What Are Zen Garden Elements?

A Zen garden is a place to relax, achieve harmony and gain a deeper appreciation for nature. The word "zen" denotes meditation and contemplation on the road to enlightenment. Zen gardens have been evolving since the eighth century in Japan. They can provide a sanctuary in your back yard by incorporating some of the traditional elements.

Sand and Rocks

The raked sand or white or tan granite of a Zen garden contrasts with the surrounding green foliage. Originally the sand purified the ground and made it hospitable to spirits. Raking the sand simulates waves or currents, particularly helpful if your garden does not have a water element. Rocks give your garden dimension and a focal point. They represent mountains and islands, a contrast from the water elements.


Strolling through a Zen garden is rarely random. Clearly designated paths made from stones or gravel lead visitors to specific areas while keeping plants safe from being trampled. Zen gardens almost never have straight paths; meandering, curving paths force you to slow down and take time to appreciate your surroundings.


If your Zen garden has a body of water such as a pond or even a dry sand or gravel stream, you'll want to add a bridge of wood or stone. The bridge can be as simple as a stone slab or log. More elaborate bridges can be arched or covered.

Lanterns and Basins

Bronze or stone lanterns were originally used to light the paths to Shinto shrines and tea gardens. Place your lanterns near a water basin or the entrance to a building. A water basin is part of the Shinto and Buddhist religions, which require a ritual cleansing before entering a temple. The basin can range from a large stone with a natural depression to an ornate bronze or copper bowl. Place a bamboo dipper on two pieces of bamboo tied together with black silk cord next to the basin.


In the garden, waterfalls may lend their water's tinkling sound to the ambiance, or they may be dry cascades (known as kare taki), where stones just suggest the fall of water. The waterfall symbolizes the universe's "permanent impermanence." Streams play a major role in Asian landscape paintings, always flowing but always the same.

Flowers and Shrubs

Today's Japanese gardens have a great variety of shrubs and flowers, though they may be less "flowery" than historic gardens of the past. Commonly found plants include water lily, lotus, iris, azalea, boxwood, hydrangea and wisteria. Shrubs tend to be pruned into geometric shapes with simple lines, and flowers are kept in individual beds to sharpen the impact of their color. Topiary conifers will also lend shape and drama to your garden; pine trees are symbols of longevity.

Keywords: zen garden elements, Buddhist temples, garden harmony

About this Author

Aileen Clarkson has been an award-winning editor and reporter for more than 20 years, earning three awards from the Society of Professional Journalists. She has worked for several newspapers, including "The Washington Post" and "The Charlotte Observer." Clarkson earned a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from the University of Florida.