Lee Burkhill’s top tips for designing a Japanese gravel garden

A recent episode of Garden Rescue channelled some Zen into an awkwardly shaped small plot.

Feeling a bit stressed? If you want to escape the hustle and bustle beyond your front door, a Japanese garden might offer the slice of tranquillity you seek. A Japanese gravel garden is especially effective, and Garden Rescue’s Lee Burkhill can help you inject a serious dose of Zen into your own plot – even if it’s a small garden.  

In Tuesday September 19’s episode, co-presenters Lee Burkhill and Chris Hull headed to Keynsham, Bristol, to help create a Zen garden for a busy family. The wide, shallow plot, containing only grass and one shrub, was an awkward canvas to work on. But homeowners Craig and Becky chose Burkhill’s design, which featured a Japanese gravel garden as one of its main sections alongside decking and a Japanese “stroll garden” – to offer a calming extension to their house.

Presenters of Garden Rescue Lee Burkhill and Chris Hull stood with homeowners in their gardenCredit: BBC / Spun Gold TV
Burkhill (far right) with homeowners Becky and Craig, and fellow presenter Hull (far left)

Burkhill was keen to design a “modern take” on a traditional Japanese design. “It’s all about keeping that simple detail, which is really hard to achieve,” he said. Rakes at the ready – we share his top tips to help you create your own meditative space. 


What is a Japanese gravel garden?

The folks over at the Japanese Garden Society explain that Japanese gravel gardens (which are also known as “dry gardens” or “karesansui”) are so-called because of the sand or gravel used in them.  

“Gravel, raked in a variety of ways, is a common ground-cover treatment, representing the ocean,” the society says. “Generally, these gardens are not entered, but are viewed from a building or veranda. In this way, the garden becomes framed by architectural elements. The moods of the gardens vary from the visually dramatic to the contemplative. This garden style has become emblematic of a sense of modernity, despite many such gardens being hundreds of years old.” 

1. Create a landscape

Different-sized gravel and stones resemble mountains and water

Japanese gravel gardens are usually stylised miniature landscapes, evoking a sense of calm. The gravel often denotes water and can be raked to create a ripple effect. It’s important to choose rocks that contrast or complement each other, with Garden Rescue’s presenter encouraging us in the episode to “be bold and never clutter the space”.  

“Japanese gravel gardens hold real symbolism in Japanese garden design,” said Burkhill. “They are usually used in places where you want either some meditation or quiet contemplation. You use rocks, stones and gravel to represent mountains and the sea. 

“I’m going to be using a number of different types of gravel. We’ve got this gorgeous, fine very white clean gravel that’s going to form the seabed around the pergola area. We’ve then also got these beefy [granite] cobbles that I’m going to arrange in different patterns to provide inspiration, as if you’re looking out towards the mountains.” 

The stones, arranged into rock formations, add a little height and a tactile, sensory element to the garden. Burkhill said that although he could have left the garden with simple gravel that could be raked into formations, he wanted to “pack a punch in this small garden and give Craig and Becky plenty to observe”. 

Burkhill took his time choosing their position, observing each one and working out where he wanted it to go.  

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2. Add a pergola and seating

Don’t forget to create a space from which to view your garden

You’ll need somewhere to sit down, switch off from the hustle and bustle of life and observe the stillness of your Japanese gravel garden (or take the opportunity of a quiet moment to read a book). Consider which direction you want to view the garden from, the material of the garden seating you’d like to relax on, and whether you’d like to be under cover. Lee’s design incorporates a modern take on a traditional Japanese pergola made from scaffolding, which Becky and Craig can sit under and gaze at their gravel.  

Before you raise your eyebrows at the mention of scaffold poles (we did too, at first), they’ve been used for good reason – and this pergola design was the feature that clinched the deal and helped Burkhill’s plan win the hearts of the homeowners.  

