Zen Garden Ideas on a Budget: Imitate Japanese Design

Zen Garden Ideas on a Budget

Traditional Japanese zen gardens are believed to hold numerous psychological benefits. These include evoking a sense of peace and tranquility and being an excellent outlet for stress and anxiety.

And the best part? Creating a zen garden is surprisingly easy, even if you’re on a budget, so there’s no reason you can’t make one at home. For this project, you won’t require any advanced carpentry skills, and you just need some of the basic elements traditionally used for these gardens to set it up.

To truly stick to a budget, though, we suggest you visit flea markets and garage sales. Otherwise, it may start to get expensive, especially when you’re paying for a concrete lantern and a buddha statue.

But more about that shortly. Let’s first look at some of the components needed to set up your very own zen garden.

You will need some, or all, of the below:

  • Zen tools (rakes)
  • Sand or gravel
  • Pebbles
  • Rocks (at least one large one)
  • Water feature (bamboo is the preferred traditional medium)
  • Bamboo enclosure
  • Lantern
  • Buddha statue
  • Red Japanese cherry tree (Sakura) or a Red Japanese maple tree (this can potentially be substituted with a red cherry tree, depending on what is available)
  • Stone pathway

Ready? Let’s DIY a zen garden step by step.



1. Make the Right Tools

Traditional Japanese Rakes you can DIY

Before you get started building your zen garden, let’s prepare some tools and rakes. These are easy to DIY, and it doesn’t matter if you have a desktop zen garden or a full-sized one – the principle remains the same.

Initially, you only need one rake, and we recommend building yours with one flat side and one “toothy” side so that you can use it alternately for smoothing and drawing patterns in your garden.

On a budget, you can track down old broomsticks or mops and upcycle their handles as a basis. Leftover plywood or smoothed pallet wood can then be fashioned into the comb part of the rake and attached to the handle. You can also use old metal garden rakes with wide prongs like the type one typically sees at garage sales (or try your local dollar store).

That said, wood as a material is more organic overall and ultimately better for your garden’s Feng Shui, so if you can, try to build your own tools. It’s a fun afternoon project, too.

If you’re building tools for a mini garden, you can use dowel rods, balsa wood, and glue and follow the same design principles.

Rakes with different size prongs will give you more options for patterning, so as you progress through your zen journey, you’ll likely want to build yourself some more to add to your collection.


2. Add Sand or Gravel

Zen gravel design in 3 different colors

One of my favorite parts of designing zen layouts is selecting and adding the gravel or sand that will form the basis of my garden. The material you choose in this regard depends on your preference, but I will add a note on size.

For a miniature indoor zen garden, where your tools are smaller and more delicate, sand is a great medium to use and looks beautiful and pristine.

Outdoors, however, where your larger zen garden is exposed to the elements, you may want to opt for something a bit denser, like tiny pebbles or gravel, that won’t blow about in the wind (although playground sand is okay).

I like adding two or more colors of pebbles to my zen gardens as I feel it adds to the overall ambiance. I also enjoy using a combination of pebble stones in some areas, and gravel or sand in others, to add more texture and a unique look and feel.

Gravel and playground sand are both affordable – costing much of a muchness. This will, however, probably be the biggest expense in designing your garden, depending on how much you need.

Pro TIP: for outdoor zen gardens, lay down a thick sheet of plastic before setting down your gravel. This will help prevent weeds from popping up, keeping your garden neat.


3. Add Rocks (Zen garden is a rock garden after all)

A rock in Zen garden surrounded by circles

In zen gardens, your pebbles and sand represent water, and the patterns you draw are the waves and ripples. That said, larger rocks are crucial to your design as they symbolize islands or mountain ranges within the water (or on its border).

I like to place my rocks before throwing my gravel, as it gives them the appearance of being deeper below the surface. In the example above, the ripple pattern swirling around the large central stone looks just like a tidal pool circling an ocean rock.

Garden rocks can be purchased from your local nursery, recycled from elsewhere in your garden, or sourced from nature. It’s also worth browsing garden forums and neighborhood groups, as I’ve often come across people willing to relinquish their garden rocks simply to have someone remove them free of charge.

A very large rock landscaped with moss and gravel

In traditional Japanese garden design, the rock “mountains” are surrounded by lush green moss. The sand that runs through the center, in turn, looks like a river.

This landscape may look luxurious, but that’s primarily because of how well it’s laid out. An aesthetic like this can definitely be achieved on a budget – your careful planning and design will account for the rest.


4. Make Circles and Patterns

A women making circles with a rake in a small outdoor Zen garden

Once you have your gravel poured, it’s time for the best part: raking your garden. This act is meant to instill a sense of harmony while also creating aesthetically beautiful waves and ripples.

You have your DIY tools, and your garden is almost complete, so you can get a feel for how it’s going to look. As previously mentioned, gravel or tiny pebbles are weather-resistant outdoors; if you plan to rake daily, sand is a good option too.

Circles made on sand with a rake

I have a tiny zen garden on my desk that I like to rake every day or if something is stressing me out.

Using the finest sand I could find and various DIY tools in different sizes, I create remarkably intricate patterns whenever I feel like centering myself.


