Horticulture Magazine

13 Zen Garden Ideas for Peaceful Outdoor Spaces

a zen garden in New Zealand

Create an oasis of peace and calm in your own back garden with these zen landscaping ideas.

In today’s bustling modern world, we all need somewhere we can kick back, relax and recharge our batteries. What better place to do so than your own garden?

Regardless of the size and shape of the area available to you, you can adopt the principles of zen thinking to transform your garden into a haven of tranquillity.

With just a little bit of creative ingenuity and no small amount of application, you can enjoy a veritable paradise of peace on your own property.

Originating in China and spreading through Japan, Korea and further afield throughout Asia and beyond, Zen Buddhism is a concept that is difficult to put into words. At heart, however, it involves creating a space in which introspection and inner enlightenment can be achieved.

Some of the following suggestions for creating a peaceful outdoor space in your home are directly drawn from zen gardens in China, Japan and other parts of the Orient.

Others, meanwhile, simply take a looser definition of the idea as their springboard and fashion an atmosphere of serenity from there.

In any case, we hope you find some inspiration among these proposals and use it to build an alfresco hideaway with which you can fully connect and in which you can completely de-stress.

1. Rocks and sand

Sumptuous swirls soothe the mind

Sometimes referred to as “dry landscapes”, zen gardens often incorporate a number of naturalistic elements like rocks, pebbles and sand in their design.

The stones form points of intrigue around which the sand is raked to create undulating patterns, which require skill and concentration to make.

Half of the joy of fashioning these intricate but powerful sandscapes lies in their creation – while the other half resides in sitting back to marvel at their simple beauty.

Combine this type of zen design with pruned shrubs, succulents and stepping stone pathways to maximise its appeal.

2. Fascinating water features

circular water fountain in a park
Nothing relaxes like running water

Having just said that zen gardens are often arid, that doesn’t mean that water can’t still play a crucial role.

Indeed, the pleasant babble of a trickling stream, waterfall or fountain is one of the most soothing sounds known to man, so bringing a water feature into your garden is a great strategy for enhancing its calming credentials.

The form that the water feature takes is entirely up to you. You could draw inspiration directly from the Land of the Rising Sun with a bespoke contraption made from bamboo, or else build yourself a waterwheel from wood.

Alternatively, there are plenty of ready-made options which balance style with serenity in impressive fashion.

3. Ornamental grasses

pampas grass
Pampas grass is an excellent choice for the rear of garden borders

Grass is all too often an afterthought when it comes to landscaping an outdoor space.

Aside from the common garden variety that constitutes most lawns across the UK, few people give thought to other strains which could accentuate the aesthetic qualities of the plants and designs around them.

That’s a crying shame, since there is a wealth of ornamental grass options which add height, movement and texture to a display.

Pampas grass, pictured above, is one such species which adds architectural intrigue to the back of borders or out-of-the-way corners. Its delightfully sculpted flowerheads sway gently on the breeze, exuding a quiet, carefree charm.

Other options include blue fescue and sedge grass, both of which bring calming colours to your garden, while bamboo is a sturdier choice that could tie in well with other elements of zen décor.

4. Go minimalist

A Japanese garden with various shrubs, rocks and gravel
Clear the clutter and keep things simple

One of the underlying principles of zen philosophy is freedom from distractions.

If your garden is overflowing with different plants jostling for space, a colour scheme that clashes more than it complements and umpteen tools, toys and other odds and ends cluttering up the area, it’s unlikely to lend itself well to clearing your mind of worry or doubt.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you need to strip back your display completely. The above image of a zen garden in Kyoto shows how simple combinations can achieve a calming minimalist atmosphere.

Alternatively, you could diverge from the Eastern aesthetic altogether and go for something more Scandinavian in its style, or else even a good, old-fashioned, rustic countryside garden.

5. Meditation station

woman meditating in the garden
And breathe

Perhaps the most important aspect of a creating a peaceful outdoor space is finding somewhere you can shut out the incessant background noise of the wider world and be alone with your thoughts.

Depending on where you live, this might be easier said than done; after all, an urban location is prone to greater upheaval and interference than a rural one.

Nonetheless, you can work to eliminate distractions and instil a sense of calm around your home by harnessing the power of nature. If space allows, plant trees or install a pond to take advantage of the restorative qualities of the natural world.

Indeed, any kind of water feature will help to focus your mind, while stone, wood and other natural materials are excellent for redirecting your thoughts towards your inner calm.

6. Focus on the furniture

a large outdoor bed sat on decking
Comfort and convenience are the order of the day

If you’re to spend any length of time in your newly created peaceful garden, you’ll need to source appropriate furniture to allow you to unwind.

For this decision, comfort and convenience should be high on your list of priorities, though you’ll still want to factor in style as well, since a discordant or conflicting arrangement will upset the mind. Again, a good tactic here is to keep things simple.

Opt for generously proportioned sofas and armchairs made from durable materials like wicker, complemented by removable cushions that can be taken indoors during periods of inclement weather.

Footstools and throws add an extra dollop of decadence to proceedings, too, enhancing the laziness and luxuriousness of the mood.

7. Hang out in a hammock

outdoor hammock hung from a tree
Take a load off

You can’t get much more laid-back than when you’re physically laying back! The feeling of buoyancy offered by a hammock is perfect for taking the weight off your feet – and off your mind at the same time.

