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Why build a mini Zen garden?

Staring at a computer screen all day can be draining. Distractions pile up on top of deadlines. Good days, bad days. Just another day at the office.

Taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot (nod to Cheers). And a mini Zen garden is one way to briefly transport yourself to a calmer place, without leaving your desk.

Also called ‘dry landscape gardens’ or ‘Japanese rock gardens’, the full-sized ones are tranquil places to reflect and meditate. Known around the world as places for serene contemplation, their beauty lies in their simplicity and the aura of calm they exude.

You have several options if you want a taste of that yourself:

  • Jump on a plane to Japan and visit a real Zen garden [or one of a number found outside their homeland]
  • Dig up your lawn, dump a ton of sand in your garden and create your own rock garden
  • Transform a corner of your desk, with a few everyday items and a touch of creativity. Needless to say, this is the easiest way to bring the Zen into your life. And what better place to inject a sense of calm than your workplace?


Suitable Container/Tray
Fine grain sand
A few small rocks/pebbles
Small rake (or just a pencil/bamboo skewer)


Essential oils
Decorative items (including ornaments, candles, incense stick holders
Natural items such as moss, shells, twigs, airplants etc. to help recreate a favorite outdoor space

Make it Personal

The beauty of creating your own mini Zen garden is that you can make it as personal as you like. You can even transform it’s appearance every day.

On top of that, you can use ‘ingredients’ that truly mean something to you. This could include sand or pebbles from a local beach. Or for a less traditional look, you can add features such as moss or twigs from a favorite outdoor spot.

Whatever you choose to do, it only takes 3 very simple steps to create a simple desktop Zen Garden using some easy-to-find items. For a more original look, our guide includes a few ideas to make your mini Zen garden really stand out.

Just to prove how easy it is, I’ll be making one for my own desk too.


The first thing you’ll need is a container. Although traditionally made of wood & rectangular shaped, just about any vessel works for a DIY Zen garden, as long is has a little bit of depth [at least an inch/2.5 cm].

You can buy a tray or, to keep it personal, re-purpose a suitable container.

Here’s a few suggestions:

Montage of everyday containers for mini Zen garden

  • Picture frames
  • Seashells
  • Decorative plates
  • Food trays
  • Plant pot trays
  • Ashtrays
  • Decorated box/lid

Anything goes when it comes to creating a DIY Zen garden, as long it holds enough sand. The focus is rarely on the container, which is why most basic Zen garden kits simply include a black tray.

Jewlry box lid with starry borderFor my desktop Zen Garden, I’ve simply used an old jewelry box lid, donated by my better-half.

It’s just an inch deep [2.5cm] and only 3.5 inches [9cm] long, perfect for my small desk. 

   #2 Sand

Sandy beachA proper outdoor Zen gardens is typically constructed with gravel, which holds up better on windy days. For your desktop, sand is the way forward (just don’t point your desk fan at it…).

Empty enough sand to fill the container and create a level surface, leaving a suitable gap at the top to prevent spillages (sand is definitely not good for keyboards).

Tip: use a credit card or piece of stiff card to smooth the surface.

Retail sand for mini Zen gardenA quick trip to the beach or a sneaky raid on a local sand pit could provide the sand you need. The catch is the sand may not always be the clean, fine grain stuff that is ideal suited to a mini Zen garden. If you do go to the beach, a sieve will help get rid of the larger grains.

Buying sand from DIY, craft stores or online is easy enough, although with most packs of sand weighing at least 1lb [450g], it may be more than you’ll ever need.

There are a couple of advantages to buying sand though. As we said, it is usually a finer grain, but also super-convenient if you can’t get to a beach. But you can also find unusual colors that can make your creation stand out, contrasting with the container or desktop surroundings (like white sand in a black container works, for example).

DIY mini Zen garden - sand from the beachBeing a cheapskate, I collected a small amount of sand from one of my favourite beaches. Unfortunately, it’s not fine grain sand. But there is something satisfying about playing with sand from a beach where you have happy memories. And it seems to do the job well enough.

Want a ‘wet’ look? A couple of drops of jojoba oil in the sand creates a wet look similar to the beach & makes it possible to sculpt the sand (Mini sand castles, perhaps?). Unlike simply using water, the wet look will last.

   #3 Rocks (or pebbles)

Zen stones stack - 3 pebbles balanced on top of each other
Black pebbles for Zen garden

Zen gardens are also called rock gardens for a good reason. The stones provide the all-important focus for the garden. This is your opporunity to give the garden a unique look.

Full-sized Zen gardens can be very sparse, with just 3-4 distinctive stones to provide a focal point. Some older Zen gardens might even have just 1 larger stone accompanied by 2 smaller stones (possibly representing buddha and his attendants). Later Zen gardens saw the addition of more stones representing sacred features, such as turtles or mountains.

You might already have an idea how you want to arrange the stones in your little garden, but if you’re unsure we’ve got some ideas further down.

