Just around 1.2 million people in the United States identify as Buddhists — and the majority of them don’t come from countries where Buddhism is traditionally practiced. The picture is similar in the UK, where just over 200,000 people practice any form of Buddhism.
We’ll go out on a limb and assume that, if you’re interested in creating a beautiful and calming Japanese Zen garden, you’re not a follower of Zen Buddhism. You may practice some form of meditation, and you may want to create a garden space that makes that easier for you. You may also simply love the look of traditional Japanese rock gardens.
Though the garden you are looking to create will certainly bring you closer to nature, arguably making it spiritual on some level, you’re essentially in it for the lovely design.
If you indeed fall into either of these two loose categories, you will likely want to take inspiration from the traditional Japanese Zen garden to create your own relaxing and peaceful space, rather than strictly following all the many rules surrounding Zen gardens.
You will probably want to loosely incorporate all the elements that make up a zen garden, and then allow your imagination to run wild to design a garden that works for you.
Watch Our Latest YouTube Video ...
1. Camellia (Camellia Japonica)
Camellia is a slow-growing evergreen flowering shrub in the Theaceae (tea) family. They are native to Japan, China, and Korea. These plants can actually be grown as both shrubs and trees and are especially-long lived, which is why they represent happiness and longevity in the Buddhist tradition.
The gorgeous and symmetrical flowers of the camellia plants are certainly one of their most memorable features. The flowers are cup-shaped and may appear in shades of gold, red, pink, or white and even variegated forms exist!
Though it’s not only camellia’s flowers that make the shrub so compelling, as their glossy evergreen leaves are also really charming, camellia flowers represent perfection. Nothing perfect is easy to come by, of course, so novice gardeners definitely need to know that Camellia Japonica is a high-maintenance plant.
Before you add camellia to your garden, you need to know that:
- Camellias appreciate moist but well-draining soil high in organic matter and an acidic pH level.
- Camellia plants will do best in partial shade — where they will ideally get around two to six hours of direct sunlight and enjoy some afternoon shade.
- Camellia plants thrive in moist conditions, and, will therefore, need to be kept in evenly moist soil.
- Their famous flowers bloom in the spring and winter time and are usually three to six inches (eight to 15 centimeters) in size.
- Camellia flowers also attract pollinators to your Zen garden!
2. Azalea (Rhododendron) Bushes
Azaleas (Rhododendron spp.) are very popular for their absolutely stunning blooms. The azalea plant is part of the very large Rhododendron genus that includes over 1,000 species!
Azaleas are broadleaf evergreen shrubs that are native to areas in America, Europe, and of course Asia — in a Japanese Zen garden, they can represent a longing for home, or an appreciation for the land. Their beautiful flowers are bell or funnel shaped and come in various colors including orange, yellow, purple, red white, and pink.
Azaleas have pretty and glossy green foliage. When fully matured, these shrubs will grow to be around three to 20 feet (less than a meter to over six meters) tall and wide.
If you want to add an attractive azalea to your Zen garden, you’ll first need to know that:
- Azaleas thrive in rich soil with an acidic pH level. Your azalea plant will be grateful for loamy or sandy soil.
- For azalea bushes to bloom successfully, they will need regular water. They may get plenty from the rain, but people who live in drier climates should water their azalea bushes regularly.
- The azalea plant will succeed when planted in areas that get partial shade. They should, ideally, get a couple hours of morning sun.
- Giving your azalea some fertilizer will certainly help it flourish, and a 15-15-15 fertilizer program should do the job just fine.
- Before you get your hands on an azalea plant, do know that all parts this bush are extremely poisonous to humans.
3. Cherry Blossoms (Prunus Serrulata)
Cherry blossom trees, or sakura trees, are a must-have in any Japanese garden! They can represent the ever-evolving nature of life, since the flowers are especially fragile, the sacrifice of a fallen soldier, or even just, to the Japanese, “home”.
Cherry blossom trees are easy to fall in love with, even if they don’t hold the same special meaning to you, as they are fragrant and exceptionally beautiful.
Many different hybrids and cultivars exist, and it is best to choose a cherry blossom tree that is well-adapted to your local climate and will achieve the kind of size you are looking for. In general, these trees need:
- Full sun — at least six hours a day.
- A fertile and moist soil that drains well.
- Plenty of supplemental watering unless you live in a region that receives plenty of rain, as cherry blossoms need at least two inches of water each week.
- To be fed a cherry-blossom fertilizer just once a year.
4. Flowering Quince (Chaenomeles speciosa)
Flowering quince is a multi-stemmed and thorny deciduous shrub with alluring flowers. The flowers of the flowering quince are, of course, their most noticeable feature. Though they often come in shades of pink, the flowers of the flowering quince also be red, orange, or white.
Does the flowering quince sound appealing to you? Here’s some essential info about these shrubs, to help you decide whether you should add them to your Zen garden:
- You’ll get to appreciate the full beauty of your flowering quince when it’s grown in full sunlight. Though these shrubs can do alright in partial shade, they will grow taller and more beautiful, blooming more abundantly, in full sunlight.
