Zen Garden Ideas on a Budget: How to Make a Zen Garden

Zen Garden Ideas on a Budget - How to Make a Zen Garden
Image By Kikker Dirk / Canva Photos

So you’re interested in some stress relief, Zen garden style. Sure, you could buy a pre-packaged kit, but that runs counter to the spirit of Zen gardening; plus, you’d be missing out on the deep satisfaction of making one yourself. Making your own setup is simple, meditative…and really, really cheap! Zen garden ideas on a budget are endless.

You can make a teensy tiny Zen garden for your desk at work, go all out with a big garden in your backyard, or create an oasis of meditation anyplace in between.

Read on to learn how to make a Zen garden on a budget — we’ve got DIY Zen garden ideas aplenty.

Elements of a Traditional Zen Garden

Though not all are necessary, here’s a quick view of what is traditionally found and made with Zen Gardens.

  • Traditional Japanese Zen gardens are spaces of minimalist beauty. A Zen garden is primarily made up of carefully raked sand or gravel with larger rocks placed throughout. These gardens are contemplative and artistic spaces, meant to facilitate meditation and sanctuary.
  • The sand or gravel in a Zen garden is regularly raked and tended to, using meditative movements and sand patterns. This symbolizes flowing water.
  • “Karesansui” means “dry landscape,” and Zen gardens are usually just that. Japanese gardens may contain water elements like ponds or fountains, but Zen gardens, in particular, are generally dry environments.  
  • Simplicity is key, and symbolism is important. Each piece of a Zen garden represents a different seasonal element, like earth, water, or fire.  
  • Zen gardens use natural components like sand, rocks, gravel, stone, or wood. There is usually no metal or other human-made material present. 
  • Larger outdoor Zen gardens are often separate or to the side of other landscaping. This is to reflect their function as a mindful space of intentional contemplation. You’ll also often find lanterns, footpaths, small bridges, or gates made from natural materials.

These are some of the characteristics of a traditional Japanese Zen garden. However, there are no official rules when you’re designing one — especially on a budget! Do what makes you happy. Find the elements that give you delight. Want to make a little seaside scene or a Japanese-inspired gnome garden? Go for it! 

Whatever theme or details you choose, we’ve got lots of great Zen garden ideas on a budget, and it’s easy to put together a small, ultra-simple Zen garden in a flash. 

Elements of How to Make a Zen garden
Image by Jared Stine / Canva Photos

How to Make a Zen Garden on a Budget

If DIY isn’t your thing, and you want something very simple and small, it’s possible to find a ‘lil Zen garden for under 20 bucks. This option comes with a small base, miniature rake, 2 bags of sand, a wee Buddha, a tea light holder, and a handful of river rocks and colored sand rocks. 

But do consider putting together your own! To make a Zen garden, all you need is the following: a container, some sand, a few stones, and a tiny garden rake. That’s it! You likely already have most of the supplies you need. 

Whether you want to make a mini Zen garden or you have something a little more extensive in mind, we’ve put together some Zen garden ideas on a budget. We’ll start small and then work our way towards larger backyard Zen gardens.

Zen Garden Ideas on a Budget: Indoor Garden Basics

1

Think about what you already have.

Maybe you have some pretty aquarium rocks from your kid’s fish tank or some extra gravel around your yard or driveway. Your Zen garden could be the perfect spot for that air plant or tiny succulent that’s been floating around your windowsill. Perhaps you can finally begin to clear out that junk drawer full of tea lights, a few random marbles, and that tiny figurine you found on vacation.  

2

Make it meaningful.

Remember, you’re likely to switch elements in and out depending on the season, your moods, and inspiration. So there’s no permanent commitment, and you can alter your garden at any time — one of the best parts of Zen gardening is that it’s a meditation on the temporary nature of the world. Embrace the cycles surrounding you and get creative with what you already have in your basement, or you come across outside.  

3

Use natural items from the outdoors.

The natural world is overflowing with small charming items to use in your Zen garden. Gather ye tiny pinecones, snippets of evergreens, or even a stalk of a hardy, fragrant herb like rosemary. Beautiful rocks and stones are everywhere once you begin to look, and you can instantly assemble a cool collection of river rocks, quartz, or other found or polished stones. Finally, don’t forget your waterways; keep an eye out for little bits of driftwood, shells, or other found items along rivers, lakes, or oceans.

4

Hit up your local hardware store, dollar store, thrift store, or flea market.

The natural world is overflowing with small charming items to use in your Zen garden. Gather ye tiny pinecones, snippets of evergreens, or even a stalk of a hardy, fragrant herb like rosemary. Beautiful rocks and stones are everywhere once you begin to look, and you can instantly assemble a cool collection of river rocks, quartz, or other found or polished stones. Finally, don’t forget your waterways; keep an eye out for little bits of driftwood, shells, or other found items along rivers, lakes, or oceans.

4

Remember to tend to your garden.

Zen gardening is meant to be a calming endeavor. Don’t go so crazy with the assembly that you forget to regularly use and enjoy your little corner of peace!

