10 Garden Ideas to Steal from Japanese Zen Masters

Are you feeling calmer already? Photos of Japanese dry landscape gardens near Zen temples always lower my blood pressure, with their peaceful arrangements of rocks, gravel, moss, and the occasional well-trained evergreen tree or shrub.

Imagine how nice it would be to have a karesansui of your own. For inspiration and instruction, we turn to Sakuteiki, the 11th-century Japanese garden design manual that describes how to create the harmonious, controlled landscape of a dry rock garden. Here are 1o ideas to steal (with some help from the Dictionary of Japanese Architectural and Art Historical Terminology):

Karetaki: Dry Waterfalls

Above: Photograph via Wikimedia.

The only thing missing is the water. To design a karetaki, arrange stones, sand, and gravel to create a symbolic waterfall.

“Typically the waterfall is represented by standing bluestone lengthwise to symbolize the cascade,” notes the Dictionary of Japanese Architectural and Art Historical Terminology.

Karenagare: Raked Sand

Above: The dry rock garden at Kennin-ji, the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto. Photograph by Kimubert via Flickr.

At the base of a dry waterfall, place a layer of “gravel or white sand to make a dry stream,” advises the Dictionary of Japanese Architectural and Art Historical Terminology.

To make the job easier, use the right tool; see 10 Easy Pieces: Gravel and Sand Rakes.

Karesansui: Rock Sculptures

Above: Photograph by Rassil via Flickr.

In Zen gardens, the shape and placement of rocks is a key design component. Depending on size and silhouette, a rock can symbolize a mountain, an island, or a welcome (if placed at the entrance to a garden).

Rocks also can evoke five natural elements, including:

Kogetsudai: Gravel Mountains

Above: At the Ginkaku-ji Zen garden in Kyoto. Photograph by Kimon Berlin via Flickr.

Gravel shaped into conical forms can represent mountains, in the style of a giant cone of sand at Ginkaku-ji Temple that represents Mt. Fuji (and spawned centuries of imitators).


Above: Photograph by Kate Nevens via Flickr.

Low-growing mounds of shade-loving moss at the edge or surrounded by a sea of raked gravel create a peaceful green contrast to the other natural elements in Zen garden. Mosses fall into two general categories: Acrocarps (which grow in upright mounds) or Pleurocarps (which creep along the ground).


Above: Photograph by Mihoyo Fuji via Flickr.

Trees and shrubs, often placed singly as or along a perimeter of a Zen garden, often are evergreen to create a year-round complement to the other elements.

Azaleas, rhododendrons, Japanese maple trees, conifers (such as pine trees), and yew are good choices for a Zen garden.

Pick a Perspective

Above: Photograph by el_ave via Flickr.

Design your Zen garden to viewed from a single perspective. Sit in a chair and survey the plan—is it pleasing at eye level?

Perimeter of Plants

Above: The gardens at the Huntington in San Marino, California include a dry Japanese landscape garden. Photograph by Dailymatador via Flickr.

At the edge of a Zen garden, evergreen conifers are often trained as topiaries. For more, see Topiary: Cloud Pruning as Arboreal Art and  Pine Trees 101: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design.

Enclose the Garden

Above: “The road to Daisen-in” leads to one of Japan’s most iconic dry gardens in Kyoto. Photograph by Miss Vichar via Flickr.

To reinforce the peace and sense of a Zen garden as an orderly, controlled universe an enclosure—typically a fence with a gate—separates it from the outside world. For fencing choices, see 10 Easy Pieces: Japanese-Style Fences and Screens.

Seek Guidance

Above: A paperback copy of Sakuteiki Visions of the Japanese Garden: A Modern Translation of Japan’s Gardening Classic is $15.01 at Amazon.
N.B.: Read more about Zen gardens, dry gardens, and other styles of Japanese garden:

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