Want to give your garden a new look? Then why not give the ancient wabi-sabi style from Japan a go. This ‘new look’ has in recent years become all the rage in the gardening world and more so, since the idea was showcased at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in 2017. Who would have thought that overgrown perennials, moss-covered stones, rusty iron gates and weathered pots would be bang on-trend!
Rooted in Zen Buddhism, wabi-sabi is all about accepting and celebrating the imperfections in life and the natural order of things. Deeply spiritual it is meant to remind us that our bodies, as well as the material world around us, are all in the process of decay and returning to dust. As a teaching it emerged in the 15th century as a reaction to the lavishness, ornamentation, and the rich materialistic world to show its supporters the way of finding beauty in imperfection and especially the cracks and rot that time and the weather leave behind.
“Wabi-sabi is a state of mind, a way of being. It’s the subtle art of being at peace with yourself and your surroundings”
Wabi-sabi celebrates cracks, crevices and rot plus all the other marks that time, weather and use leave behind. Rough textures, natural materials, and subtle hues are all wabi-sabi
In the Western world this concept couldn’t be further away from our never-ending quest for perfection. However, with some of today’s gardeners, this laid back style of design, offers an escape from the mass-produced world and re-purposing old, once valued things and also relying on naturalistic planting is viewed more as a wholesome way of living. This approach will no doubt appeal to the budget conscious and especially people that have a passion for up-cycling and above everything, have a ‘special eye’ that can see the beauty in old things!
If this is you and you’re inspired not to ‘tidy up’ your garden too often to make it more aesthetically pleasing but prefer to let Nature take the lead and just ‘let things go to seed’, then you are already taking the first steps to embracing the wise ways of wabi-sabi.
To create the look go for rustic, natural options like wood and stone and especially wonky, imperfect pieces that show the signs of being handmade and have the patina of age. And when choosing colours, look to nature for inspiration. Charity shops and junkyards can be a source of inspiration, but don’t be too quick to define an object by its original purpose – the challenge is to give it a new identity and longevity that can be appreciated and enjoyed again.
To create the wabi-sabi look, search for things that show the marks of passing time
Admire and appreciate the signs of decay and be mindful of what it is that draws you to an item
Rusty metal and peeling paint is definitely ‘de rigueur’ and wabi-sabi is to appreciate the elegance of the abandoned. Be ‘mindful’ and look deeply for the minute details that give it character and maybe explore it with your hands
Wabi-sabi celebrates the rot and rust that time, weather and use leaves behind
Put to the back of your shed, all those perfect patio pots that you’ve been collecting over the years – it’s not the done thing to be ‘flashy’! Instead salvage old pots, even ones that are moss-covered, cracked or covered in peeling paint
Enjoy watching and learning as the garden goes to seed – the perennial herbaceous plant, Chinese or Japanese Lantern Physalis alkekengi, for example begins its season of interest producing light green fruit pods in August. These enlarge and turn to a very attractive deep orange in September that remain eye-catching if left on the plant for a further three or four weeks. If you want to preserve them for flower arranging simply cut the stems off at ground level and remove the leaves. Hang the stems upside down in a dark, cool and dry place such as a garage. They will be dried out after two to three weeks and will then be ready for using in dried flower arrangements where they will retain their colour and shape for several months.
Fill the garden with plants like poppies that age gracefully and produce beautiful ‘pepper pot’ seed heads that will create just as much impact in your flowerbeds as they did in their youthful appearance
Be proud of wear and tear, and even a withering patch of weeds and be mindful of how things became this way, after all it’s all part of your own life story. Be aware too that it is only as plants live out their yearly cycle that they take on character, height, and shape. Be mindful of how this represents your own mortality as they become less than elegant, begin to wither, turn black, and hang on their sorrowful stalks before dropping down to the ground.
Autumn leaves lying on the ground are very wasi-sabi, they not only tell the story of the changing seasons but also how fragile, and often temporary, things are in life
Tea ceremonies are a big part of Japanese culture, and are still a feature in wasi-sabi gardens too. It’s important to keep the utensils simple, even chipped teacups are ok, and make the ‘teahouse’, which in this case doesn’t even have to be a buidling, designed more as a wild place to escape to and meditate rather than the traditional, stylised building that’s been purposefully designed specifically for tea ceremonies and gatherings.