Zen garden ideas – 15 ways to create a tranquil outdoor space


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  • In today’s fast-paced world, Zen gardens are one route to finding calm – away from the hustle and bustle. Any outdoor space, big or small, has the potential to become a tranquil retreat full of Zen garden ideas inspired by minimalist Japanese gardens.

    Smaller gardens are actually perfect for this, and there are plenty of ways to create a modern, meditative space on balconies, patios and courtyards, too. It’s also easy to incorporate Zen elements into grassless garden ideas, with carefully raked gravel and planters.

    Zen garden ideas

    Garden designer Melanie Hick’s advice is to keep it simple: ‘Self-restraint is a key element of Zen Buddhism. Think fewer types of plants in greater numbers. Halve the types of plants you’re thinking of using, then double the number for each.’

    Another added bonus is that, thanks to the simplicity of design, Zen gardens are often fairly low-maintenance, great if you want easy garden ideas. Get the look with our expert advice on Zen-style planting and key ingredients for creating a soothing ambiance – including lighting and furniture.

    1. Make a Zen zone

    zen garden with path leading to calm seating area

    Image credit: Future Publishing Ltd

    Dip your toe in by dedicating one corner of your plot to Zen garden ideas. Mark Lane, gardening expert for stairlift and homelift company Stannah recommends this idea. ‘A lot of Zen gardens are in small, enclosed spaces,’ he says.

    ‘So think about using a small area of your garden, perhaps the side access. Introduce a path to lead you to a destination spot or introduce an area for sitting as you look out across a ‘river’ of gravel.’ A stepping stone path or even a small bridge would look brilliant.

    2. Add interest with a Japanese maple

    back garden with acer, lawn and horizontal fencing

    Image credit: Future Publishing Ltd / Dave Burton

    Japanese maples, also known as acers, are a fabulous way to bring some visual interest and an oriental theme. Their elegant silhouette and ruffled texture will add charm to your outdoor space. These graceful plants also offer intense colour with intricate foliage that changes tone throughout the year.

    3. Create a sense of seclusion

    courtyard garden with planted bamboo screening zen garden idea

    Image credit: Dobbies

    Traditionally, zen gardens are surrounded by walls and buildings. If you’re overlooked by neighbours or have a south-facing garden, there are permanent or temporary solutions you can try to give your garden more shade and privacy. For easy garden shade ideas, consider screening off the area with some carefully pruned shrubs and trees, or hard landscaping.

    A simple timber trellis, panels, a pergola, or an umbrella would also work well. Alternatively, you could add architectural foliage to make your space feel more secluded. ‘Plants such as Bamboo (Arundinaria), can be used around to frame the outside edges of gardens or to add some extra privacy and create zones or areas within a space,’ suggests Horticultural Director at Dobbies, Marcus Eyles.

    Top Tip: ‘Don’t plant bamboo in the ground,’ advises garden designer Melanie Hick. ‘Bamboo is an ideal plant for a Zen garden, but it suckers and runs and can ruin paving. Plant bamboo in planters and pots for a lovely swishing sound.’

    4. Stick to a pared-back colour palette

    raised bedding borders with ferns

    Image credit: Future PLC/ Colin Poole

    Keep your colour scheme simple, and lean towards cool tones. Choose ‘plants with large grey/silver foliage, such as super soft Senecio ‘Angel Wings’ or ‘Brachyglottis ‘Sunshine’ which produces bright yellow, daisy-like flowers in June and July,’ says Marcus. Hardy evergreen ferns are a good option to keep your space looking green all year round.

    ‘Include slow-growing tree ferns, Hart’s-tongue fern (Asplenium scolopendrium) and Wood Fern (Dryopteris),’ suggests Marcus. These low-maintenance plants will welcome green coverage to your space through all seasons.

    The greenery is ideal to instantly restore a sense of being surrounded by nature, whether that greenery is in abundance or merely a few pots. Mark Lane agrees that green plays a big part in Zen garden design, as keeping planting to a simple palette of greens can help to relax body and mind.

    5. Create an area of raked gravel

    raked gravel in a japanese inspired zen garden

    Image credit: Getty images / Backyard Production

    For a more traditional Zen garden feel, see if your space would accommodate a small area of raked gravel. This well-known element of Zen gardens is designed to aid meditation as well as creating a striking feature that looks sophisticated and calming.

    6. Incorporate rocks as a sculptural element

    garden with stone and minimalist planting

    Image credit: Future Publishing Ltd / Dave Burton

    Sculptures and statues can be good finishing touches to bring character and texture to an outdoor space. But you could keep things minimalistic and natural with rocks, either grouped together or carefully arranged throughout your garden.

    7. Plant ornamental grasses

    garden lounger with cushions planted bamboo zen garden idea

    Image credit: Dobbies

    The key to this garden look is in the simplicity. You’re looking for planting that works wonders without feeling too ‘done’. Create a sense of wilderness by planting grasses that don’t feel too styled, yet offer a generous canopy of coverage.

    ‘Larger foliage types such as Miscanthus and Pampas grasses (Cortaderia) or for ground cover then the blue Festuca glauca,’ advises Marcus more specifically.

    8. Encourage plants with healing qualities

    Lavender pot next to seating zen garden idea

    Image credit: Future PLC/ Lizzie Orme

    Surround yourself with plants and flowers to boost your sense of wellbeing. For a brilliant immersive garden path idea we recommend planting aromatic herbs along the edge of the path so that the scent is released as you brush past. Try fragrant thyme or lavender.

