potentially large structure, there’s a good chance that you’ll be able to find a few rocks that you can use in your new Zen garden. Transportation rather than cost will likely be the biggest problem, especially if you have to carry them any distance.
You will find rocks featured in most Zen gardens, but nothing quite like what you will see in one of Kyoto’s most famous gardens. The Ryoan-ji Temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and its famous rock garden is featured in many books.
There are 15 majestic rocks of different sizes that are laid out on white sand. They are cleverly positioned so that you will never see all 15 rocks at the same time – at least one will always be hidden from sight.
There is no certain interpretation of the symbolism of these rocks, but in this part of the world, 15 is said to be the number of perfection. But generally, upright rocks can symbolize trees, flat stones may represent water and arching stones are often said to represent fire.
And then there are deeper meanings. Marc Peter Keane, an American landscape architect who has spent many years in Japan studying and designing Japanese gardens, has written a book that explains some of these: The Art of Setting Stones & Other Writings from the Japanese Garden.
His use of rocks is inspirational. But you can use them as simply as you wish, introducing your own personal symbolism. For example, in the Japanese Style Gardens article mentioned above, you can see how rocks and stones have been placed to suggest a turtle, which is a symbol of longevity.
Moss features as one of the earliest Japanese garden ideas. In essence, while stones and rocks represent mountains and sand represents water, typically, moss represents islands.
One of the most famous Zen Buddhist gardens designed in the first half of the 14th century is at Saiho-ji in Kyoto, Japan. Also known as the Moss Temple, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a very popular tourist spot.
The garden, designed by Muso Soseki, a Zen Buddhist priest, is renowned for its stunning moss-covered landscape, featuring over 120 varieties of moss. You’ll find another famous, inspirational moss garden at Tenryu-ji on the slopes of Mount Arashiyama.
If your garden environment allows it, moss will enable you to create a peaceful, contemplative, Zen garden, however small. Most mosses do best in shade, but some will tolerate quite a lot of sun.
You might not consider moss as the most obvious ground cover for any garden setting. But there’s a company based in Pennsylvania that specializes in moss gardens, and they share a whole lot of information on their Moss Acres website, that features Japanese Garden Design.
You can buy moss from some garden centers and online. But don’t try to imitate the historic moss gardens or you’ll blow your budget.
Just allocate a small space to moss and incorporate it as a feature in a sand and rock garden. Or substitute it with an inexpensive ground cover that will create a similar look.
What should a Zen garden include?
There are several key elements that will contribute to the serene and contemplative atmosphere of an authentic Zen garden. They include gravel or sand, rocks and stones, moss and non-flowering ground cover, typically Japanese plants and trees, water elements, and pathways and bridges.
You can also include a few minimalistic ornaments and a designated space for meditation. If you want to include a garden structure in your Zen Japanese garden, consider a traditional, but simple, tea house.
Gravel or Sand
Zen gardens frequently feature a bed of raked gravel or sand. This can symbolize water or the flow of a river.
Smooth gravel surfaces represent calmness and simplicity. Raking patterns in the gravel can create soothing and meditative designs or represent gentle waves of the sea.
Designed primarily for meditation, these gravel or sand gardens were traditionally designed to be viewed rather than used or walked on.
Rocks and Stones
Rocks play a significant role in Zen gardens, often representing mountains or islands. Large, carefully placed rocks serve as focal points and create a sense of balance and harmony.
Different types of stones, such as rounded river stones or rough-textured rocks, can add variety and interest to the garden. They are often used as part of a sand garden.
Moss and Ground Covers
Moss is commonly found in Zen gardens, adding a touch of vibrant green and softness to the landscape. It thrives in shaded and moist areas and may be left to cover stones and rocks.
Ground covers like low-growing plants or mossy patches can be used to soften the edges around rocks and create a natural appearance. Traditionally, Zen Buddhist gardens don’t feature flowers, so it makes sense to choose non-flowering ground cover species.
