Stepping Out

Create a Zen garden in your backyard


Imagine stepping outside your home this summer and entering a world of serenity. The gentle crunch of gravel beneath your feet. The rhythmic sound of trickling water with nature’s calming presence can de-stress and promote inner peace. This is the essence of a Zen garden, a haven of tranquility inspired by Japanese aesthetics and philosophy.
So, how do you create your own relaxing space at home? Garden designer Fiona Jenkins offers some insight. Grab your gardening tools — even get the kids involved — and get started.

Art of Simplicity: Creating the Foundation

Zen gardens are all about cultivating a harmonious balance between natural elements and negative space. Gravel forms the very foundation, representing the vastness of the sea or impermanence of life. Raking it into smooth patterns — like waves or ripples — becomes a meditative practice in itself. 

“The rhythm of the rake against the gravel adds another layer of tranquility, inviting you to focus on the present moment.” Jenkins advises. “Use light-colored gravel — like white, cream or gray — to enhance the feeling of serenity and evoke a sense of vastness.”


Carefully placed rocks and stones add structure and balance. Larger rocks can symbolize mountains, according to Jenkins, anchoring the space. Imagine them as islands of stability amid the ever-changing sea of gravel. 

Smaller stones can represent stepping stones on a path to enlightenment. Arrange your rocks and stones with intention, considering their size, shape, color, and the spaces between them. These spaces — known as “ma” in Japanese — are just as important as the elements themselves, adding to the sense of balance and tranquility.

Nature’s Soothing Sounds

Water, a symbol of life and purification, plays a vital role in traditional Zen gardens. The gentle gurgle of trickling water is a natural stress reliever, proven to lower blood pressure and heart rate. Consider incorporating a small water basin with a bamboo spout, creating a calming focal point.

A tabletop fountain with a smooth rock base can add a touch of movement and sound without overwhelming the peaceful atmosphere. 

“Keep the water feature simple and integrate it seamlessly with the surrounding rocks and gravel,” Jenkins says. “For a touch of whimsy, consider adding a small koi fish or two — their graceful movements adding another layer of life to your serene oasis.”

Limit Plant Selection: A Celebration Of Form

Zen gardens traditionally incorporate minimal plants, allowing the other elements to take center stage. Carefully chosen plants will enhance the aesthetic and create a sense of harmony with nature.

Choose low-maintenance evergreens with interesting shapes or textures, such as dwarf pine, bonsai or ornamental grass. These plants require minimal pruning and maintain a sense of order within the garden. A strategically placed patch of moss can add a touch of softness and evoke tranquility.

“Consider strategically incorporating a single flowering shrub to add a burst of color during its blooming season,” Jenkins says.

Lighting For Tranquil Evenings

 Subtle lighting can elevate the atmosphere allowing you to enjoy your sanctuary even after sunset. String lights hung overhead or strategically placed lanterns can cast a warm, inviting glow.

“Step out after a long day and be greeted by the soft glow of your lanterns and the gentle murmur of water,” Jenkins says. “It’s a perfect invitation to unwind and de-stress.”

Solar-powered lights are another great option, as they require no wiring and provide illumination throughout the night. 

Create A Focal Point To Draw The Eye

 A focal point adds a touch of interest.

“It should be something that inspires calmness and contemplation, inviting you to focus your mind and appreciate the beauty of your creation,” Jenkins explains.“Your focal point could be a beautiful stone lantern, its soft light casting a warm glow. Or consider a small statue of Buddha radiating peace, or a strategically placed bonsai tree with its meticulously pruned branches, a testament to patience and dedication.”

Comfort And Contemplation: A Place To Relax

Since this is a space to unwind and escape daily stresses, you’ll want to include a comfortable seating area where you can chill out and appreciate your creation. A simple wooden bench or cushions will suffice. If space allows, add a small table for enjoying a cup of tea or for meditating.

“Imagine yourself sitting amid the calming elements of your garden, listening to the sounds of nature and letting go of the day’s worries,” Jenkins says.

Personalize Your Sanctuary

While Zen gardens have a traditional aesthetic, don’t be afraid to incorporate some elements that reflect your own personality.

“The key is to create a space that resonates with you and fosters peace and well-being,” Jenkins adds.

 A small wind chime with a calming melody adds a touch of whimsy. Also consider a piece of art depicting nature or a fragrant flowering plant, even perhaps a small birdbath to attract feathered friends.

 “Embrace the simplicity of Zen design, lose yourself in the meditative act of raking the gravel, and allow the calming presence of nature to wash over,” Jenkins says. “Remember, your Zen garden is a reflection of your inner world.”