Life can get very hectic at times, so having a calming garden space to retreat to is what zen garden ideas will give you. Garden ideas that follow this minimalist approach are inspired by simple Japanese gardens.
‘Japanese Zen gardens are a minimalistic visual retreat that anyone can create in their outdoor space, no matter the size,’ says Marcus Eyles, horticultural director at Dobbies (opens in new tab).
‘Building your own is easy to do, as less is more with this look. Choose calming, fresh greenery and avoid overcrowding the area or using bright colours. Border your Zen area with natural elements, like rocks and pebbles, to get the clean organic lines which Zen gardens are known for.’
Zen garden ideas
Zen garden ideas are particularly good for grassless garden ideas due to the emphasis on gravel, planters and curved pathways.
Lisa Grosse, brand manager at Cedral (opens in new tab) says, ‘Zen gardens are traditionally Japanese and small in area, full of lush foliage and plants. Traditionally they were used to aid meditation practices but in 2023 we will see Brits create zen garden spaces for both the natural calming effect they bring and also aesthetics, drawing the eye and creating a beautiful contrast to urban, dark and contemporary landscapes.’
Creating your own zen garden is all about creating a space of peace and tranquillity and due to its paired-back nature is a low-maintenance option for easy garden ideas.
1. Add a stepping stone path
A lot of gardens will have a path that goes from the lawn to the shed, back of the house or side gate. This is the perfect opportunity for garden path ideas that are not only useful but can encourage mindfulness. Using stepping stones requires you to walk around your garden more slowly and focus more on every step and take a journey around your garden and immerse yourself in nature.
‘A path does not always have to be purely useful. They can also promote mindfulness when woven around a small tree, a statue, or water. The effect is enhanced when we incorporate some of our favourite stepping stone concepts because each step requires concentration, naturally slowing the pace. So keep the lines bent and choose natural stone,’ says Harry Bodell, gardening expert at Price Your Job (opens in new tab).
2. Include an archway
To give some height to your zen garden ideas, an archway provides a focal point for the garden. An arch is a clever way to frame plants, flowers or a water feature and should remain simple to blend in with the rest of the serene nature of the garden.
In classic Japanese gardens, Torii gates are a common feature. They mark the divide between the normal daily zone and the place of worship you are about to enter.
The freestanding arch is commonly made of metal, wood or stone and should echo the simplicity of this type of garden. Most Torii archways are painted red because it is believed this will ward off evil spirits, which you can do too if you wish to follow the tradition.
3. Soften the look with ferns
Adding ferns to your garden is a way to soften the stones and rocks that are part of your zen garden ideas. Evergreen ferns which grow slowly are the best types including hart’s-tongue ferns and wood ferns.
Mix the ferns with moss and bamboo to fill out any sparse areas. In your garden landscaping ideas, a mix of these plants will provide shade to the garden and can provide a privacy screen to zone off the garden. Buddha belly bamboo, and black bamboo work well and mixing moss in between rocks creates a soft look that blends your elements.
‘The fields and woodlands are comprised of mosses such as heath pearlwort moss or pine green moss, this can be used to create hills in undulating forms. Bamboo can be used as a backdrop, which will gently sway in the wind causing the stems to knock together gently like a natural wind chime,’ says Mark Lane (opens in new tab), gardening expert and BBC Gardeners’ World presenter.
4. Mix up the colour and size of your rocks
The rocks and stones within your zen garden ideas are there to mimic mountains, waterfalls and islands so are part of a larger calming landscape.
‘Rocks are a must when it comes to zen gardens, In traditional zen designs rocks represent large mountains. They provide an easy and minimalist centrepiece in any garden,’ recommends Anna Elkington, a home & garden expert at Melody Maison (opens in new tab).
Mimic the natural landscape as much as possible, by varying the stones and rocks you use for a naturalistic effect. This symbolism adds a sculptural element to the garden and the rocks can be used as part of your garden edging ideas too.
5. Create soft lighting
‘Adding lanterns around your garden is a common feature in zen gardens. Other than creating light around pathways, they add a calming atmosphere on long summer evenings,’ says Anna Elkington from Melody Maison.
The aim is not to mimic daylight with these garden lighting ideas it is to create a subtle and harmonious effect with your lighting that feels part of the environment and doesn’t overpower it. During the day your light sources should remain unobtrusive to not disrupt your zen garden ideas.
‘The ideal lighting for a zen interior garden should be soft and subdued. Lighting can be used to aid in the creation of balance between different elements in the space, such as plants, furniture, and artwork. Hanging pendant lights or wall-mounted sconces are great choices to provide subtle illumination, while also introducing an element of visual interest,’ says Mara Rypacek Mille, managing director at Industville Ltd (opens in new tab).
