A couple of years ago, I heard Diane Ackerman, who writes beautifully about gardens and gardening, discussing her passion on National Public Radio. She and the host agreed that our gardens reflect ourselves, our way of looking at life. I thought about my own garden, and I liked the idea. My lavender was just plumping with sweet-smelling buds, the vinca was fresh and green with perky purple flowers, and the peonies held promise in their tight little fists.
That was in June. By August, the thought of my wild, out-of-control garden reflecting anything about me was slightly horrifying. The lemon balm had run amok; the peony bush—never caged—was limp and trampled. In my backyard, a virulent type of Japanese knotweed had grown into a jungle. As it does every year, nature had taken its course in my yard, and I hadn’t managed to keep it in check. Oh, the temptation to just call it wabi-sabi and leave it at that. It was, after all, very natural in its untidy way.
But I know better. Wabi-sabi is tamed, subdued, and serene. I know that the natural gardens I inevitably fall for—which feel almost untouched by human hands—actually owe their serenity and peace to hours of hard labor. There’s a fine art to creating a garden that feels close to nature but also offers carefully thought-out spots for meditation and reflection, just the right combination of color and blooms throughout the season, and enough structure and muscle to provide interest even in December. A truly wabi-sabi garden is a creative endeavor of the highest sort. (And some day—when my kids are older and my work life slows down—I vow I’ll accomplish that.)
I’m slowly working toward my wabi-sabi paradise by putting in plants that are native to my place: slightly weedy black-eyed Susans and columbine, wild rosebushes dug up from my neighbor’s yard, heat-loving yarrow. I’ve welcomed intruders, if they have something to offer and don’t get too pushy. The chokecherry that made its way down from the foothills near my house provides long, delicate white blossoms in springtime and brilliant red-orange leaves in the fall (great branches to bring inside). The mullein that planted itself in my flower garden is tough and phallic, but the bloom of tiny yellow flowers around its stalk in late summer expresses its feminine side.
These indigenous species, adapted to my brutal high-desert climate, can take care of themselves and manage to look good—even in August—without a lot of care and attention. The creative part, for me, is mapping out where they’ll thrive and how they’ll interact with each other and with the humans who visit. And this is where the wabi-sabi spirit really comes in. The wabi-sabi garden embraces and enhances the delicate balance between nature and nurture. It’s not formal and prissy like an English garden—but it’s not overrun with lemon balm and knotweed. Plants are chosen because they belong in that garden, in that climate. They’re allowed to strut their stuff, but they’re expected to be considerate of the plants around them—or be tamed. Brash, blowsy blooms, which generally require a high degree of maintenance, are used sparingly, if at all.
Just as important as what plants are chosen and where they’re placed are the garden’s bones: the stones and pebbles used to create winding paths and delineations, the rusty iron gate beckoning entrance, the trellis teasing vines up its length. In this aspect, gardens offer all sorts of wabi-sabi opportunity. Place an old, broken-down chair in the flowerbeds; let the weather work its magic and the plants grow up around it until it seems rooted and organic to that place. Plant gourds in an old wheelbarrow and let them spill languidly over the sides. Build a stone wall; the very act of placing stone upon stone is a satisfying meditation. Create paths that encourage guests to meander, with stopping points where the vista is ideal.
With the right structure in place, the wabi-sabi garden is as beautiful—if not more so—in December as it is in June. The sculptural bare branches, brittle seedpods, and somber palette of the winter garden are as wabi-sabi as it gets. Stark and naked, the plants stand as vivid symbols of nature’s way: birth, death, rebirth. The blossoms of life are easy to admire; the quiet integrity of plants gathering energy for rebirth takes a deeper appreciation. A stroll through the garden in the dead of winter is a fine place to cultivate that depth.
Reprinted with permission from The Wabi-Sabi House: The Japanese Art of Imperfect Beauty by Robyn Griggs Lawrence (Clarkson Potter, 2004).