5. Place Pebbles

Small pebbles placed inside the sand circles

By now, you know zen gardens usually exist in dry landscapes, with stones and pebbles representing mountains or islands. But depending on how you lay them out, they can also represent trees, fire, and centered water pools.

This design looks like a ripple created by skipping stones along the water. The circles in the sand surrounding the stones represent the motion moving outwards, symbolizing freeness and tranquility.

A scented candle in a mini Zen garden

Add a candle to your mini zen garden to create a sense of ambiance. I like to use scented candles, like jasmine or lavender.

The alternate black and white rocks in this example could imply balance and harmony in opposites, as well as enlightenment, just like the yin-yang symbol below.

A Zen circle made on black pea gravel, with Yin Yang pebble in the center

Black sand is a unique choice, but it looks beautiful.

Did you know you can dye your sand yourself for next to no cost? Food coloring, colored chalk, or powder paint are all great, affordable options for changing the color of your sand to suit your taste.


6. Add a Bamboo Water Feature

Small water feature made with a bowl and a bamboo stick

No outdoor zen garden would be complete without a small bamboo water feature. Water symbolizes wealth and abundance in Feng Shui, and bamboo represents strength and growth.

This might seem like the most intimidating part of setting up your zen garden, but it’s actually relatively easy. A sōzu, for example, is a section of bamboo balanced on a pivot point that fills on one end before tipping water back into its reservoir.

For this, you’ll need to plan to build a small catchment area underground, but after that, it’s just a case of making your structure and buying an affordable pump. I always buy water pumps secondhand to spare myself some expenses and keep my zen garden to a budget.


7. Add a Concrete Lantern

Concrete lantern and bamboo water feature

Zen gardens are meant to be places of meditation, and so they’re often decorated with concrete lanterns that are said to ward off evil and symbolize brightness and light. They also represent the mortal world’s impermanence, which passes daily to night.

Once you’ve set up your zen space, you can start browsing your local yard sales and thrift stores for secondhand lanterns. You’d be amazed at how affordable they can be. Alternatively, you should be able to find one at your local garden center.

In the example above, I also love including the rock bowl to catch the water from the bamboo sōzu. That said, any flat-ish rock will do, so you don’t need to go out and buy one.


8. Add a Buddha Statue

Small Buddha statue in a tiny Zen garden

Culturally and historically, zen gardens came into being as spaces where monks could meditate and dwell on the teachings of Buddha. For this reason, it makes perfect sense why we love to include statues of Buddha in our own zen spaces. They are symbols of good fortune, balance, and auspiciousness.

A large Buddha in a meditation garden

Fortunately, given the rise of Buddhist symbolism in popular culture, you should have no problem finding a Buddha statue to add to your garden. They’re available at plenty of nurseries and garden centers, but more prolifically, at yard sales and from online merchants.

Buddhas come in all shapes and sizes, from minis perfect for small, private zen gardens, to larger models that can even serve as candleholders or incense burners.


9. Add a Bamboo Enclosure

A DIY Zen garden with bamboo enclosure

Consider installing a bamboo screen or enclosure to section off your zen garden or lend a greater sense of privacy.

Bamboo is great for Feng Shui, symbolizing abundance, prosperity, and perseverance. But from a purely practical point of view, a bamboo shade like this can also protect your garden from the elements and make it feel serene and cordoned off.

Bamboo screen, white rocks and a concrete lantern in a corner Japanese meditation garden

In this example, the bamboo enclosure isn’t even acting as a wall. Instead, it adds to the overall look and feel of this small, private zen garden, tying in beautifully with other traditional Japanese elements like the concrete lantern.


10. Establish a Path Over Gravel or Sand

Stepping stones path curves over gravel floor

After meditatively raking your zen garden, the last thing you want to do is step on it. To tackle this problem, a simple solution is to invest in some affordable paving stones to form a pathway over the sand.

In a zen garden, paving stones can be laid without further installation, so it’s just a case of getting your hands on them.

I always opt for upcycling or browsing auctions and yard sales to try my luck. However, there are also plenty of affordable ways to make your own paving stones – for example, using concrete and a plastic mold.


11. Plant a Sakura Tree

Two Sakura Trees in a Japanese garden

Plant a Sakura (cherry tree) or Japanese Maple tree as your zen garden’s final, authentic touch. These gorgeous trees symbolize the fleeting nature of life and mortality, and that aside, they’re breathtaking to look at.

Red Japanese Maple tree

If you can’t get hold of a Japanese Sakura, a North American Cherry Blossom serves as a great substitute. That said, you can’t deny the beauty of this genuine Red Japanese Maple.

In either case, you’ll need to purchase your tree from a nursery or garden center, which may need a little investment. Alternately, check in with online suppliers who often can offer plants for more affordable prices.

About Joe Hats 177 Articles
Joe Hats is the founder of FreshPatio.com. Joe has been remodeling homes since 1997 when he bought his first fixer-upper. He has built many pieces of indoor and outdoor furniture with his own hands and has every DIY woodworking tool in his possession. Coming from an engineering background, he has designed and built many patio fixture plans. Following his wife's lead, he is also very passionate about home decor and together they keep track of the latest trends. When he is not remodeling or trying a new woodworking tool, he is busy gardening or designing a new outdoor plan.