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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 mediate. Known around the world as places of contemplation, their beauty lies in their simplicity and the aura of calm they exude. Now, 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 the few 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, that is our recommendation.

Required:

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

Optional:

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

A personal statement

The beauty of creating your own mini Zen garden is that you can make it as personal as you like. Use sand or pebbles from a local beach. Or for a less traditional look, items such as moss or twigs from a favorite outdoor spot.

It only takes 3 very simple steps to create the classic looking desktop Zen Garden. We’ll show you how to make a mini Zen garden with some easy-to-find items; along with a few ideas to make yours really stand out.

I’ll be making one for my own desk too – complete with pictures and tips to illustrate how easy it is. And because I’ve wanted one for absolutely ages!

#Container/Tray

Montage of everyday containers for mini Zen garden

Although typically made of wood & rectangular shaped, any suitable vessel works for a DIY Zen garden, as long is has a little bit of depth [at least an inch/2.5 cm].

Here’s a few suggestions:

  • 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 not on the container, which is why most 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 beachFull sized, outdoor Zen gardens are 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 gardenVisiting your local beach or raiding a sand pit might just work. But the sand may not always be the clean, fine grain stuff that is ideal for a mini Zen garden. A sieve can help get rid of the larger grains though.

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 and may contrast better with the container or desktop surroundings (white sand, black container works particularly well).

DIY mini Zen garden - sand from the beach

Being a cheapskate, I collected a small amount of sand from one of my favourite beaches. It’s far-from fine grain sand and is a little dull in color. Not easy to ‘rake’. 

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
Stones and shells on a beach

Zen gardens are also called rock gardens for a good reason. The stones provide the all-important focus for the garden. This is where you can 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. Older Zen gardens might 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.

Guidelines were 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 would lead to misfortune! So the stones matter, ok…

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 calming sand to rake and a sense of order and balance.

A few well-placed stones will give your mini Zen garden a classic look. Stacking stones can add a bit more character, although you need to choose the right stones [or use glue for a shortcut].

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

If you can pick some stones from a favored outdoor spot, even better. I got mine from the same stretch of coastline the sand came from, which adds a touch of harmony. Or so I like to tell myself…

Be sure to get a good handful; you can rearrange the stones and add to them as you wish. You could create a new look garden everyday.

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 will almost certainly will not have lying around is a mini Zen garden rake. You can easily buy them online for a few pennies, if you really want that finishing touch. 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 you may have to spend 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!

And if you’re wondering here’s my finished mini desktop Zen garden…

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

mini Darth Vader tending DIY mini Zen Garden

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 finish. 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 an alterantive 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 the inner peace of a 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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