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The Saga guide to Zen garden design

Martyn Cox / 01 September 2015

Traditional Japanese Zen gardens look good in even the smallest space, and what's more they are extremely low-maintenance - once built, just sit back and enjoy the tranquility.

Hojo zen garden of Tofuku-ji
The Hojo garden of Tofuku-ji, Kyoto, was built in the 1930s

You don’t need to live in a Japanese temple to enjoy the simple, elegant and restrained good looks of a Zen garden. Known as karesansui in their native country, which roughly translates as 'dry landscape' garden, this much-admired look offers the ideal solution for anyone wanting a low-maintenance garden in a small space.

Consisting largely of three main elements; Gravel or sand, a few carefully rocks and the odd plant, these gardens are a doddle to look after. There’s no mowing, deadheading, staking or other jobs associated with traditional British gardens. In fact, all you need to do is rake the surface occasional to keep it in good order.

The importance of Zen garden layout

Most Zen gardens are designed to be seen in their entirety from a single viewpoint, so there’s need for strong structure or to divide the space into different areas.

These gardens were originally created as places for contemplation and meditation, and are best appreciated from a bench placed on their margins, so you don’t disturb the raked gravel. The only features that should break the flat surface are rocks and plants.

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Zen garden surface materials

A sea of gravel or sand makes a hard wearing, long-lasting surface for a Zen garden. White silica sand will provide an authentic look, while large grade silvery grey granite chips are less likely to move during poor weather, so will need raking less.

Prior to laying, cover the ground with landscape material to prevent weeds popping up, then spread your chosen aggregate to a depth of 8in.

Find out about the fascinating history and culture of Japan

Raking your Zen garden

Surfaces aren’t just raked flat. In a traditional Japanese Zen garden elaborate patterns are formed that represent ripples in water. To do this, it’s best to use a wooden rake with triangular-shaped teeth, which are available online from Japanese garden suppliers. Rake around objects, like rocks, with a circular pattern, then finish off the rest with sinuous or straight lines. Once you get the hang of it, experiment with different patterns.

How to position rocks

Rocks are used to represent mountains in these miniature stylised landscapes. 

Some gardens have a single carefully positioned boulder, while others have series of different sized pieces arranged in a group. 

These could be set directly into the gravel or sand surface or be arranged on an ‘island’ – in Japan, these are often carpeted with moss, but closely mown grass would suffice in the UK.

Find out about choosing rocks for your garden

Keep planting simple

Unlike other styles of Japanese garden, a Zen garden has very few plants within it. In fact, some famous examples have no plants in them at all. If you want to include plants, choose small evergreen trees or large shrubs, so the garden maintains the same look all year round. A gnarled pine, loquat, pieris or Japanese cedar would be perfect.

Where to visit Zen gardens in the UK

The Japanese Garden Society website includes an interactive map of Japanese gardens, including Zen gardens, open to the public in the UK. It's worth visiting these beautiful gardens for ideas and inspiration for your own garden design.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.