‘When it comes to selecting colours and materials for lighting fixtures in a zen interior garden design, natural textures such as wood, marble or stone work best to create a serene atmosphere. Incorporating warm low-level lighting can also help to make the space feel more peaceful and inviting, plus soft accent lighting is perfect for highlighting features such as small water features or terrariums.’
6. Use natural materials
‘Zen gardens are traditionally created with natural materials. Move away from harsh metals and introduce organic-feeling furniture pieces that play with the idea of gentle texture, such as those with woven rope-style frames. Keep your palette pared back with sand or stone-coloured cushions and throws,’ say the experts at Atkin and Thyme (opens in new tab).
An egg chair such as the Gradenline large hanging egg chair, £344.99, Aldi (opens in new tab), created out of rattan or wicker is a simple neutral colour that would work perfectly in a zen garden. It is the perfect place to sit in quiet contemplation and enjoy the serenity of the garden. Using natural materials for your best garden furniture will blend harmoniously with the rest of the garden. Rustic accents work best in a zen garden in comparison with modern details, which would create too harsh a contrast.
7. Include a zig zag bridge
Japanese legend says that to ward off evil spirits a garden should have a zig zag bridge. The myth goes that evil spirits can only travel in a straight line, so by having a zig zag bridge this will trap any bad spirits and keep them as bay. The myth aside, this feature requires a slow journey through the garden which follows the zen principles of mindfulness and a relaxed pace of life.
8. Make a Zen zone
Dip your toe in by dedicating one corner of your plot to zen garden ideas. Mark Lane, gardening expert for stairlift and homelift company Stannah (opens in new tab) recommends this idea. ‘A lot of zen gardens are in small, enclosed spaces,’ he says.
‘So think about using a small area of your garden, perhaps the side access. Introduce a path to lead you to a destination spot or introduce an area for sitting as you look out across a ‘river’ of gravel.’ A stepping stone path or even a small bridge would look brilliant.
9. Add interest with a Japanese maple
Japanese maples, also known as acers, are a fabulous way to bring some visual interest and an oriental theme. Their elegant silhouette and ruffled texture will add charm to your outdoor space. These graceful plants also offer intense colour with intricate foliage that changes tone throughout the year.
Harry Bodell from Price Your Job says, ‘These leafy beauties, which come in various shapes and sizes, display eye-catching colours in the fall, like this blazing scarlet. Moreover, they can look beautiful when set against harsh rock formations and light backgrounds.’
10. Create a sense of seclusion
Traditionally, zen gardens are surrounded by walls and buildings. If you’re overlooked by neighbours or have a south-facing garden, there are permanent or temporary solutions you can try to give your garden more shade and privacy. For easy garden shade ideas, consider screening off the area with some carefully pruned shrubs and trees, or hard landscaping.
A simple timber trellis, panels, a pergola, or an umbrella would also work well. Alternatively, you could add architectural foliage to make your space feel more secluded. ‘Plants such as Bamboo (Arundinaria), can be used around to frame the outside edges of gardens or to add some extra privacy and create zones or areas within a space,’ suggests Marcus Eyles from Dobbies.
Top Tip: ‘Don’t plant bamboo in the ground,’ advises garden designer Melanie (opens in new tab)Hick (opens in new tab). ‘Bamboo is an ideal plant for a zen garden, but it suckers and runs and can ruin paving. Plant bamboo in planters and pots for a lovely swishing sound.’
11. Stick to a pared-back colour palette
Keep your colour scheme simple, and lean towards cool tones. Choose ‘plants with large grey/silver foliage, such as super soft Senecio ‘Angel Wings’ or ‘Brachyglottis ‘Sunshine’ which produces bright yellow, daisy-like flowers in June and July,’ says Marcus Eyles from Dobbies. Hardy evergreen ferns are a good option to keep your space looking green all year round.
The greenery is ideal to instantly restore a sense of being surrounded by nature, whether that greenery is in abundance or merely a few pots. Mark Lane from Stannah agrees that green plays a big part in zen garden design, as keeping planting to a simple palette of greens can help to relax body and mind.
12. Create an area of raked gravel
For a more traditional zen garden feel, see if your space would accommodate a small area of raked gravel. Gravel garden ideas are a well-known element of zen gardens and are designed to aid meditation as well as creating a striking feature that looks sophisticated and calming.
White gravel in particular looks great because it creates the illusion of water and is common in Karesansui, or dry landscape zen gardens.
13. Incorporate rocks as a sculptural element
Sculptures and statues can be good finishing touches to bring character and texture to an outdoor space as part of your garden art ideas. But you could keep things minimalistic and natural with rocks, either grouped together or carefully arranged throughout your garden.
They also provide a focal point for your garden which you can fan your other ideas around. To keep in feel with the zen atmosphere choose a sculpture or statue in a neutral, natural material.
14. Plant ornamental grasses
The key to this garden look is in the simplicity. You’re looking for planting that works wonders without feeling too ‘done’. Create a sense of wilderness by planting grasses that don’t feel too styled, yet offer a generous canopy of coverage.
