The Imperfect Garden

For centuries, the Buddhist-based aesthetic of revering imperfections and transience has been a popular philosophy in Japan. It’s only now though that what the Japanese call wabi-sabi is making headway into contemporary home and garden design around the world.

Given that the Japanese perfected courtyard garden design, it is no surprise that many of the classic elements of these indoor-outdoor spaces are pure wabi-sabi. Often though, in creating a new courtyard our  Western inclinations may lead off in completely the opposite direction, with an urge for smart, new, high-tech features eroding other sensibilities.

Instead, consider approaching the design of your garden and courtyard with mindfulness. View it as a place of contemplation, for which impulse purchases are best avoided. Think first and then plan. And plan for forever. One seldom tires of a well-designed courtyard ­­– like fine wine, it will only improve with age. 

So celebrate ageing, and all the imperfections associated with it. Natural materials, such as stone, pottery, metal and wood, will age with the garden, acquiring a fabulous patina, such as the silvering of timber or the patterns lichen and moss prettily paint on surfaces.

If features in the garden, such as benches, steps, walls and so on, weather too much, or accidentally get damaged, the gardener who venerates imper-fection won’t rush to throw them out. Instead, as quality objects cherished for what they are and have been, and for the memories embedded in them, they will be mended with care. These repairs, in turn, become part of your garden’s story. 

In a world reaching peak consumption, this approach is a beacon of good sense; it can be minimalist but is more about a refined aesthetic.

The care with which Japanese gardeners tend their plants, and especially trees, is classic wabi-sabi.  A 300-year-old pine in central Tokyo spreads over such an area that its growth resembles a grove. Its secret for elegant survival is the dozens of wooden props supporting its lengthy branches – a commonplace treatment for over-long branches in this country that treasures longevity ahead of reaching for the axe. 


Tips for creating the perfect imperfect courtyard and garden

1 Don’t treat moss like it’s your enemy – unless it is on your footpath, in which case it is a health and safety issue. On statues and water features leave it be.

2 Avoid constant gardening and clearing away of seed pods.

3 Within reason, let natives self-seed and grow where they will.

4 Use natural materials in landscaping, such as wooden benches and stone. Then let them age gracefully. 

5 Appreciate the life cycle of plants and don’t over deadhead.