- Flowering quinces flourish in well-draining loamy soil. When it comes to pH levels, these plants definitely don’t like alkaline soil, and slightly acidic to neutral soil is much better for this shrub.
- Flowering quinces are somewhat drought resistant but will definitely still need plenty of water, especially if they are still young. When watering flowering quinces, do it in the morning to give the water time to soak in.
- The captivating and especially fragrant flowers of the flowering quince will bloom in the fall.
- The flowering quince plant is very resistant to cold temperatures, even surviving temperatures of -25 °F (-31 °C)!
5. Bamboo (Bambusa)
Bamboo bends, but does not break — in a Zen garden, it represents flexibility and sincerity, or choosing to live a straightforward, upright, life, in accordance with your values. To design a true Zen garden, you will certainly want to add bamboo to your garden — and while Bambusa comprises an entire and very large genus, Bambusa multiplex may be a great choice for you.
This dwarf bamboo can grow successfully in much of the United States and Europe, and has a beautiful spreading and arching growth habit.
Caring for this bamboo species is easier than you might think!
- Bambusa multiplex requires a rich soil that’s high in organic matter, with a strong preference for slightly more acidic conditions.
- These bamboo bushes are not picky about their lighting. They’ll survive and thrive in full sun, partial shade, but also dappled sun, perfect if you are hoping to grow this handsome dwarf bamboo in the shade of a tall tree.
- This bamboo species can grow to be 10 to 25 feet (three to eight meters) tall, and tolerates pruning very well. It will not grow out of control, unlike many other bamboo species.
- Bamboo is a moisture-loving plant that will need to be watered regularly to stay happy, and the amount of supplemental watering you need to provide depends on the precipitation your area receives.
6. Hakone Grass (Hakonechloa Macra)
Hakone grass, commonly called Japanese forest grass, offers incredibly striking light green foliage that is sure to add to the calming atmosphere in your brand new Zen garden. This ornamental grass is a perennial native to the woodland areas of central Japan.
Hakone grass is a slow grower and is really special because it is one of only a few grasses that actually flourish in the shade — making it especially appropriate to plant this grass in the shade of a taller tree.
The appearance of hakone grass is very pleasing and it comes in not only shades of a lighter green, but some cultivars even have variegated versions with green, white, and gold stripes.
Ornamental grasses are a must-have for your Zen garden and the hakone grass is sure to serve you well. Japanese forest grasses need:
- Hakone grasses thrive in shade and will like to be placed in spots with either partial or deep shade.
- This ornamental grass will definitely not fair well in heavy clay soil, poorly drained, and extremely dry soil. Instead, place your hakone grass in soil with plenty of organic matter, moisture, and good drainage.
- The hakone grass will need frequent watering to stay pretty and healthy.
Hostas (both the scientific and common name for a genus that belongs to the Asparagaceae family) are among the most popular garden plants in the United States, because they are supremely easy to care for, but these perennials are in fact native to East Asia, including Japan.
This makes hostas an easy choice for a Zen garden. Hostas are known for their beautiful large foliage, which resembles that of a water plant, and although these plants are fairly easy to care for, they do demand rather specific growing conditions:
- Hostas are unique in that they thrive in full shade. Do not place your hosta in conditions where it will receive more than a few hours of direct sunlight per day, and ideally choose a spot for your hosta that will enable it to get dappled sunlight — that is, sun filtered through the foliage of a larger tree.
- All hosta species need a lot of moisture to thrive. These plants do not, however, tolerate soggy soil and prefer a rich, well-draining, and slightly acidic soil type.
While hostas can grow successfully in a wide range of temperature conditions, one thing these plants do not cope with is heavy wind. Place your hosta in a sheltered space where it will be protected.
8. Japanese Maple trees (Acer Palmatum)
Japanese maples are woody trees in the Sapindaceae family. Like most of the trees and plants you will typically find in Zen gardens, they are native to East Asia, though not only to Japan. The Japanese maple is very prominent in classic Japanese poetry and art, where it represents balance and a state of inner peace.
The absolutely captivating foliage of the Japanese maple tree can come in shades of green or red, or even both. During the fall, these trees reveal stunning shades of purple, yellow, orange, and red. Japanese maple trees produce small red and purple flowers.
Interestingly, Japanese maple leaves can be made into a snack that is really popular in Osaka. The snack is called Momiji tempura and can be made by deep-frying and salting the leaves from a Japanese maple tree in a sweet batter. If you are looking to try and make this snack yourself, though, choose fresh and young leaves or they won’t be very tasty at all.
If you’d like to add Japanese maples to your Zen garden, keep in mind that:
- Japanese maple trees will do best when planted in a spot with partial to dappled sunlight.
- These gorgeous trees thrive in moist but well-draining soil with loamy and sandy soil being fine choices. Be sure not to plant your Japanese maple tree in alkaline soil, and instead choose soil with slight acidity.
- The Japanese maple tree appreciates frequent water. Though rain will usually provide enough water for your Japanese maple tree, when it hasn’t rained for a while, it’s best to water it.
