Escape the chaos, and create your sanctuary! ‍13 easy & affordable Zen garden ideas to transform your backyard into a haven of peace. Read on to learn how to create a calm and relaxing space in your garden for the body and mind.

Backyard living spaces should be a relaxing space to get away from the everyday. When we lived in our former home, we made our backyard as much of an oasis as we could given the property and space we had.

Since moving, this home has it all, and one of my favorite outdoor living spaces is the backyard zen garden. I never thought I needed a backyard zen garden before but now that we have one? We totally needed one! But the best part is even the smallest of spaces can accommodate one.

Want to enjoy a backyard filled with peace and serenity too? Learn how to create a zen garden with these simple tips.

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zen garden tour with pond in spring

About My Zen Garden

In the traditional sense, my backyard zen garden is not a true zen garden, but it’s pretty zen to me so I’m going with it. And I wish I could take credit for designing it, but it was here when we moved in.

So what is a Zen Garden?

Traditionally, zen gardens (also known as Japanese rock gardens or dry landscape gardens) are typically small, enclosed spaces made with rocks or raked sand, gravel, stone, pebbles, and carefully pruned shrubs.

It is a garden designed to aid with contemplation and relaxation and is mostly comprised of hardscaping without a water feature. Zen gardens traditionally feature seven primary features:

  • Rocks and Gravel
  • Sand or Gravel Patterns
  • Minimalist, Easy-Care Plants
  • Bridges and Lanterns
  • Symbolism
  • Meditative Spaces
  • Dry Landscape

Traditional zen garden design principles aim to evoke a sense of harmony, balance, and mindfulness. To me, a zen garden should have these elements in some form, but also have things that bring you peace and serenity.

Does that mean you have to strictly follow these elements? No, because your zen garden should reflect your personality, preferences, and sense of style.

Small pond garden in the zen garden with japanese maple, sambuca nigra elderberry and blooming azaleas and rhododendrons with garden statue
Zen Garden with Koi Pond

Our Japanese Zen Garden

My backyard zen garden design has a beautiful stone wall with steps that lead to a grassy area with a koi tree sculpture, benches, and specimen shrubs and trees. Two staddle stones flank the stone wall and a few other garden statues as well.

The zen garden has a few different types of landscape rocks that were designed in an aesthetically pleasing way. And I’m sure there are elements of feng shui as this home was designed with that in mind.

We have a small koi pond in our zen garden that makes the space that much better. It’s so relaxing to hear the waterfall and I LOVE sitting out there on the back porch, especially in spring when everything is just starting to bloom.

When we moved in, our pond was empty, so we bought a few smaller koi fish to enjoy and it’s been a real thrill. They are very personable, love to eat, and we named them after each member of our family.

Because I am a plant and flower fanatic, I added containers filled with flowers and plants. Long term, there will be a lot more, but for the last growing season, I just used what I had and potted them up.

view of the zen garden with round stepping stones, container gardens filled with supertunia bubble gum pink petunias bubblegum pink, garden statues, lots of hardscaping and a green garden fence with a stone wall and white railings that lead to the backyard.

Japanese Zen Garden Benefits

Since I’m into all things plants and flowers, I never looked into creating a Japanese zen garden space before. Mostly because we didn’t have the extra space for it, but also because it wasn’t my organic aesthetic.

Now that we have one here, it’s interesting to see how much I enjoy having this kind of garden space. I spend a lot of time in the zen garden when I need to take a mental break from the day’s tasks. It’s where Chris and I regroup after a long day. And it’s typically our final stop after doing a wine tour of our property.

If you’ve got some space to play around with, I highly suggest adding a backyard zen garden to your outdoor living space.

The benefits of having a peaceful garden like this include:

  1. Relaxation and stress relief
  2. Improved focus and concentration
  3. Mindfulness and meditation
  4. Aesthetic enjoyment
  5. Connection with nature
  6. Cultural and historical appreciation

But even if you lack space, you can still create a mini zen garden using a planter with some rocks.

