Wabi-sabi and the garden

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Wabi-sabi is a Japanese aesthetic that is almost entirely untranslatable, but which contains some entrancing ideas for the garden.

They say that if you can explain wabi-sabi, then you don’t understand it. It’s a Japanese aesthetic with roots in the tea ceremony. And it informs many Japanese arts, such as ikebana (flower arranging).

While it may be difficult to grasp, there are aspects of wabi-sabi we can adopt in many parts of our lives. In our case, it’s the underlying philosophy for our garden.

Key concepts include transience, simplicity, modesty, decay and the impossibility of perfection. It not only accepts decay and imperfection, it finds beauty in them.

It’s easy to apply these characteristics to our garden at Montcocher. Transience is inherent in all gardens – not just because of the seasons and because plants come and go, but because our gardens outlive us. We are the transient ones.

Simplicity and modesty stem from our decision to have a garden as natural as possible. There is structure that we’ve created, but it’s not overt. Our aim has always been to create an environment that looks as though it was once a grand, formal garden that has gone wild and succumbed to nature. We have created ‘beds’ (I use the term loosely) in which we’ve planted trees, roses and other shrubs. But we also allow the grass to grow, and our plants fight it out with the natural growth.

Most of our trees are self-seeded and we allow space for ‘weeds’ (nettles, brambles, ragwort, cow parsley, thistles, hogweed). Much of the content of the garden has been decided by nature – by the plants themselves and the animals that either spread them or feed on them, the deer, rabbits, squirrels, snakes, voles, moles, butterflies and innumerable, birds and insects.

As for decay, that’s a crucial part of the garden. We’ve placed objects in the beds – an old, iron settee frame, wagon wheels and so on – so that they can deteriorate gracefully while roses romp all over them. (We particularly like old metal objects: one translation of ‘sabi’ is ‘rust’.) But we also leave dead plants (such as fallen trees) in place. They offer great habitats for insects. We don’t deadhead roses. Decay is natural and there is a beauty in it.

I recently read a book about grasses and bamboo, published on behalf of the RHS, in which is insisted that you must remove ‘unsightly’ dead leaves. That’s far too precious, and far too prescriptive about what is and isn’t acceptable, about what we may or may not find beautiful.

For us, nature is beautiful in all its stages and conditions. That’s our reading of wabi-sabi.

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