Creating a Zen Garden for Your New Jersey Backyard

Zen—or dry—gardens date back to the late 14th century, when Zen Buddhist priests created these austere gardens for meditation and appreciation of beauty. These gardens had no water features; the priests created a feeling of water with rocks, even raking them to get a ripple-like appearance.

Zen gardens are appearing in backyards across northern New Jersey as well, taking a cue from Asian traditions by keeping the focus on nature. Homeowners may choose to create these gardens—made primarily of stone and gravel, often enhanced with moss, small plants or shrubs, and rock formations—to avoid having to water; others choose to install these for the quiet contemplation they invite and the serenity they provide. And, they are easy to maintain and are weatherproof. The homeowner needs simply to rake the gravel or sand, in desired designs. The very act of this raking can be in itself a meditation and is meant to be relaxing. Raked designs are often made to look like waves or streams.

Although they appear simple on the surface, Zen gardens have a complexity that is revealed as one takes time to enjoy the space. The homeowner takes an active (albeit, relaxing) role in changing the raked design, then stepping back to contemplate and enjoy it. The carefully groomed sand is meant to provide a refuge from the world.

Today’s Zen gardens may include enhancements such as ponds, bridges, lighting and sculpture but the raked sand and fine gravel are the canvas upon which these sit.

Designing your Zen Garden

This starts by defining the space: a corner of an existing garden, part of your yard or even the whole yard. Do some research or visit other Zen or Asian gardens for ideas about topography and the hardscape (the stone work). Do you want to include water or not? What about lighting?

Whatever you do, think nature—a space with rough edges. Plants are not the main attraction so select a few specimen plants that will enhance the design because of their color or texture. Also consider seasonal changes; in northern New Jersey we experience all four seasons very distinctly and so does plant life.

Then it’s time for your hardscape materials:

  • Stone – the structural basis for your Zen garden. Stepping stones, formations, borders, designs.
  • Pebbles – think river-rounded pebbles of various sizes that will create the fields, surround plants and outline paths.
  • Sand or fine gravel – this is used to create the illusion of water, raked as anything from a dry riverbed to roiling waves and ripples – the choice (and the fun) is all yours.

Other enhancements may include bamboo panels, statues (such as one of Buddha), low lighting (stone or concrete housing blends in best), and a koi fish pond. The plants you choose should offer some texture and color. Your landscaping professional or high-quality garden center should be able to make some smart suggestions.

You can find inspiration and ideas for your Zen garden on Pinterest and there are plenty of sources online or in your public library.

Adding a Zen garden to your New Jersey property will certainly make your home stand out, and will provide you with many tranquil hours enjoying and reconfiguring your creation.