Although lush landscapes may surround a Zen garden, the garden area itself is typically designed with dry landscape using sand and stones, sometimes covered with bits of moss. The Zen garden design carefully places each stone to complement the other stones in a minimalist landscape intended to promote contemplation. This dry Zen garden may be referred to by the Japanese word, karesansui, meaning not using water. The viewer’s imagination interprets the area’s symbolism.
In Zen garden design, sand represents water and rocks represent islands, animals or plants. According to San Jose State University, the size and shape of the rocks correspond to different natural objects associated with the five elements -- fire, earth, metal, water and wood – also used in Feng Shui. Tall, vertical rock represents trees or people. Short, but vertical, rocks represent metal. Rocks with arching shapes suggest fire; while low flat stones correspond to water and low sloping stones suggest earth.
Select a flat area of any size and border the area with wood, stones or plants. Bridges, paths and lanterns made of wood or stone add visual elements to the Zen garden. Place stones in groupings to create the image for contemplation. Put tall, vertical stones toward the back of the garden and place short vertical or round stones in groups partially surrounding the tall stone. Select stones with a weathered appearance and interesting or suggestive shapes such as turtle-like or bird-like.
Arching stones are often place in front of tall vertical stones and reclining or sloping stones near the front of the garden. Surround stones with grey or white sand usually made of sharp edged granite rather than beach or play sand. You may use a Zen garden rake to make concentric circles around each stone. The unique design of each Zen garden reflects its creator, so stone placement should connect with the designer in a personal way to aid his contemplation.