How To Create A Japanese Rock Garden

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Do you wish you could find an oasis of calmness and tranquility in your very own backyard? Does your yard contain a lot of unsightly rocks and boulders? Or, are you looking for an unusual landscape that is extremely low-maintenance? A Japanese rock garden may be the answer.

The Zen Garden

There are many different names for a Japanese rock garden. Sometimes these sparse landscapes are called Zen gardens or dry landscapes. No matter what you choose to call it, a Japanese rock garden is a meticulous arrangement of rocks and sand. In addition, the Japanese rock garden can be embellished with moss, small flowering bushes and carefully pruned trees. But the one thing that all Japanese rock gardens have in common is that they imitate nature and evoke a peaceful atmosphere that is perfect for rest and meditation.

Japanese rock gardens use minimalist design principles to create a sophisticated atmosphere. The design is based on grouping features such as rocks and moss to create a visually appealing effect. By carefully arranging the rocks and raking the sand, a “perceived” scenic attraction can be enjoyed without leaving your home.

When planning a Japanese rock garden, keep these design principles in mind:

  • Minimalist is the key to a Japanese rock garden. Rocks are arranged to simulate mountains, gravel is used to mimic the flow of water. Plants are optional. If you want to use plants in your rock garden, place plants around the edges and choose only a few specimen plants.
  • When setting the rocks in place, set the rocks so that the best side is showing. Also, use more horizontal rocks than vertical rocks; for example, a tall vertical rock should be surrounded by two smaller rocks.
  • Large rocks and boulders are the foundation of the rock garden. Look for rocks with a triangular shape or arrange an odd number of rocks in clusters.
  • After placing the larger rocks, place smaller rocks (or base stones) next to the larger boulders to create a random and natural arrangement.
  • Rocks can overlap each other, like scales on a fish, to create a mountainous appearance.
  • The finished garden should have an asymmetrical look.
  • Select rocks, moss and gravel that have uniform textures, soft colors and faint textural patterns. Look for elements that have a low contrast to each other.
  • Gravel is the preferred background for a Japanese rock garden, but sand can be used. Gravel is less likely to be disturbed by wind and rain. Use gravel that is coarse and has a light and dark mottled coloration. The gravel can be raked into patterns or in waves that resemble flowing water.

Exploring Japanese Rock Garden Designs

Most Japanese rock gardens are found within an enclosed area. The garden may be surrounded on one or two sides by a bamboo fence and another side edged with ornamental grasses. Inside the garden area, rocks form the focal point. Rock can be arranged in different ways to create different moods. Here are the five different types of rocks used in a Japanese rock garden:

  • The low vertical stone. This is also called the soul stone and has a wide base with a tapered top. The low vertical stone is a favorite in rock gardens.
  • The tall vertical stone. This is a tall and upright rock where the base is slightly wider than the top of the stone. It is also called the body stone and it symbolizes a person. Because this rock is tall, place it toward the back of the garden.
  • The flat stone. This rock is also called the heart stone. It is flat, like a stepping stone, and adds balance to the larger and taller stones.
  • The arching stone. This stone is also called the branching stone. It has a wide top and a narrow base. Care must be taken with selecting this stone because a stone with a very wide top can look unstable.
  • The reclining stone. This is a medium sized stone which is also called the ox stone. It is used to bring balance between the tall vertical stones and the shorter flat stones.

Once the large rocks have been put in place, the gravel or sand can be poured around the garden area. The gravel or sand is then raked to create a pattern. Add dimension to the gravel or sand by raking different areas in different ways:

  • Give the impression that the rock has fallen into the water by raking circles around the stone.
  • Design a river by raking long curving lines.
  • Create a path by raking long straight lines.

When planning a Japanese rock garden, white space is a key element. The white space in the garden is the gravel or sand. Inside this white space, the larger rocks are arranged to make each rock a focal point. As you begin to place each rock, take a step back and view the garden from different angles and perspectives. The rocks should not be cluttered and you should experience a calming sensation.

Last Updated: September 16, 2012
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About Coletta Teske Coletta Teske has 25 years' experience in tech journalism, as well as home and gardening topics. She has freelanced for Fortune 500 companies such as Boeing and Microsoft, published more than two dozen computer books for Prima Publishing and Macmillan, and worked as a freelance correspondent for West Hawaii Today. Coletta has been an avid gardener since she was 2 years old. While living in Hawaii, she achieved a lifelong dream of becoming a certified master gardener.

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