The zen garden design with koi fish tree sculpture, round steppin gstones, container gardens filled with pink petunias, bacopa and coleus in new jersey gardening zone 6a

How Do I Build a Zen Garden in My Backyard?

Many Japanese zen gardens are also enclosed by walls. If you don’t have an enclosed garden space, you can create your own using a bamboo screen, fence panel, or lattice fence around your garden, or on at least one side. Or you can use planters that have small evergreen shrubs or trees to help make a natural wall. And if you enclose the garden completely, add a gate for easy access.

How to Create a Zen Garden

So now that we enclosed the space, let’s talk about how create your own zen garden? Although we didn’t design ours here, they are not hard to make. I suggest researching then on the web to see what designs strike your fancy before beginning so you can learn what you like and how to design one.

There are lots of beautiful stone garden ideas out there and you can draw your inspiration from what you see online. While most zen gardens don’t have a lot of plants and flowers, I’m all about it. So it’s zen to me to have them in this peaceful garden.

Because the backyard was all hardscaping, I added planters and filled them with flowers. When we originally saw this space, I thought I’d move all my houseplants out here but it gets too much sun. So over time, I’ll add more container gardens to really fill in this space.

mountain laurel in full bloom with pink flowers and garden statue in the backyard zen garden
wide angle view of the zen garden with back porch

Supplies Needed to Make Japanese Zen Garden

To make your own zen garden in your backyard, you will need a few supplies:

  1. Sand or gravel: This will be the base of your garden. They’ll help level the ground and will provide a surface for rocks and plants to sit on.
  2. Rocks: Choose a variety of rocks that are interesting and aesthetically pleasing to you. Larger rocks can be used as anchors for the garden, while smaller rocks can be used to fill in gaps and create patterns.
  3. Plants: Zen gardens often feature small, low-maintenance plants such as moss, bamboo, and dwarf conifers.
  4. Rake: A rake is used to create patterns in the sand or gravel, such as ripples or concentric circles.

The landscape rocks used in our garden were a little rough on my dogs’ paws when they’d run up the stairs to access the back lawn. We found these circular stepping stones in the back woods on our property that the former homeowners used here at one point, but took them out.

So we gathered them up, laid them out in an aesthetically pleasing way, and eventually dug these in so they are level to the ground.

backyard Zen garden with round concrete pavers, stairs with white railing that leads to container gardens fill with pink supertunia 'bubblegum pink' petunias and the backyard garden with black labrador retriever standing on stone wall with koi tree sculpture in the background
Zen Garden and Backyard Gardens
close up of the potted flowers in my container gardens filled with supertunia bubble gum pink petunias, elephant ears, coleus in front of a stone wall on river rock in my japanese zen garden in the outdoor living spaces home tour

How to Make a Beautiful DIY Zen Garden in the Backyard

Before starting, design your space. It does not have to be a large garden room. A small space will work just as well and probably cost a lot less.

Choose a Zen Garden Site

Find a location in your yard that is flat with good drainage. If it’s not completely flat, you’ll need to level the area. If you have a very small space or don’t want to permanently alter your property, you can also try making a container zen garden inside of a large planter, metal tub or similar container.

Lay the Foundation

Next, lay down a layer of sand or gravel and use the rake to create patterns so you know where to lay the different decorative rocks and gravel. You can also do a layer of weed block below the sand and gravel to help keep weeds from popping through. This can help make maintaining your zen garden even easier. 

light purple and white bearded irises in the backyard zen garden by small koi pond with japanese maple and hardscaping

Add Larger Rocks & Gravel

Follow your design and place the rocks in the garden, arranging them in a way that feels harmonious to you. The nice thing about a zen garden is that it’s easy to change up the design of your rocks and gravel over time, so your layout is never really set in stone (see what I did there?).

Add Easy-Care Plants

Finally, add the plants, that will thrive in the climate conditions you have. Check for how much sun the space gets before purchasing plants so you get the right plants for that microclimate. Many people like to use plants like ferns, grasses and moss within a zen garden, but you can really use whatever plants work for your space and location. Because I love flowers so much, I added floral containers to my backyard zen garden.