‘Larger foliage types such as Miscanthus and Pampas grasses (Cortaderia) or for ground cover then the blue Festuca glauca,’ advises Marcus Eyles from Dobbies.
15. Encourage plants with healing qualities
Surround yourself with plants and flowers to boost your sense of wellbeing. For a brilliant immersive garden path idea we recommend planting aromatic herbs along the edge of the path so that the scent is released as you brush past. Try fragrant thyme or lavender. Just be sure to avoid these common herb garden mistakes.
Choose plants with healing properties for beds and borders such as echinacea, fennel or lemon balm.
16. Encourage wildlife
Being at one with nature is particularly grounding and therefore helps to set the tone for a zen garden scheme. Look to add flowering perennials to your planting for a winning wildlife garden idea.
‘For attracting bees, butterflies and insects, use plants such as Echinacea, Butterfly bush (Buddleia) and Foxgloves (Digitalis)’ advises Marcus Eyles from Dobbies. All these flowering varieties add a pop of colour that is irresistible for insects.
17. Sit back and relax
Of course, a feeling of zen comes when you’re at your most restful, so you want to create an outdoor space where you can take it easy. The best garden furniture is the most comfortable solution, a must for a relaxing outdoor space. But think about who’s going to be using it before you buy.
Need a family-friendly space with plenty of seating? Then a sofa and armchair set-up or modular design that can be arranged to fit your space is worth considering.
Or if you’re planning a quiet spot for two, then a double daybed or pod-style sofa may be a better fit.
Top tip: Future-proof furniture choices. Sofa-style seating can be hefty to move, so if you’re planning a permanent set-up, choose pieces designed to withstand the elements. Or, invest in protective covers.
18. Stay warm outdoors
Summer evenings can get chilly, so factor in a heat source to extend time spent outdoors. A chimenea, table heater or fire pit will create a natural gathering place and give your seating area a focal point. Adding one our choice of the best fire pits would go a long way to making the space all the more inviting during the colder months.
19. Welcome water
The sound of running water is one of the most calming sounds and therefore any form of water feature or pond is a welcome idea for a zen garden. ‘Remember water. Adding a water feature idea is an easy way to connect you to nature’ agrees Melanie Hick.
‘Whether it’s a container pond, a shop-bought bubbler or a water dish, water is a relaxing focal point and great for wildlife.’ For a more natural look add rocks and plants around your water feature so it blends in with the rest of the garden.
20. Set up a spa
Create a relaxation spa-like space with the addition of a hot tub. A four-seat tub will suit the average family. You can buy a basic inflatable hot tub for between £300-£500, with off-the- peg designs in fibreglass or acrylic costing between £2,500-£4,000, depending on design.
Extras, such as lighting, audio and water features, will cost more and you’ll need to factor-in installation and running costs. Custom-built, wood-fired tubs don’t need electricity, as the heater is fuelled by dry wood – expect to pay upwards of £3,500.
Top tip: Find a solid, level base, such as concrete, which may need reinforcing to handle the weight of a full tub. You’ll need access to water and electricity and the surrounding area should be clean so dirt won’t get in.
21. Provide an area to meditate
Traditional Zen gardens were designed to help monks to meditate and reflect. And there’s no reason why your garden can’t offer a similarly peaceful place for our own meditation and wellbeing.
‘A wide range of studies show that meditation can have positive effects (opens in new tab) for everyone’ says Melanie Hick. ‘Make sure you create at least a small place to sit and reflect, perhaps surround by your bamboo, with a view of your water feature.’
How do you make a simple zen garden?
A zen garden is simple in its nature so needs few materials to create a beautiful space. Perfect for budget garden ideas, a zen garden should have lots of open space, embrace curves and invoke a calming atmosphere. A large stone at the entrance of the garden is commonly seen as a sign of welcome. With white gravel raked to create the look of ripple water known as hōkime.
Commonly zen garden ideas include a winding stone path due to the harshness of straight lines and low maintenance plants such as moss and ferns. To keep with simplicity, less is more when planning your garden.
What do you put in a zen garden?
Anna Elkington from Melody Maison says, ‘The main elements of a zen (Karesansui) garden include sand, stones, wood and very few plants, these gardens are known to represent nature. Using large upright rocks can symbolise islands and mountains that emerge from the water. As zen gardens incorporate a dry landscape, water is represented through gravel and sand. Wood is used in man-made elements such as bridges to symbolise the movement from one life to another, usually the afterlife.’
The sound of a water feature provides a soothing background noise which contributes to the zen nature. Winding paths and raked gravel are also found in zen gardens along with plants such as bamboo, ferns, moss and acer and bonsai trees.
Each zen garden looks different so feel free to have fun and experiment when creating your own oasis.