“This is a new-build house, and it’s surrounded by all sorts of old, industrial buildings,” he explained. “So, I wanted to nod to that and recreate a Japanese pergola with a more modern material. The beauty of the scaffold poles is that they’re really thin, so rather than big, chunky timbers, we’re keeping it really neat and tidy.” 

How to look after your Japanese gravel garden

If you’re after a low-maintenance garden then it’s time to rejoice. A Japanese gravel garden is useful if you’re strapped for time or don’t have the ability to undertake lots of pruning and tidying.  

“A key part of gravel gardens is that you don’t walk in them, you don’t garden in them or get your fingers dirty,” Burkhill said. “Once they’re there, other than raking them and pulling off the odd weed or blown leaf from a tree, you leave them be.” 

3. Add texture and variety

A stone monolith makes a strong focal point

When the base of your gravel garden is in place, the next stage is to add some height. Burkhill chose a stone monolith to add texture and variety. He spent more than £200 on a “stunning chunk” of gneiss – a metamorphic rock similar to granite. 

“I really want to show all the gorgeous ridges in the stone monolith,” he said. We couldn’t agree more and can imagine the light of the setting sun glinting off glittering particles within its formation. 

Ensure any large rock used is placed in a stable position, with the side facing the seating area – giving consideration to where it’ll be viewed from. 

4. Keep planting simple

Avoid breaking the mood with too much colour

When it comes to planting around your Japanese gravel garden, striking, low-maintenance evergreens are ideal, and in keeping with tradition (though Burkhill bends the rules slightly). 

“Technically, I am breaking a few Japanese garden design principles,” he said. “Usually, with a gravel garden, you keep the planting evergreen and there are very few – if any – flowers. However, I want to evoke the feeling of being near the sea with the gravel ‘ocean’.  

“I’ve chosen a few specimens of salvias, which are in this beautiful light blue colour, just to give Craig and Becky the feeling that they might be near a river or the sea. All the plants are evergreen and have structure that’ll hold throughout the year.” 

Along with the salvias, Lee settled on a range of simple grass-like perennials, including slender sweet flag (Acorus gramineus). Note that this plant is happiest in very wet soils or next to water if your gravel garden is by a pond.

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Colour can upset the calm

If I were to introduce all sorts of other colours, like hot oranges and yellows, it’s going to feel busy, frantic and highenergy,” Burkhill explained. This whole area has to be calm. That’s key with a lot of Japanese planting plans. You want to take the eye away from the detail, like flowers, and bring it into either the gravel garden or a tree something that’s really peaceful.” 

5. Use the same materials elsewhere

Add stones and gravel to different zones

Lee topped up and smartened a sizeable planting hole cut into the raised decking (which is home to a miniature acer) with materials from his Japanese gravel garden. He added the same granite boulders and then filled the gaps with the same white gravel.  

“Using the same materials in different zones of a garden design gives a visual link and helps tie the whole space together,” Burkhill noted.  

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Desperate to discover how you can create your own Zen garden? You can watch the episode in full on BBC iPlayer – youll need a TV licence to stream the show online.  

Rosanna Spence

Written by Rosanna Spence she/her


Rosanna Spence has been a journalist for nearly 10 years, reporting on a huge array of topics – from microwaves to cocktails, sustainable buildings, the Caribbean islands and beyond. She’s interviewed chefs at the helm of Michelin-starred restaurants and chatted to countless CEOs about their businesses, as well as created travel guides for experienced travellers seeking life-changing adventures.

Rosanna loves nothing better than getting under the skin of a topic and is led by an unwavering curiosity to share information and stories that inform and inspire her readers – a mission that has taken her around the world. Throughout her career, she has created content for Business Traveller, i-escape.com, Pub & Bar, BRITA, Dine Out and many more leading titles and brands.

She turned her attention to the Homes sector as a result of an ongoing renovation and improvement project, which takes up a fair amount of her time outside of work. When she’s not comparing carpet samples or debating the pros and cons of induction hobs, you’ll find Rosanna exploring Bristol’s food and drink scene, obsessively watching horror films, or donning some walking boots and heading for the hills.

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