Originally from Japan, Zen gardens are meant to offer a space for contemplation. They date to the late sixth century, when Zen Buddhist monks employed them as a method of meditation. As the practice developed, Zen gardens became a way to instruct others about Buddhist practices and Zen teachings. The three main concepts to keep in mind when building a Zen garden are portraying nature on a small scale, symbolism and borrowed scenery. The most important elements are rocks and sand.
Plan how the Zen garden will fit in with its surroundings. Look for scenery elsewhere in your yard, or outside your yard, that could be good for viewing from the garden.
Create an appropriate atmosphere for quiet meditation. You may wish to separate the Zen garden from the rest of the garden or yard with a fence or wall.
Use a flat, enclosed space such as a porch or deck to offer a vantage point for viewing the Zen landscape.
Seek to portray a naturalistic setting using a small-scale format. Zen gardens are meant to represent water, islands and mountains.
Use each garden element as a symbol: a mound of soil or an evergreen for a mountain; flat sand or ground-cover plants for water or an island; a low rock to symbolize patience, or a high, sharp rock to stand for mystery.
Choose big rocks for the Zen garden carefully--weathered rocks in shades of gray, and encrusted with lichen, add character and interest.
Use crushed granite, tiny pebbles or fine gravel for the sand. (Unlike ordinary beach sand, crushed-granite particles are angular in form, making them hold their shape in a raked pattern.)
Place weed barrier fabric under 2 to 4 inches of the crushed granite or gravel. Use a Zen garden rake, or a regular rake, to create patterns in the gravel that imitate the movement of water.
Use other Japanese garden elements such as bridges, lanterns and paths, if desired. Items made of natural materials like stone or wood are best suited to a Zen garden.
Include plants and trees, if desired, but it is important to use them sparingly; low and spreading plants fit in better than tall ones. Mosses, ferns, pines and evergreen ground covers are appropriate and look good year-round.