How to Make a Zen Garden on a Budget: Containers

No need to over-complicate the base of your tabletop Zen garden: any shallow dish, platter, metal tin, or large plate will do. You could also use a shallow baking pan, sheet pan, or even a vintage pie pan. 

Another popular option is to make a holder out of an old picture frame. There are many great YouTube tutorials to be found on this topic, but here is the gist:

  • Remove the back of the picture frame and then the glass from the frame. You can either pull off the frame stand or any hardware that will keep the frame from laying flat on the table — or you can discard the back of the picture frame entirely and use the glass as your base. 
  • Paint the picture frame any color you desire, or leave it as is. 
  • Return the glass or the backing into the frame, gluing it into place with a hot glue gun. When the glue dries, flip over and fill with sand and your other Zen garden elements. 
How to Make a Zen Garden using Everyday Containers
Image by Sandy Rojas / Canva Photos

How to Make a Zen Garden on a Budget: Rakes

A small gardening rake is one of the more identifiable features of a Zen garden. You can score one (or a few) online for under 10 bucks, but there are many ultra-cheap and free options. For instance, try a back scratcher instead! You can use it as is or shorten the handle. You can also use a regular fork, a compostable bamboo fork, or other similar found items to rake your Zen garden.

Want to go the DIY route? Google a tutorial to learn how to make a Zen garden rake out of dowels or skewers — or even popsicle sticks and toothpicks! 

Zen Garden Ideas on a Budget: Outdoor Garden Basics

Feeling more ambitious, and have some available outdoor space? If you want to tap into larger-scale meditative gardening, here’s how to make a Zen garden outside.

1

Again, use what you have. 

Maybe you have a Japanese-style outdoor lantern that inspired you to want to make a Zen garden in the first place. Or you have a sizable pile of gravel from another project. Have some fun brainstorming possibilities: you could use that stack of hollowed-out bamboo you’ve been storing, extra boards or logs, leftover stakes from your vegetable garden, or even an extra fence panel or two to form a corner or partial border for your Zen garden. This might also be a great chance to finally utilize that awkward boulder that’s been lurking in the corner of your yard or the little shrub you couldn’t figure out how to use. Start with what you have and build out!

2

Keep it really simple.

Even if you have a large space to work with, Zen gardens are all about the themes of “kanso” (simplicity), “shizen” (naturalness), and “koko” (austerity). Remember that Zen gardens will help you clear your mind, so it’s important not to physically clutter your garden by adding too many plants or decorative elements. Serenity is the goal.

3

Use plants very sparingly.

Focus on your sandy/rocky area, and then carefully choose 1-4 main structural or plant elements. Good plant choices include those which provide different visual interest in different seasons, like small evergreens, junipers or conifers, or smaller shrubs or plants with subtle foliage, such as creeping thyme, moss, or delicate ferns. A single Japanese maple or an ornamental cherry tree makes an exceptionally handsome addition to your zen garden. 

4

Hit up freecycle websites and neighborhood lists to source materials.

Keep an eye out for gravel, rocks, granite or wood, and other cheap or free materials, and before you know it you’ll have all you need to create your oasis of calm.

How to Make a Zen Garden in Your Backyard

Creating a Backyard Zen Garden
Image by Canva Photos

Much like an indoor Zen garden, you don’t need too many elements to get started. All you need for an outdoor Zen garden is a designated area, enough small rocks, pebbles, or gravel to cover your space. Add a few simple elements like larger rocks, a lantern, or a couple of carefully selected plants to place throughout your garden. 

How to Make an Outdoor Zen Garden on a Budget: Getting Started

  • Sketch out a rough design plan and a supply list. 
  • Clear your space and level the ground. The idea is to remove any grass, rocks, roots, etc., in your garden area that might interfere with a level and firm foundation.
  • Depending on the size of your garden, you may want to consider laying down a weed barrier or matting beneath your stones. It’s optional, but doing so will give you a level starting point, nip weeds in the bud, and help keep your rocks neat and clean.
  • If you’re using plants in your garden, dig holes where you want to plug them in amongst your “flowing” rocks. Additionally, you can dig holes or make depressions where you plan to set heavier rocks or other elements that require stability. (If you’re using a weed barrier, you can cut holes around the spaces where your plants or other items will go.)
  • Top your Zen garden with a few inches of rocks, sand, or gravel, and spread evenly with a hoe or rake. If you want to make a path, you can use flat rocks on top of your gravel to suggest a meditative walkway.
  • Make some DIY outdoor zen garden accessories. You can certainly use a standard leaf or gravel rake for your outdoor Zen garden. However, it’s also fun to search for a tutorial and make your own rake using a rod attached to a small board that’s cut into a sawtooth pattern. (Or if you’re DIY-ed out, there are also some pretty cheap gravel rake options.) You can get creative with other handmade elements, too. Try making a bench out of two large flat rocks and a board or building an artistic rock tower. 

Whichever materials or methods you use, remember that a Zen garden is, above all, an invitation to meditation. It’s all about whatever soothes you and makes you happy, so don’t be afraid to personalize your garden! Keep it simple and free-flowing — and you’ll be Zenning out in no time.


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