How to Create a Zen Rock Garden in Your Yard

The other day I came home and noticed the garden in my front yard had a bit of a weed problem. The problem being that it was a garden of weeds. Dandelions were sprouting everywhere, and morning glory vines were swallowing everything, even the 8-foot sunflowers by the mailbox! My wife and I have done our best to keep up with the weeds this summer, but it was time to admit defeat. Between all the rain we’ve had this season and all the demands of our day-to-day lives, there was no way we were going to win. A new strategy was needed. This weekend I decided to tackle a project I’ve had in mind for a while: installing a Japanese rock garden.

My grandmother had a traditional rock garden, and I remembered how soothing and calming it was to look at even as a child. There is a contemplative stillness to this kind of garden, even while the landscape design is meant to simulate a sense of movement. More importantly, a rock garden chokes out the weeds. It was a win-win proposition. Here are a few tips on how to get started on creating a bit of Zen in your yard.

Most rock gardens involve a base of gravel or river stone pebbles, the finer thee better. You will also have “islands” of larger rocks or small trees. The first step is to pick out the area for your rock garden. In my case, I chose to build around the birch tree in my front yard, which meant clearing out the mulch from the base and moving it to a different bed. It may be easier to get started if you already have an existing flowerbed with a border to contain the gravel.

  • Once you’ve cleared the area of debris or unwanted plants, lay down some plastic sheeting and let it sit there for a week. This will help kill off any nascent weeds or seedlings.
  • If you’re installing the garden in a place without an existing border, you’ll have to make one to contain the gravel. I made a ring around my tree with baseball-sized rocks, along the outer edge of where the mulch used to be. You can also use thick pieces of wood like old railroad ties if you’re working with a square area.
  • Spread out a thin first layer of gravel to help you visualize the space you’ll be working with. The pebbles may be small, but bag after bag of them begins to add up. There’s nothing relaxing about a sore back. Be sure to use a wheel barrow when transporting gravel and larger rocks.
  • Decide where to place your “islands.” Choose an odd number of islands to avoid symmetry, and try to choose rocks of varying size and shape. You want to populate your garden, but it shouldn’t be cluttered.
  • Once you’ve decided where the islands will go, bury the rocks at least halfway in the ground to create the full illusion of being submerged.
  • Add as many bags of gravel as necessary to cover the dirt completely. Using a rake, spread the gravel evenly across the garden. Rake circles around each island to create the illusion of ripples spreading outward. You can also rake other designs into the remaining gravel, from serpentine curves to straight lines.

It may surprise you how little upkeep your rock garden needs after you’ve finished installing it. There’s still the occasional sapling, but they’re easier to spot against the white of the gravel, so I can pull them early, before they become a problem. Every Saturday morning I go out and re-rake the gravel, sometimes into the same design, sometimes into different ones. It’s a new but relaxing routine, letting my mind focus on the rake moving across the stones.

 

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