Consider Water Features

You may also want to consider adding elements such as a water feature or a bench to enhance the peaceful atmosphere of your garden. I love our backyard koi pond, but a simple water fountain or even just a bird bath can be a lovely addition.

Once your zen garden is complete, you can use it as a space for meditation, contemplation, or simply to relax and enjoy the beauty of nature.

Planter with geraniums, coleus, and petunias with elderberry near small koi pond in the zen garden

13 Backyard Ideas for a Zen Garden

We now understand what is a traditional zen garden and how to build one. But, to me, a zen garden should have traditional elements in some form but also have things that bring you peace and serenity.

And so it goes, the minimalist traditional zen garden design has evolved into something more. More homeowners want small ponds, fish, flowers, and the soothing sounds of a waterfall too.

But do you need to incorporate all that? No. However, you can pull ideas to make your backyard your own personal zen garden. Here are some Japanese garden design ideas to get you started.

view from the back porch of the small koi pond in the zen garden

1. Rock and sand garden

If your backyard doesn’t get a lot of sun, or if you’re new to keeping plants alive, rocks and sand can make a lovely zen garden in the backyard. If you don’t want to, you don’t need to include any plants at all! Create beautiful designs in the sand and use a combination of rocks for an aesthetically pleasing design.

2. Raked gravel garden

If you’ve ever seen one of those tiny desktop zen gardens that come with a tiny rake, then you can picture what a raked gravel garden looks like. This is a great way to use your creativity in your zen garden because you can rake new patterns into your gravel or sand whenever inspiration strikes.

3. Dry landscape garden

A dry landscape garden is a common Japanese garden design that features rocks, gravel and sand. Unlike some other zen gardens, it does not include any water features like ponds or streams. This minimalist garden design is peaceful and beautiful – and requires very little maintenance!

zen garden ideas with outdoor planters filled with flowers like petunias, bacopa and coleus with colocasia. Stone wall, rocks and staddle stone also featured.

4. Moss garden

In a moss garden design, moss is the primary ground cover (rather than rocks, gravel or bark mulch). This design creates a lush, green carpet across your garden area that feels really peaceful and is also easy to maintain.

5. Stone lanterns and basins

Many traditional zen garden designs include statues and other pieces of stonework, such as stone lanterns and stone basins. These elements pair well with natural stone but also give you an opportunity to add some symbolism to your garden, by choosing a design that you love or that holds special meaning to you.

6. Koi pond

My koi pond is one of my favorite features of our backyard zen garden! I love to hear the sound of the water and visit with the fish. It’s surprisingly easy to add a koi pond to your garden, but you can also achieve a similar effect with free-standing water fountains and other water features.

And by the way, if you don’t have room to add a small pond and want one, check out these water feature ideas that are perfect for any size space.

backyard zen garden koi pond in full bloom

7. Wooden bridge

Bridges and pathways are traditional features of zen gardens. I love the idea of adding a wooden bridge connecting different parts of a garden. We have a bridge that extends over our front pond garden that creates a lookout to feed the fish and see what’s happening in the pond. 

8. Garden pathways

Adding walkways and pathways to your zen garden encourages strolls and can also make it easier to get from one part of the garden to another without disrupting your gravel, rocks and sand. We added these concrete stepping stones so our dogs could more easily enjoy the space and I love the way they look!

9. Pagoda or teahouse

If you have space to add a small pagoda or teahouse, these can be wonderful additions to a garden space. Many zen garden designs include small stone or wooden pagodas, which are traditional, tiered structures in zen gardens. But you can also add a teahouse (like a small gazebo) and create a space to enjoy your garden in any weather. Or you can find the same as small statues.

view of the back porch seating area and deck with rounded shape in my outdoor living spaces home tour

10. Garden lighting

Lighting is a key part of any zen garden. Lanterns are common additions to a zen garden design, but you can incorporate lots of other lighting, too, including citronella candles, hanging globe lights and solar lights along garden pathways.