And if you want a truly authentic look, you can follow some of the guidelines provided in the earliest known guide to rock gardens, ‘the Sakuteiki‘. This describes, amongst other things, the act of choosing suitable stones, how to set stones upright and how to stack them correctly. According to the Sakuteiki, failure to follow these rules will lead to misfortune! So clearly the stones matter…

Of course, your mini Zen garden does not need to follow any rules. But you should try to avoid over-filling the garden. You want plenty of space to rake the sand and a sense of order and balance.

Whether you pick some pebbles up from a favorite outdoor spot, or simple buy them, be sure to get a good handful. This will allow you to rearrange the stones and add to them as you wish. You could create a new look garden every day.

I found the pebbles for my Zen garden on the same stretch of coastline the sand came from. It makes the whole garden feel more harmonious. I think…

Selection of pebbles collected from the beach for my mini Zen Garden

That’s it. Everything you need for a classic mini Zen Garden

Mini rake for a mini Zen gardenThose 3 main ingredients are all you need to create a simple but elegant DIY Zen garden for your desk. However, you will need one more item to make sure you get the most out of it, the all-important raking tool.

I say ‘raking tool’, because one thing you’re unlikely to have lying around is a mini Zen garden rake. You can easily buy them online for a few pennies, if you want to a more ‘complete’ look. Our more craft-minded readers could even make one with a bit of wood and glue (you can find a helpful guide here.)

Disposable forks for DIY mini Zen gardenBut you don’t really need a rake, just a pointy-thingy. The following items do the job almost as well, although it may take you you a little more time to create attractive wavy patterns:

  • Bamboo skewer/chopsticks/cocktail stick
  • Pencil/pen/paperclip
  • Disposable forks [ideal size, with the benefit of a multi-pronged head]
  • Just about anything with a pointy end!

mini Darth Vader tending DIY mini Zen GardenAnd if you’re wondering here’s my finished mini desktop Zen garden…

The finished article, in all it’s glory at home on my desk. Tended/protected by Darth Vader in his spare time. A wounded soul in search of inner peace…

How to make your mini Zen garden stand out

A Zen garden, mini or otherwise, should not be overloaded with features. Unlike increasingly popular mini sandboxes, which are basically an excuse for grown-ups to relive their childhood.

However, some well-chosen features can make your creation distinctive and very personal.

Montage of suggested mini Zen garden features

Some features you might want to add include:

  • Ornaments with classic looking Japanese features, such as turtles and bridges
  • Twigs or moss from a local forest
  • Driftwood or shells from a favorite beach
  • Candles – LED candles are a safe option
  • Incense holders
  • Air plants for a natural, floral look. As the name implies, these plants can grow without soil and just a bit of light and an occasional misting with water (Tillandsia is an ideal and easily found air-plant)
  • Fake plants for a unique but care-free floral finish.

 One final suggestion: Adding essential oils to the sand can transform your desk Zen garden into a truly original air freshener. Great for masking the smell of a colleague’s lunch! With so many different scents to choose from, you can add to the overall mood you’re aiming for.

  • Pine/sandalwood = forest-themed garden
  • Lemon/bergamot/orange = uplifting citrus
  • Ylang ylang = tropical vibe
  • Cinnamon/clove/orange = Yuletide mood booster

There are many other options out there, many of which claim to have an effect on your mood and wellbeing too. Definitely something to think about if you want to get more from your mini Zen garden.

Ideas for arranging your mini Zen garden

Mini Zen gardens come in all shapes and sizes. You are only limited by your imagination and you can chop and change the look as often as your mood changes.

But if you need some inspiration for different designs, check out the gallery below: from full-sized gardens you could replicate in miniature to some well-presented desktop creations.

Replica Of Ryōan-ji Zen Rock Garden - Mini Zen Garden

Credit: ElCapitanBSC (CC BY-SA-2.0) Replica of Ryōan-ji Zen Rock Garden

Indoor Zen Garden

Credit:寺人孟子 - CC BY-SA 4.0

Mini Zen Garden

Mini Zen Garden

Nanzen-Ji Temple Rock Garden

Nanzen-Ji temple by lienyuan lee [CC BY 3.0 )

Zen Garden In Small Decorative Tray

Credit: Gripweed - CC BY 4.0 (cropped)

Zen Garden In Portland

Credit: I, Laurascudder - CC BY-SA-3.0

Find your inner peace as a desktop Zen gardener

If making your Zen garden is pretty straightforward, maintaining it is even easier and one of the reasons they make such a fun bit of desktop decor. ‘Tending your garden’ basically means ‘playing with your garden’.

Straight lines. Waves. Concentric circles. Patterns. The choice is yours. Even no pattern at all can be very soothing; an oasis of calm when everything else around you is spinning out of control…

Stacked pebbles for mini Zen garden
Mini Zen garden sand patterns
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