What are the Different Types of Zen Gardens?

Sara Schmidt
Sara Schmidt

Several different types of Zen gardens, or Japanese rock gardens, exist, with the most popular being the dry rock garden, or karesansui. Strolling gardens are another popular type of restful garden design used in Japan. The other main types of Zen gardens are the tea garden and courtyard garden designs.

Mosses, like that growing between these cobblestones, is often used in a zen garden.
Mosses, like that growing between these cobblestones, is often used in a zen garden.

The Zen gardens that most people are familiar with are rock gardens. These minimalist creations are normally waterless, and feature a variety of rocks. These rocks may include a combination of small pebbles to large stones. Sand may also be included in rock gardens, though the basic traditional form stipulates that only gravel and stones be used. Traditional rock gardens often include moss, though this element is not essential to the landscape.

The most popular type of Zen garden is the dry rock garden.
The most popular type of Zen garden is the dry rock garden.

Strolling Japanese gardens exist in two varieties. They may be large, lush landscape gardens, called Tsukiyama, designed for meditative walking. The other type of strolling garden, the Kaiyu-Shikien, is also known as a pleasure garden. Most Kaiyu-Shikien gardens have been transformed into Japanese parks. They may be hilly or flat gardens, and consist of as much spiritual imagery as other types of Zen gardens.

Small Zen gardens nestled in between buildings or narrow spaces are known as courtyard gardens, or Tsubo Niwa. These gardens came into existence when Japanese merchants decided to build small gardens on their properties in between their exterior buildings during the 15th century. Unlike rock gardens, a variety of materials can be used to adorn these gardens, including lanterns, stepping stones, and a variety of plants.

Tea gardens, or Cha Niwa, are meditative gardens within another, larger garden. A courtyard garden may also be a sort of tea garden. Tea gardens often include specific structures, such as lanterns and water basins. A place to sit and acquire a peaceful mind, often prior to a tea ceremony, is integral to the tea garden.

Though most of these examples are life-size gardens, large enough for people to walk through, miniature Zen gardens also exist. They may be as small as a book or paperweight, handmade with wood scraps, or assembled with a kit. Many people enjoy keeping these gardens on their desks to help relieve stress, or to serve as conversation pieces. Many different designs with a wide variety of accessories are available, including miniature treasure chests, lawn chairs, or even golf courses. Just as life-size gardens are maintained with rakes and other equipment to foster gentle designs, miniature Zen gardens usually come with a small rake for the same use.

Sara Schmidt
Sara Schmidt

A graduate of Southeast Missouri State University, Sara has a Master’s Degree in English, which she puts to use writing for wiseGEEK and several magazines, websites, and nonprofit organizations. She has published her own novella, and has other literary projects currently in progress. Sara’s varied interests have also led her to teach children in Spain, tutor college students, run CPR and first aid classes, and organize student retreats.

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I have a tabletop zen garden that I use as a centerpiece for my dining room table. I built it myself following plans that I found online.

I am not a Buddhist myself but I have always been a spiritual person and I love the idea of zen gardens.


The St. Louis Botanical Garden has an exhibition this year dedicated to zen gardens. They have about 10 different ones that they have constructed. Some are very traditional and others have been designed by artists to suggests new paths for the zen garden.

It is really a striking exhibition. I really admire the restraint of the zen garden. They are beautiful and natural without being the explosions of vines and flowers and leaves that some gardens are.


My company built a small zen garden in the courtyard at the center of the complex. I have never been a spiritual person myself and have often dismissed the idea of "zen", but I have to say, I really do feel peaceful when I am sitting in that garden.

Maybe it is just a placebo effect, maybe it is just nice to get away from my desk. Either way, the garden really seems to work. I spend about 10 minutes of my lunch break in there everyday.

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