    Choose plants with healing properties for beds and borders such as echinacea, fennel or lemon balm.

    9. Add soft lighting

    ambient outdoor wall light ideas

    Image credit: Future PLC/ Paul Reaside

    Think about lighting at the planning stage so it can be installed before any landscaping work. A little light goes a long way at night so don’t overdo it. Ground-level garden lighting ideas should be a top priority so that paths, steps, ponds and water features are safely lit.

    Then, illuminate the rest of the garden in layers, from tabletop lamps and wall lights to hanging lanterns and fairy lights strung overhead for ambiance.

    10. Encourage wildlife

    Bee pollinating blue flower garden

    Image credit: Dobbies

    Being at one with nature is particularly grounding and therefore helps to set the tone for a zen garden scheme. Look to add flowering perennials to your planting for a winning wildlife garden idea.

    ‘For attracting bees, butterflies and insects, use plants such as Echinacea, Butterfly bush (Buddleia) and Foxgloves (Digitalis)’ advises Marcus. All these flowering varieties add a pop of colour that is irresistible for insects.

    11. Sit back and relax

    zen garden idea with bamboo garden sofa

    Image credit: Dobbies, Simple Serenity Bamboo Bench, £399

    Of course a feeling of Zen really comes when you’re at your most restful, so you want to create an outdoor space where you can take it easy. The best garden furniture is the most comfortable solution, a must for a relaxing outdoor space. But think about who’s going to be using it before you buy.

    Need a family-friendly space with plenty of seating? Then a sofa and armchair set-up or modular design that can be arranged to fit your space are worth considering.

    Or if you’re planning a quiet spot for two, then a double daybed or pod-style sofa may be a better fit.

    Top tip: Future-proof furniture choices. Sofa-style seating can be hefty to move, so if you’re planning a permanent set-up, choose pieces designed to withstand the elements. Or, invest in protective covers.

    12. Stay warm outdoors

    garden sofa beside fire pit

    Image credit: Future PLC/ Alisdair Mcintosh

    Summer evenings can get chilly, so factor in a heat source to extend time spent outdoors. A chimenea, table heater or fire pit will create a natural gathering place and give your seating area a focal point. Adding one our choice of the best fire pits would go a long way to making the space all the more inviting during the colder months.

    13. Welcome water

    garden water feature

    Image credit: Future PLC/ Colin Poole

    The sound of running water is one of the most calming sounds and therefore any form of water feature or pond is a welcome idea for a zen garden. ‘Remember water. Adding a water feature is an easy way to connect you to nature’ agrees Melanie. ‘Whether it’s a container pond, a shop-bought bubbler or a water dish, water is a relaxing focal point and great for wildlife.’

    14. Set up a spa

    zen garden idea with hot tub

    Image credit: Future PLC/ Douglas Gibb

    Create a relaxation spa-like space with the addition of a hot tub. A four-seat tub will suit the average family. You can buy a basic inflatable hot tub for between £300-£500, with off-the- peg designs in fibreglass or acrylic costing between £2,500-£4,000, depending on design.

    Extras, such as lighting, audio and water features, will cost more and you’ll need to factor-in installation and running costs. Custom-built, wood-fired tubs don’t need electricity, as the heater
    is fuelled by dry wood – expect to pay upwards of £3,500.

    Top tip: Find a solid, level base, such as concrete, which may need reinforcing to handle the weight of a full tub. You’ll need access to water and electricity and the surrounding area should be clean so dirt won’t get in.

    15. Provide an area to meditate

     yoga mat

    Image credit: Future PLC/ Simon Whitmore

    Traditional Zen gardens were designed to help monks to meditate and reflect. And there’s no reason why your garden can’t offer a similarly peaceful place for our own meditation and wellbeing.

    ‘A wide range of studies show that meditation can have positive effects for everyone’ says Melanie Hick. ‘Make sure you create at least a small place to sit and reflect, perhaps surround by your bamboo, with a view of your water feature.’

    How do you make a zen garden from scratch?

    ‘There are some key features to include in a Zen garden,’ says Mark Lane. ‘Gravel that can be shaped and contoured using a rake is a big part of this style of gardening. Think about creating a landscape but in miniature.

    ‘The fields and woodlands are comprised of moss (Heath pearlwort moss or Sagina subulata ‘Pine Green’). This can be used to create hills in undulating forms,’ Mark adds. Alternatively, you can use ‘mind your own business’ plant or Soleirolia soleirolii, which forms neat mounds. The trick is to keep it simple.

    ‘Of course, rocks play a big part and these setting stones need to be positioned correctly for balance,’ says Mark. ‘If the gravel represents a river then the rocks are reminiscent of mountains, waterfalls and islands. Bamboo can be used as a back drop, which will gently sway in the wind causing the stems to knock together gently like a natural wind chime.’

    Marcus Eyles says that when planning the space, you should look to create a neat, organised structure with simple planting schemes, choosing neutral, natural colours. Lush leafy greenery, white flowers and silver, grey foliage are your friend, and tall sculptural plants will add height and work well in groups.

    What do rocks represent in a zen garden?

    Mark explains that the rocks represent mountains, but they can also symbolize the figure of Buddha. Being a natural material they are also seen as a gesture of strength and power. Stacked stones signify the practice of patience and a physical effort of creating balance. Always remember that a Zen garden is a contemplation garden, a space to meditate, to reflect inwards and act outwards.

    Additional words by Liza Fazzani.



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