8 Jul 2009
Even the Japanese have trouble explaining what wabi-sabi means. The philosophy has profound links to the tea ceremony, ikebana (flower arranging) and zen. Objects, environments, even lives may exhibit the qualities of wabi-sabi, but it would take a master of the art to explain why. And some say that if you can explain wabi-sabi, it isn't wabi-sabi.
That said, there are aspects of wabi-sabi that are easy to understand and embrace, and we're attempting to do just that in our garden.
First, there is the acknowledgement of the impossibility of perfection, and an embrace of flaws and decay - finding beauty in the imperfect. This is why many ikebana arrangements include a broken stalk or dead flower. Plants often exhibit great beauty when their flowers have gone over (hydrangea, for example) or their leaves are about to drop.
Our hectare of land is planted as a wildlife garden, with areas of semi-wilderness (carefully managed as such). It has areas of nettles and brambles (giving us clouds of butterflies), ragged stands of self-seeded trees (home for the deer), areas of long grass like that in the image above (loved by the grass snakes and toads, the former sometimes feeding on the latter) and fallen trees over which we're growing huge rose bushes.
Here and there we've placed various pieces of unwanted ironmongery - sewing-machine bases, plant stands, old wagon wheels - as a structure for the plants and homes for insects and small animals. These objects are not protected with paint or maintained in any way: they will corrode and decay gently over the years.
Another aspect of wabi-sabi that we've embraced is the idea that everything has its season. We haven't planted only for the bright months of spring and summer. Nor have we filled the garden with gaudy flowers. Many of our plants - including trees and roses - have been planted for qualities other than their blossom. Rosa rugosa, for example, has beautiful autumn leaves, rosa glauca has blue foliage, rosa sericea ptercantha sports red thorns and many of the roses - including rosa pendulina and rosa pimpinellafolia - treat us to bright, decorative hips.
Many of the plants also provide structural interest in winter, after the leaves have fallen.
We've chosen roses, elder and other plants for the appeal they have to all the senses, not just their visual beauty. The rosa primula and rosa eglanteria both have aromatic foliage, as well as flowers. Bamboo gives that melancholic music in the wind. And the rabbit's ears leaves of stachys byzantina are soft to the touch.
And, above all, the garden is a place of serenity and contemplation. We want to keep it quiet - visually as much as aurally. We have concentrated on trees and shrubs (even the roses are mainly huge species varieties, many of them now rambling a distance of 3-5 metres). The dominant colour is green.
I've been trying to capture many of these elements in photographs. There's a Wabi-Sabi Garden section in my portfolio with a selection of the images - some taken in our own garden, others in nearby gardens open to the public. Our aim is to use these in a book on how to apply the principles of wabi-sabi to western gardens.
In the meantime, some of the images are available to buy as prints, cards and posters at our RedBubble gallery. Enjoy!