11. Tended trees and shrubs

Adding small trees and shrubs to a zen garden is a wonderful way to add some color while still keeping the garden minimalist. Keep in mind that when you plant in rocks they conduct heat and can cook the roots of your plants in the heat of summer. I learned this the hard way the first year we lived in our home. There was a beautiful tree planted in the rocks and NJ experienced a very hot dry summer. The plant did not survive.

12. Container gardens

If you, like me, want to fill your peaceful garden with more color and floral scents, then don’t be afraid to make a zen garden design of your own! Flowers planted in containers are a great way to do this because you can move the containers around to change up the design and change your plants seasonally, too.

container gardens in the zen garden with supertunias, colocasia and coleus

13. BONUS: Zen Garden Idea I Don’t Recommend

Growing bamboo in a zen garden is a common recommendation you’ll find on many gardening and home care websites. But I don’t recommend planting or growing it. While it is an easy-to-grow, low-maintenance plant that is fast-growing, it is also also highly invasive.

In the outskirts of our property, a neighbor must have planted it at some point and it is coming up in all sorts of places. (Not on my property but in some neighboring ones). The plant runs underground and grows pretty aggressively, choking out other plants and species.

There are indeed non-invasive (clumping) varieties out there that you can grow in a container but to me, it’s not worth it. And here’s why: you can buy bamboo pretty easily and home gardeners or gardener newbies don’t read the tags well enough to know whether something is clumping or not, so I recommend skipping bamboo altogether. Other plants are less risky to the environment.

And while you can try to contain bamboo in a planter, it’s just too invasive and can easily take over a garden if you’re not careful. I prefer to keep things simple and avoid bamboo altogether.

containers in the zen garden filled with vibrant flowering annuals

Japanese Rock Garden Planting Tip

As an aside, if you do add plants and flowers, keep in mind that the roots will cook underneath rocks in the summer, especially if it gets a lot of sun. We had a small beautiful tree that succumbed last summer from excessive heat and drought.

It was really sad to lose it too because the growing habit was quite beautiful and it added a lot of texture to the space.

If you want to plant directly in the ground, I suggest keeping landscape rocks off the base of the plant spanning its width to keep the roots from cooking.

monstera delciiosa by the koi pond

Maintaining a Zen Garden

One of the best things about zen gardens is that they are relatively low maintenance, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to care for them at all. Here are some essential practices for keeping your Zen garden in beautiful condition:

Raking and Gravel Maintenance

Regularly rake the gravel or sand in your zen garden to maintain (or change) its intricate patterns. The act of raking is not only practical for keeping the surface even but is also a meditative practice that contributes to the Zen philosophy. 

You can try raking the gravel in calming patterns, like concentric circles or soft waves. You’ll also want to occasionally replenish the gravel in your garden, as weather, animals and foot traffic can cause displacement over time. You’d be surprised how much the rocks get kicked around or jostled after a dog walks through the space. 

I recently learned that some of the rocks in our zen garden were imported from China by the former homeowner. So we’ve been trying to care for these rocks and keep them in place so they don’t get lost. They are irreplaceable!

Pruning and Care of Plants

If your zen garden includes plants, then you will have to dedicate time to their care. Prune and trim trees and shrubs regularly to maintain their shape and prevent overgrowth. Deadhead flowers to encourage additional growth. Make sure to water all plants appropriately according to their needs.

Remove Debris

Sweep away any accumulated debris or fallen leaves, and give your rocks or and other stone decorative elements a good spray with a hose or even a power washer. You’ll also want to make seasonal changes to your zen garden, including moving container plants indoors and potentially covering your garden beds throughout the winter to protect any sand, gravel and rocks.

view of the zen garden with flowering annuals in planters

How to Create a Mini Zen Garden in Small Spaces

If you want to keep things budget-friendly or don’t have a backyard or a large outdoor space, you can still create a small zen garden in your home. Here’s how:

  1. Choose a container: Look for a shallow container that is large enough to accommodate your desired garden elements. A shallow tray, dish, or even a shallow box can be used.
  2. Fill the container with sand or gravel: Fill the container with sand or gravel, leaving enough space for other elements.
  3. Add rocks and stones: Arrange rocks and stones in the sand or gravel in a way that is pleasing to you. You can create patterns or simply place them in a random arrangement.
  4. Add plants: Small succulent plants, moss, or miniature bamboo are good choices for a small zen garden. Choose plants that will thrive in the conditions of your container and that will not grow too large.
  5. Add other elements: Consider adding elements such as a small fountain, a statue, or a candle to enhance the atmosphere of your garden.
  6. Use a rake: A small rake, such as a desk or table rake, can be used to create patterns in the sand or gravel.

