The Teddington Gardener

Is it deadheading – or wabi-sabi in action at Petersham Nurseries?

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Deadheading the roses this afternoon – a necessary but enjoyable part of rose care and maintenance – and once again, a box of delights remains. Yesterday, three boxes of petals were given out for jam-making adventures. Today, slimmer pickings, one young girl took the whole tray with the expectation to taking them home to Edinburgh. They might not look so good even in the morning!

I confess to cheating just a little, with the addition of flower heads from Penstemon Electric Blue, and artlessly tucking these among the spent flowerheads of the (mostly) Austin roses – Munstead Wood for the darker purples and plums, Pat Austin and Lady Emma Hamilton for the tangerine oranges and golds, Spirit of Freedom, Mary Rose, The Generous Gardener, Wildeve, James Galway and other for the pinks, Claire Austin and Margaret Merrill for the whites.

Culinary applications aside, I’m reminded once again Wabi Sabi – the Japanese concept of aesthetic beauty being both transient and imperfect.

“If an object or expression can bring about, within us, a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing, then that object could be said to be wabi-sabi.”

“Wabi-sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.”

The words wabi and sabi do not translate easily. Wabi originally referred to the loneliness of living in nature, remote from society; sabi meant “chill”, “lean” or “withered”. Around the 14th century these meanings began to change, taking on more positive connotations. Wabi now connotes rustic simplicity, freshness or quietness, and can be applied to both natural and human-made objects, or understated elegance. It can also refer to quirks and anomalies arising from the process of construction, which add uniqueness and elegance to the object. Sabi is beauty or serenity that comes with age, when the life of the object and its impermanence are evidenced in its patina and wear, or in any visible repairs.

After centuries of incorporating artistic and Buddhist influences from China, wabi-sabi eventually evolved into a distinctly Japanese ideal. Over time, the meanings of wabi and sabi shifted to become more lighthearted and hopeful. Around 700 years ago, particularly among the Japanese nobility, understanding emptiness and imperfection was honored as tantamount to the first step to satori, or enlightenment. In today’s Japan, the meaning of wabi-sabi is often condensed to “wisdom in natural simplicity.” In art books, it is typically defined as “flawed beauty.”

The idea is that being surrounded by natural, changing, unique objects helps us connect to our real world and escape potentially stressful distractions.

In one sense wabi-sabi is a training whereby the student of wabi-sabi learns to find the most basic, natural objects interesting, fascinating and beautiful. Fading autumn leaves would be an example. Wabi-sabi can change our perception of the world to the extent that a chip or crack in a vase makes it more interesting and gives the object greater meditative value. Similarly materials that age such as bare wood, paper and fabric become more interesting as they exhibit changes that can be observed over time.

My tray of petals is definitely wabi-sabi…. or at least it will be by the time it gets to Edinburgh!

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