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Rock and Sand Landscape

A modern miniature Japanese rock garden.

A traditional Japanese rock garden uses rocks, sand or gravel, moss, pruned trees, shrubs, and sometimes a water feature to create a small stylized landscape. The  sand or gravel is raked to represent ripples in water. This miniature haworthia tray garden takes its inspiration from these wonderful gardens, but does not imitate them, and in place of the carefully pruned foliage found in Japanese rock gardens, this project uses architectural haworthias.

The white sand used here emphasizes the beauty of the rocks. Choose your rocks carefully, as each one should enhance the composition—each form contributing to the overall balance. You do not have to rake the sand, but if you want a more stylized look experiment by raking it with your fingers, a fork, or a chopstick. With a tray garden you are trying to create the feeling of a place, and having a path through the garden provides a visual entry into the garden and gives the eye a space to rest.

Haworthias make great houseplants, especially for a tray garden. A small succulent originating from South Africa, they are readily available, have a range of colors and shapes, and stay relatively small. Plants range in size from 1 to 4 inches in diameter. Often succulents that remain small can be found growing under shrubs and trees in nature—they do not want the blazing sun associated with many cacti and succulents. While most rosette-form succulents need more light than an indoor 206 Plant environment can provide, haworthias can tolerate more modest lighting. Because they stay small they can comfortably fit on a table near a window without seeming to take over a room. Other succulents that would work for this tray garden are jade plant or gasteria. You could also use cacti for this project, such as a pincushion cactus or an astrophytum.



  • Cactus and succulent potting soil (A)
  • Tray with a drainage hole (I used a tray with a 12-inch diameter) (B)
  • 4-inch haworthia (C)
  • Two or three 2-inch haworthias (C)
  • White sand (D)
  • 5 rocks ranging in size from 4 inches to 1/2 inch (E)


  • Small paintbrush
  • Bonsai brush or large paintbrush


Place a layer of soil on the bottom of the tray. The depth will depend on how deep your tray is; the tray I’m using here is shallow, so I used a layer of soil that was less than 1 inch deep. The layer should be deep enough to place the plants and their roots and then add more soil and the sand on top.


Loosen the plants from their pots and remove any excess soil.


Place the 4-inch haworthia to the far right.


Add more soil around the plant’s roots.


Plant the two or three smaller plants grouped together on the opposite side of the tray, adding soil as needed. Smooth out the soil so that the level of soil is a little below the tray’s rim.


Pour white sand over all the exposed soil.


Place the rocks on either side of the two groupings of plants, leaving an open path between the plants across the center of the tray.


Use a small paintbrush to remove any sand from the haworthias. Use a larger paintbrush or bonsai brush to smooth the surface of the sand, or rake the sand with the tip of the paintbrush’s handle or your fingertips.



Let the soil dry out between waterings and then water thoroughly using a watering can or faucet head with a sprinkle spout in order to provide a gentle flow of water. It is better to let the plants get a little dry than to overwater them. If any of the sand is displaced, simply replenish it after watering. Increase watering in the warmer months, decrease in the winter.


Haworthias like very bright light. Indoors a little sun is nice, but they can survive in bright indirect light. If the plants start to stretch and elongate it is a sign they are not getting enough light. Their leaves will also lose their color.



Fertilize the plants one to two times during the summer growing season with a cactus fertilizer, and suspend fertilizing during the colder months.


If any of your haworthias produce offsets you can remove them with a sharp knife or snippers to produce a new plant. Cut the offset as close to the mother plant as possible, including a few roots. Allow the baby haworthia to dry out and then repot the offsets in a small pot. Place the plants in a warm bright spot and water adequately.