A small zen garden can be an attractive and calming addition to any room in your home and is a great way to bring the peacefulness of nature into your living space.

backyard Zen garden with hellebores and bleeding hearts with japanese maple -10 shade loving plants that bloom
The Zen Garden in Spring

More Budget-Friendly Zen Garden Ideas

Creating a zen garden on a budget is possible. Here are some tips and suggestions that can help you create your own zen garden without breaking the bank.

  • Create the garden yourself and don’t hire a landscaper to help you. This is more work for you but you can save a lot of money doing it yourself.
  • Design a small container garden with zen garden ideas. This will keep your project smaller scale in both size, scope, and price.
  • Look for deals on materials. Shop around. Check out Facebook Marketplace or the Habitat for Humanity Restore for materials.
the japanese zen garden small pond with staddle stone, japanese maple and daffodils in early spring

Watch It on Bricks ‘n Blooms TV

Want to learn more about my zen garden? Come see it in real-time in this YouTube video. The backyard zen garden is planted with container gardens with different coleus plant varieties, geraniums, lemongrass, superwave petunias colocasia, sweet potato vines, bacopa, euphorbia, and calibrachoa.

The elderberry and rhododendrons are blooming now and it’s so cool to see how quickly this garden is changing! The zen garden gets part sun/part shade so we’ll see how my container plants do as the season progresses. I originally wanted to make deconstructed planters but wound up tucking in a few different plants in each container garden.

I just couldn’t help myself. LOL! Wait until you see how pretty they look in the backyard zen garden!

pond in the zen garden in fall

Shop for Water Features

Want to add a little zen to your backyard? There are water features that will accommodate even the smallest of living spaces. Check out these water feature ideas.

click here to shop for water features for a zen garden in your backyard with photo of japanese maple, daffodils and small pond with waterfall

More Zen Garden Ideas

Would you add a zen garden to your outdoor living spaces? I would love to know more in the comments below.

And don’t miss joining my Gardening DIY and Decorating Community on Facebook for more chatter. And follow along there and on Instagram as well. There are behind the scenes daily things that I share on Instagram that don’t make it on the blog. Would love to see you there too!

If you prefer to binge-watch Bricks ’n Blooms on TV, we go more in-depth with tours and posts on my YouTube channel. Would love to hang out with you there!

zen garden ideas with koi pond at night

Garden Supplies I Use

Since I’ve been gardening for well over twenty-five years, I’m often asked about the garden supplies and tools that I use most. Here are some of my favorites that I use in no particular order.

dahlia kogane fubuki in the potager garden

Click here to shop my favorite garden supplies!

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zen garden design ideas with close up of backyard pond and waterfall

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Enjoy a beautiful day! xo

Stacy Ling

Want to learn more about me? I’m a master gardener who’s been gardening and growing things for over 25 years and author of the best-selling book, The Bricks ‘n Blooms Guide to a Beautiful and Easy-Care Flower Garden. Get the inside scoop about my background as a master gardener, education, and experience, as well as why I started blogging here.

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close up of backyard zen garden
Home and Garden Blogger Stacy Ling cutting zinnia flowers in her cottage garden with wood picket fence in front of garden shed

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  1. I say this all the time, but you have done the most amazing job creating a new zen garden Stacy. I am so glad you bought this property. It was truly meant to be. Can’t wait to visit someday.

  2. Stacy, your back yard is beautiful and relaxing. The sound of the birds chirping and the water bubbling has to be very zen. My yard is a work in progress. My water feature is not working out where I have it. It’s got to get move this spring to function better for me. Thank you for bring us great inspiration.