9. Chinese Wisteria (Wisteria Sinensis)
Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) is a beautiful vining perennial that gives rise to fragrant lavender-colored flowers in late spring to early summer — and just looking at its beauty, it will come as no surprise that this vine represents hope and encouragement in Japanese culture.
Growing to be 10 to 25 feet (three to eight meters) tall with a nice spread of up to eight feet (two and a half meters), these vines will need some extra support and are best planted in a spot where they can rely on an arbor.
Wisteria is a large genus, and even if you have already grown and cared for other wisteria species in the past, you will need to know that Wisteria sinensis thrives in conditions where it gets:
- Partial shade to full sun — the Chinese wisteria is the most shade-tolerant of all the wisteria species.
- Slightly acidic and well-draining soil.
- Even moisture, though young Chinese wisteria vines prefer a little extra water. These plants do not cope well with soggy soil conditions, so it is critically important to avoid overwatering your Chinese wisteria.
These plants don’t like to be transplanted, so make sure that you choose the right spot for your Chinese wisteria right away! Chinese wisteria does not require fertilizer to thrive, but this rapid grower does need to be pruned regularly to impede its growth.
10. Japanese Boxwood (Buxus microphylla var. japonica)
Japanese boxwood is a beautiful and naturally manicured evergreen shrub that closely resembles the types of plants you will see in desk-sized Zen gardens. While the Japanese boxwood does flower during the spring, the blooms are unimpressive, and these shrubs embody the topiary look of most Zen gardens.
Show your Japanese boxwood all the love it needs by:
- Planting it in a location where it will receive partial shade or dappled sun.
- Offering in a sandy, loamy, or clay soil that drains well.
- Watering it regularly, but making sure that it does not become waterlogged.
- Mulching around the base of your Japanese boxwood to protect it from pests.
- Avoiding fertilizing it with anything but natural compost, as the shrub can easily become leggy
What Is a Zen Garden?
Zen gardens, also called Japanese rock gardens, were developed by Buddhist monks in Japan — heavily influenced by Chinese spiritual and aesthetic influences, but with a uniquely Japanese minimalist twist — over three millennia ago.
Monasteries and temples are their birthplace, but Zen gardens were introduced to private residences and even royal palaces not long after their inception.
Zen gardens represent “gateways to the garden of the mind”, and each element in a Zen garden has a very particular symbolism. Let’s take a look:
- Ishi, or rocks, are a must-have element in any Zen garden. These rocks can represent mountains — including, in traditional Japanese Zen gardens, Mount Fiji. They can also stand for the Buddha, as well as strength. In the tiny Zen gardens you’ve probably seen for sale to keep somewhere on your desk, tiny pebbles represent this element, but in large Zen gardens outdoors, large boulders are more likely to be used.
- Mizu is water, which represents the ever-changing reality of life. It is certainly not unusual to see actual ponds and waterfalls in large Zen gardens, but white gravel, raked in a wavy pattern, can also be used to imply the movement of water. People designing large outdoor Zen gardens can even opt to incorporate both!
- Shokobutsu are the plants you add to your Zen garden. They are a vital part of any Zen garden, but often not for their own sake — the plants in a Zen garden can symbolize the presence of islands and nature, and each plant in a Zen garden has its own meaning. Common plants include cherry trees, pines, and bamboo. In small Zen gardens, moss is also typically found. Plants and trees in a Zen garden must be understated and well-manicured.
- Tenkeibutsu is another exciting design element in a Zen garden — it means decoration and can include lanterns and statues.
- While traditional Zen gardens have more elements, the final one we’d like to include is shakkei, which means to incorporate the landscape you are creating the Zen garden in into its design. By honoring existing nature and finding a way to include it in your Zen garden, you are in harmony with nature and yourself. One common example would be to use natural hills to mark the perimeter where your Zen garden comes to an end.
Trees and plants are an important part of traditional outdoor Zen gardens — unlike the tiny sandy and gravelly squares with the odd artificial plant here and there, which you might see in a home decor store to keep around in your hallway, outdoor Zen gardens feature a lot of greenery. They are not, however, particularly colorful, focusing on green with the odd color accent here and there.
If you love the thought of playing with gravel and sand, or pebbles and a rake, go ahead and add that gravel bed to your Zen garden. Should you have a large space to work with, adding a water feature will maximize the “Zen” feeling of your Zen garden, however! Add water plants in that case, too.
Unless the primary focus of your planned Zen garden really is Buddhist meditation, in which case you will want to follow traditional design principles much more closely, you can absolutely take the liberty to stray from overarching design ideals which some may consider to be constricting, and go with a “Zen-ish” garden instead.
Either way, let’s explore the plants that would not look out of place in any Zen garden.
Creating an authentic Japanese Zen garden is difficult, but if you give yourself the freedom to be inspired by the long and rich history of this horticultural tradition, you will unquestionably end up with a wonderfully peaceful and relaxing garden that offers an excellent place to meditate.
While plants are not the only element that defines the Zen garden, they are essential — and once you choose the perfect set of trees and plants, adding other design elements around them will be easy.