Bring Tranquility to the Landscape

Build your own Zen rock garden

Buddha watches over Paul and Barbara Jackson’s Zen rock garden. Photo by Paul Jackson

When Paul Jackson’s son graduated from high school, he received an unconventional but welcome gift: 6 yards of pea gravel.

“He wanted a Zen rock garden,” Paul says. “He pointed out the place in the backyard. I said, ‘OK, go build it.’ So he did, and when he went off and got married, he left it for us to take care of.”

Paul and his wife, Barbara, learned to love the Japanese-style garden and its tranquility. The maintenance—which consists of raking the gravel and watering a few plants—was minimal.

Built in 1994 at the Jackson home in Anchorage, Alaska, the garden was maintained by the couple until 2013 when they moved to Grants Pass, Oregon.

At their new home, the Jacksons were interested in a low-care, low-water landscape with minimal lawn. They decided to take their local extension service’s master gardener course.

“We had two areas being watered by a sprinkler system, and they were full of moss,” Paul says. “I thought, ‘Let’s turn off the sprinklers, take out sod and put in a little Zen garden.’”

One of six styles of Japanese gardens— which include promenade, tea and pond gardens—the Zen rock garden represents a miniature and idealized view of nature, Paul says.

Rocks fill in for mountains and islands; gravel for water. Following mythology, the crane and turtle symbols—which signify longevity—also find their way into the landscape. Other elements may include pagodas, lanterns, Buddha statues, water features, and plants.

In his garden, Paul created a middle island with a lion’s mane Japanese maple, ajuga, moss, and lithodora. He created a drip system so a hose doesn’t have to be dragged across the gravel. A Buddha statue sits cross-legged in front of the tree.

Other than a pagoda and a seating area where Barbara often sits to enjoy the sound of birds and some contemplative time, the garden is simplistic.

“There’s something appealing in the simplicity of Zen rock gardens,” Paul says. “It has a pleasing effect to the eye. All Zen gardens are designed to be asymmetric. There are no angles or straight lines. Nature is asymmetric, too.”

Paul recommends keeping it simple.

“Don’t worry about being too formal,” he says. “Make it the way you want it.”

How to Build a Zen Garden

  • Keep things simple when creating the design
  • Lay out the area with stakes, flags, or spray paint
  • Clear area of grass, rocks, etc.
  • Cover with landscape cloth
  • Build a fence if one is included in the design
  • Determine how much pea gravel or sand is needed
  • Determine the size, number, and placement of boulders – They should be different sizes but of the same material
  • Dig in the bottom third of the boulders
  • Decide where to place plants, if used. Be sure to install edging to keep soil out of gravel
  • Run irrigation lines, if needed
  • Add a water feature
  • Add pea gravel or sand
  • Build a sitting area, if desired
  • Place flagstones that lead to sitting and/or plant areas

Plants for a Zen Garden

  • Heavenly bamboo (Nandina)
  • Real bamboo (consider clumping bamboo, which will not run)
  • Conifers
  • Japanese maples
  • Mosses
  • Sedums
  • Other ground covers
  • Azaleas, camellias and rhododendrons

Zen Rock Garden Rakes

Rakes for Zen rock gardening can be difficult to find. If you decide to make your own, Paul suggests using hardwood, such as oak, because it will last longer and have plenty of weight so you don’t have to force the tines into the gravel as you rake.

Use 1-inch-by-2-inch lumber for the tines and set them approximately 2 inches apart to create a nice pattern in the gravel.