A true traditional Zen garden contains no plants. It has only sand, which represents water, and stones of various shapes. Each particular shape of stone represents one of the following elements: Wood, fire, metal, water or earth. Western society has adopted the concept of the Zen garden and enhanced it with the occasional addition of plants.
While a traditionalist might not recognize a garden with plants as a true "Zen" garden, the intent is still the same--to create a peaceful place where one can meditate and become one with all things. If you don't have room to create a full-size Zen garden--which could be over 30 feet long--you can create your own miniature version.
Inspect the tray for any cracks or fissures that might let sand leak out. Seal each crack with a bead or line of hot glue.
Place the small plant in the tray. Make sure that the edge of the plant pot is level with the edge of the tray, or higher, to ensure that sand doesn't spill into the pot. If you'd like to make a true-to-tradition Zen garden the plant may be left out, but if it pleases you, include it.
Fill the tray around the potted plant with white sand. Periodically smooth the sand so that it's reasonably level as you fill the tray. Continue filling until the level sand is 1/4 inch to 1/2 inch away from the lip of the tray. Make sure not to spill sand into the plant's pot.
Collect small rocks--polished or rough--that appeal to you. Remember, your Zen garden is an individual expression of your creativity and your spirit, so all of the materials you choose should be based on what appeals to you. Scatter the rocks around the tray.
Smooth the sand around the plant with your hand or the smooth back of the rake tool, then shape the sand into interesting patterns with the toothed-end of the rake tool. The act of shaping the sand should be a methodical, spiritual task. This is your chance make fullest use of your miniature Zen garden as a place of meditation and peace.