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Outdoor Oasis: How to Make a Zen Garden

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We all need a retreat to escape to every once in a while. For those of us who can’t take off on a vacation very often, creating a refuge in your backyard can be its own kind of paradise. Consider creating a Zen garden for meditation and stress relief.

Zen gardens date back to the sixth century when Buddhist monks used them to promote contemplation and meditation. Although Zen gardens have been refined and altered through the years, many basic principles remain the same. A Zen garden acts as a haven to shut out the outside world. The design of the garden is simple and open, with visual components that you can draw symbolic meaning from and reflect on.

For your own Zen garden, designate a section of your backyard or side yard to use. Choose a space away from noise and fence off the area to keep out children or pets. Even better, use a fence made of natural elements, like bamboo. After you clear the area of weeds and debris, you can start designing your garden. Planning is key, otherwise the space will feel out of balance—and that will affect your mood. Wherever you decide to put your garden, there are several basic structures to include for a serene space.


The raked sand bed is a classic element in a Zen garden. You rake curvy shapes in the sand to represent ripples on water. Raking patterns in the sand can be a stress-relieving and meditative practice. Change the patterns whenever your head feels cloudy or stress takes over. A gravel-like sand works best; beach sand won’t hold the shape of the patterns. Contain the sand with a low wall or fence.

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Rocks act as symbols for mountains, islands, animals or shrubs, but are most often used to represent mountains jutting out of the earth or islands on water. Choose several rocks that interest you. The size of the rocks will depend on the scale of your garden. Weathered rocks add a nice look. When you place the rocks in your sand bed, arrange them in uneven numbers. (Japanese gardeners believe nature is asymmetrical.) Dig them into the ground a few inches, so they look like they’re coming up out of the earth. Also, don’t clutter the space with too many rocks or stones. Keep the area open and calm.


The right plants can help blend the garden into the surrounding environment—making it appear boundless. Let moss grow on logs and stones. Use vines along your fence to add mystery and shield the garden from the outside world. Evergreens and shrubs are good options to plant—just remember that anything you plant will need to be carefully maintained. An untidy Zen garden is so not Zen.


Additional elements like bridges and pathways can be visually stimulating, and allow you to look at the garden from different angles. Just don’t clutter your garden with too much stuff.

Reflect and enjoy! If you don’t have room for a full size Zen garden, create a miniature tabletop version instead. You can even use a thrift store picture frame as a makeshift sand bed.

Follow Kirsten on Twitter @kirsten_hudson, Google+ and Pinterest.

image: joseph readdy

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