Finding two sturdy trees from which you can hang your hammock might be a tall order for some homeowners, especially if space is at a premium.

Yet even a balcony or terrace can play host to a hammock, providing its structural supports are strong enough to bear your weight.

Alternatively, you could opt for all manner of innovative hanging furniture options. There are swinging loveseats, hanging eggs and plenty of other attractive chairs made from wicker, rope or other natural materials.

What’s more, many of these are standalone entities which don’t require the boughs of a tree or other supports from which to string them, meaning they’re more accessible and applicable in a wide variety of situations.

8. Fiery fascination

a firepit in the evening with lit shed in the background
Fight fretting with fire

Anyone who has stared into the leaping flames of a fire – or even the smouldering embers of its aftermath – will know just how hypnotic such a sight can be.

Installing a firepit, chimenea or other source of combustion in your garden can bring a number of tangible benefits. For starters, it will provide a focal point around which you and your family or friends can gather, bringing warmth and colour to the space.

That’s especially important as the nights draw in and the temperature drops, allowing you to spend more time in your garden getaway without sacrificing comfort in the process.

Perhaps its most charming quality, however, is the almost cathartic effect it can have on anyone who spends a prolonged period of time in its company. You can almost feel your anxieties and tensions go up in smoke.

9. Illuminate the area

a garden lit by round orb lights
Make your garden as attractive at night as it is in the day

Speaking of using the garden at night-time, lighting is a crucial consideration that can’t be neglected. It’s imperative that you install adequate and appropriate light sources throughout the space, as much for safety as for style and aestheticism.

Start by illuminating pathways and water features to ensure those navigating your garden once night has fallen don’t stumble or trip on their journey.

That’s especially important if you have small children, older family members or plan to use the garden for hosting social occasions.

Just as important as the placement of the lighting you choose is its appearance. You could go for something simple and classy, like the elegant orbs of radiance pictured above.

On the other hand, you might prefer a more themed approach. Continue the zen ambiance with paper lanterns from Japan, or else opt for a more old-fashioned feel with wrought iron lamps.

Alternatively, fairy lights are an affordable and effective method of achieving a contemporary aesthetic – just be sure to get ones suitable for outdoor use.

10. Relaxing aromas

English lavender with rocks and a wall in the background
Lovely lavender

Most of the suggestions up until this point have concentrated on the visual or oral qualities of your garden – but their olfactory counterparts should not be neglected, either.

Indeed, our sense of smell is intrinsically linked to our memories and, by extension, to our moods. As such, it makes sense to create a “smellscape” in your garden which evokes happy times from your life and contributes to contentment and well-being.

It’s especially important to place aromatic herbs, shrubs and flowers near areas where people are likely to spend most of their time.

That means lining pathways and surrounding seated areas with the most fragrant specimens you can lay your hands on.

Lavender, pictured above, is almost synonymous with imbuing a sense of calm, which is why it’s included in so many cosmetic products and herbal remedies.

Other favourites include thyme, echinacea and lemon balm.

11. Embrace biodiversity

an insect hotel in a garden with orange lilies
Extend a warm welcome to animal lodgers

Studies have shown that being at one with nature is an excellent method of ridding yourself of the cares and woes of modern life. What better way to connect with the planet than by inviting all of her creatures into your own home?

Bees and butterflies are essential for cross-pollinating plants and crops across the world, so give them plentiful sources of food around your garden by planting their favourite flowers.

Buddleja, foxglove, honeysuckle and clematis are just some of the options up to the job.

Away from the pollinating population, you can use bird tables and feeders to attract the avian members of the animal kingdom into your garden.

Bug hotels like the one pictured above are perfect for all things creepy-crawly, while ponds attract toads, frogs and other water-dwelling creatures.

12. Home spa

an outdoor hot tub with two glasses of champagne
Treat yourself

For many people, the ideal way to destress and unwind is to visit a spa, sauna or other centre of health and wellbeing.

While that might be a great option as an occasional indulgent treat, why not save time and money by recreating a similar ambience in your own garden?

Of course, the upfront costs of doing so will be on the high side, but the money you save in the long run makes it more than worth it.

A hot tub or swimming pool is the optimum choice here, though even smaller water features into which you can dangle your feet can serve a purpose. Another option could be to consider converting a shed or outhouse into a steam-room.

Depending on the dimensions and budget available to you, you can make your home spa as luxurious or as low-key as you like. Whatever you go for, it’ll be an invigorating space that’s truly your own.

13. Outdoor library

books sat on a garden table
Let there be literature!

What better way to escape from the tedious worries of the world than into the pages of an absorbing book? It’s no secret that literature is many people’s preferred method of relaxing, so set up an alfresco library if you count yourself among their number.

Old cabinets and shelves can be repurposed as bookcases once treated with water-resistant paint, or you could knock together a tailor-made solution if you’re feeling particularly handy.

Then, it’s simply a case of providing the perfect space to lounge around in and let the power of literature wash over you.

Hammocks and other hanging furniture mentioned above are great for this, but even just a blanket and a few pillows can create a fantastic reading environment.

Shelter and shade are two other considerations in the UK, so consider setting up your bookish hideaway underneath a gazebo, canopy or even just the foliage of a particularly sizable tree.

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