“Less is more” is the overriding principle when it comes to creating a traditional Zen garden. It is said that the real beauty of a Zen garden lies in its simplicity and symbolic use of limited design elements. First developed by Buddhist monks, these gardens are intended to be places for quiet meditation and contemplation. Most Zen gardens are “karesansui” types of gardens, a dry landscape that features rocks and crushed gravel as the primary elements.
Sand or Gravel
Zen gardens use sand or light-colored, fine gravel to cover the garden’s floor and provide a base for the other elements. This sand is symbolic of water and is raked to mimic the patterns of a flowing stream bed, a large, rippled sea or ocean waves lapping the shoreline. Typically, a wooden rake made specifically for this purpose is used, though a regular garden rake works just fine. For many gardeners, the act of raking the sand is one of the most relaxing aspects of having a Zen garden.
Rocks and Stones
Rocks and stones are the heart of a Zen garden, as evidenced by the importance given to the proper placement of garden stones in ancient Japanese texts. Most often, rocks symbolize islands but can also be designed to resemble animals such as a tortoise or crane, which represent happiness and longevity. The use of weathered rocks is common since the passage of time, seen through the natural forces of erosion, is an important Zen esthetic principle.
To emphasize the concept of its being a retreat, a typical Zen garden is surrounded by a wall or fence, one that’s high enough to create physical separation but low enough to see beyond. This allows for the design concept of the borrowed view, or “shakkei,” to come into play, by using existing scenery or plants to supplement the garden. Furthering the idea of the Zen garden as a place for focused contemplation is the practice of designing and constructing the garden with a single viewing point, often a porch or platform.
A classic “karesansui” Zen garden has no plants, except perhaps for some moss on or near the stones. Should you want to include plants and trees, the key is to keep it simple and sparse. Low, spreading evergreen or woodland species such as ferns, pines, hollies and ground covers work best since they add texture, thrive year-round and their general green color reflects the monochromatic nature of Zen esthetics.
Other types of Japanese gardens, including tea gardens and courtyard gardens, incorporate additional elements while retaining the overall Zen design principles. Water features, bridges, paths and lanterns can serve as focal points or help create a sense of distance. Bridges and paths also allow the garden to be enjoyed from different locations. To avoid conflicting with the natural atmosphere of the garden, man-made elements should be comprised of natural materials, such as stone or wood, not metal.