Plants and Trees
Selecting the right plants is essential in any Zen garden. The aim is to create a simple and harmonious atmosphere, so opt for plants that have a restrained and elegant appearance.
Common choices include bamboo, Japanese maples, evergreen shrubs, ornamental grasses, and moss, all of which require minimal maintenance. Plants are often used as a background and should be chosen for their ability to blend well with the overall aesthetic.
Although not always present, water in the form of ponds, small streams, or cascading waterfalls can enhance the tranquility of a Zen garden. The sound of trickling water contributes to a peaceful ambiance.
If a water feature is not feasible due to space or budget constraints, you can simulate the effect using sand or gravel patterns to represent the flow of water. Another good way to introduce water is with a small Tsukubai (see above) or with a simple water feature.
Bridges and Pathways
Bridges or stepping stones can be used to traverse the garden and provide a sense of movement and exploration. While granite is the ideal material for stepping stones in this environment, you can use simulated stone very successfully and at a snip of the price.
Simple wooden or stone bridges add an elegant touch and can help create a symbolic journey within the garden. You don’t necessarily need water to include a bridge in your Japanese garden design.
Zen gardens often incorporate minimalistic ornaments like lanterns, statues, or stone pagodas. These objects should be selected sparingly and with attention to their aesthetic and symbolic value.
Lanterns, for example, represent enlightenment and spiritual illumination. Because ornamentation is minimal in a Zen garden, you can use lanterns to draw attention to pathways, or a small water feature, or simply use them for visual effect.
A bowl of water or a simple potted plant might be all you need.
Traditional Zen gardens often include a designated space for meditation or reflection to provide a peaceful place to sit and contemplate. This area can feature a simple wooden bench, a stone platform, or simply a designated spot with cushions.
Tea gardens were commonly incorporated into the simple Zen gardens created by Buddhist monks. They were devotees of the traditional tea ceremony during which the monks would drink tea to stay awake during long periods of meditation.
There is an authentic Japanese tea house at the Frederick Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The gardens were designed by Japanese-born landscape designer, Hoichi Kurisu, who is now based in the U.S.
He also designed the Rosecrance Serenity Garden in Rockford, Illinois. The garden is used for guided meditation in an adolescent treatment center.
Further from home, in Kyoto, Japan, there is a splendid tea house at the Saiho-Ji Moss Temple. Centuries ago, the north side of the building was used for “moon watching.”
How can I make a cheap Zen garden?
If you think carefully about the key elements of Zen gardens you can identify ways to incorporate them at minimal cost.
For example, local garden centers and home improvement stores sell both gravel and sand. Alternatively, you might be able to pick up leftovers from nearby building projects.
The crushed stone used for concrete mix is another option. Similarly, many construction sites or landscaping projects may have excess rocks they are willing to give away or sell at a low cost.
Be creative, and utilize natural elements like fallen branches, twigs, or driftwood as part of your Zen garden. These materials can be used to create borders, accents, or even decorative elements.
Choose affordable plant options that align with the Zen aesthetic. We realize that plants aren’t generally cheap, but if you visit local nurseries or garden centers during sales, you can often pick up amazing deals at hugely discounted periods.
Look for bamboo, ornamental grasses, moss, or hardy shrubs that require minimal maintenance and can thrive in your climate.
Remember that Zen gardens thrive on simplicity and minimalism. Avoid overcrowding the space with too many elements or plants. Focus on creating a few well-placed focal points and maintaining an open and balanced design.
You can save money by repurposing items too. For example, you can transform old containers into water features, wooden pallets can become platforms or benches, and unused stepping stones can be repurposed for pathways.
When you look at pictures of ancient Japanese temples that feature Zen gardens, you may be forgiven for imagining that your backyard Zen garden is likely to cost you a lot of money. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Zen gardens are simplistic but symbolic. So, while you can easily create a stunning budget-friendly Zen garden, you are going to need creativity, commitment, and a lot of good ideas.
We hope you like the ideas that we have provided!