Archive » July 20, 2006
By Chris and Lisa Cullen
THE PERFECTION IN IMPERFECTION
Wabi-Sabi is not what to order at a Japanese restaurant, it’s the latest trend in gardening.
Described by green thumbs as the next Feng-Shui, Wabi-Sabi has its roots in Zen Buddhism. It is an art form that celebrates the aesthetic character of things imperfect, incomplete and impermanent. The crack in your old flowerpot, for example, sets it apart from thousands of others of the same design; the weathered stone of your patio makes it unique and something to be appreciated, not replaced.
Wabi and Sabi are two key Japanese aesthetic concepts. Understanding these can be accomplished by looking at their definitions. Wabi means things fresh and simple, quietude and rustic beauty, and includes things in nature and those made by man. Wabi is most concerned with space. Sabi is an artistic way of looking at things, a more light-hearted view. It is moss growing over the roots of a tree, stones worn from years of use or an old garden shed in the corner of the garden. Sabi is the element of time showing itself, especially referring to things whose beauty stems from age. Over time, these two terms combined to form a new word, Wabi-Sabi, which includes these two ideas.
Other elements in this kind of garden would be asymmetry, quality, unconventionality and sustainability. There is a Japanese expression that someone who makes poor quality things is worse than a thief, because these things don’t last or provide true satisfaction. Durable elements that last in nature as well in the heart of the gardener won’t need replacing for a very long time.
In the garden this means choosing plants appropriate to the location and that are compatible in nature. Picture a gnarled tree trunk whose leaves are allowed to remain on the earth or plants apparently un-pruned allowed to grow into each other. In Wabi-Sabi plants are pruned in natural shapes as if no pruning were done at all. No cubes and balls in this garden.
An excellent example of Wabi-Sabi is Toad Hall (a sculpture built out of Willow boughs by artist Patrick Doughery) in the meadow of the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. This structure is organic, asymmetrical and impermanent and appears to have grown out of the earth.
Want to apply a little Wabi-Sabi in your garden? Stop trimming everything into neat cubes or balls and instead prune trees and shrubs from the inside out, allowing the innate structures of the plants to show themselves. Allow leaves to accumulate on the ground and plants to spill over into the garden paths. If your plants look as if “they just grew that way” you are learning to appreciate the Wabi-Sabi way of gardening. Shop at estate sales for garden décor with patina that can only come from use and age.
Experiment with mismatched pots and plantings; take your inspiration from nature’s color palette. An old garden shed spruced up a bit with a faux-finish, can become one of the featured elements of your garden.
Montecito is ahead of its time, where estates such as Lotusland, Casa del Herrero and others, though noted for having formal gardens, have areas that communicate the essence of Wabi-Sabi.
Examples at Lotusland are endless, but first some history. Corey Wells, the horticulturist at Lotusland, says that Madame Ganna Walska bought the 37-acre property at the encouragement of her sixth husband, Theos Bernard (the first white guy to become admitted into the Tibetan Buddhist priesthood). They planned to transform the property into a Tibetan Monestary and so initially named the estate Tibetland. It is assumed that Bernard introduced Tibetan Buddhism to Walska, who infused her newfound knowledge in her garden and gardening techniques. She would not allow pruning of any kind except to allow access on the many paths. Motorized equipment was also banned (except for a lawnmower) and she would not allow the gardeners to remove any plants and so the gardens became quite overgrown. The topiary garden is the exception, of course, but the rest of the estate (even without Madam Walska edicts) reflects the philosophy of leaving plants alone once they are in the ground. The result is an “overgrown” garden that has a natural feel and thus embodies the precepts of Wabi-Sabi.
Montecito has innumerable examples of beauty that comes with age. Splurge on it, it’s the Wabi-Sabi way.
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