Hot Springs Arkansas has lived up to its hot name the week I was there. Not only were the springs 147 degrees, the daytime temps were close to 100! The Buckstaff bath house was warm, but invigorating. My best time was at Garvan Woodland Gardens. Under the auspices of the University of Arkansas, the gardens were being prepared for Christmas, and staff were in the process of putting up over 2 million lights. Earlier that morning I attended a workshop "Wabi-Sabi and Beyond". Do you know what Wabi-Sabi is? Read on....

September 24th 2013 Blog

Becky Emerson Carlberg

This past week I was in hot Hot Springs, Arkansas.  Despite the fact the springs are about 147 degrees Fahrenheit, we were having a mini heat-dry-wave anyway.  Each day the temps rose dangerously close to 100 degrees, and the night times refused to cool off.  There were a few mornings that dropped all the way down to 82 or 83 degrees (I duly noted that while walking past the Baymont Hotel’s electronic time and temperature) at 7:15 in the morning.  The lake front houses on Lake Hamilton had their sprinklers running full tilt to keep the manicured green lawns, well, green. 

Thus, activities were restricted to mornings or evenings.  One afternoon was spent watching a movie in a cold air conditioned theater.  Another afternoon was at the Buckstaff bath house experiencing a soak, scrub and massage.  No air conditioning here, just steamy water and ceiling fans moving the humidity around.  It actually was not that hot in the bath house proper.  Ohhh, very invigorating. 

But the best was my morning in the Magnolia Room at Garvan Woodland Gardens.  First, it was air conditioned.  Second, the Gardening 101 workshop was about “Wabi-Sabi and Beyond: Secrets to an Authentic Japanese Garden”.

I was with many Arkansas Master Gardeners as we tried to understand the concepts behind the Japanese Garden.  The speaker was Bob Byers, the landscape designer at Garvan Gardens.  He has worked with Japanese gardens for years.  His presentation was interesting, so just follow along. 

Design Elements are concerned with form, texture, line and color in the Japanese garden. 

Form: objects wider than tall (horizontal emphasis) are more relaxing.  Tall structures are threats to humans.  Think about this.  We feel more uncomfortable in the presence of things much larger than ourselves.

Texture:  compare the size of individual parts to the whole.  The use of fine texture is important, such as having shrubs with fine leaves.  Coarse leaves draw attention and comes at you.  The fine texture creates a spiritual atmosphere.

Line:  the eye follows the line up and down tree stems, as in a Bonsai tree, or wanders along a meandering grape vine.

Color:  flowers do not make the impact in a Japanese garden.  As with music, the notes lend grace, but the chords are the real music.  Daylilies look great, but do not last long and have an 8% bloom impact.  Cannas, on the other hand, provide both flowers and foliage and have a 75% bloom impact.  Emphasize shrubs, foliage and trees.  The flowers are decoration.

Design Concepts include contrast, rhythm and unity/simplicity. 

Contrast:  Lights and darks in the garden, such as a tree shaded path leading into a bright small open field is one idea.  The use of balance and symmetry forms a well composed English garden.  In Asian gardens, no symmetry is attempted.  The collections of plants can be different as long as the basic pattern is followed. 

Rhythm:  Think of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.  Maintain the pattern with trees or shrubs blending together, such as road shaded by large oaks on both sides covered in Spanish moss, or a row of cedars in a particular spot.

Unity/Simplicity:  This is the best way to get a big impact.  Look at spaced –out large rocks and various pines on a hillside and appreciate its beauty.

The Western approach is to control all things and maintain order.  The Palace of Versailles, the royal chateau in France, has a large garden that was built to impress enemies.  Versailles itself became a center for political power in France by 1682, and underwent four building campaigns, the French Revolution, etc.  It offered a place for people to gather, and to be observed. The Eastern example would be a hermit living in the woods, in harmony, contemplating nature and becoming one with nature. 

The Wabi-Sabi philosophy:

Truth comes from observing nature. Nothing is static; all things change. Appreciate beauty in simple everyday things. Simpleness does not and is not pretentious.

Wabi-Sabi in Japanese gardens focus on simple (few materials used in the basic pattern), murky (edges of objects are obscured to give the impression of layers in front of layers, unpretentious (celebrates ordinary objects and trees), earthy (small color palette using rustic materials) and intimate/human scale (small gardens).   Plants are pruned into low, elliptical shapes to create masses of low, rounded forms with a few specimen plants or boulders.  Green predominates.  It is restive.  Fine texture is used in overlapping structure and creates depth. 

Wabi-Sabi uses the principle of Geological Zones.  Mountains are represented by craggy, jagged stones and lakes/rivers can be weathered, rounded stones.  Water features, such as water coursing through the rocks, may be employed.  The rocks should fit the settings. 

Wabi-Sabi celebrates seasonality.  Remember, time goes in an annual circle, and each year is a circle.  Westerners tend to have a linear concept of time, not circular as is found in the East. 

Wabi-Sabi adds mystery by using obscured elements and layers.  These hide hidden secrets.  The sight lines should curve and weave, with walls or trees placed to separate one scene from another in the garden.  Respect natural landforms. 

Wabi-Sabi nests rocks, shrubs or plants in triangular groupings.  Consider the lines of force and the direction these triangles point toward and away from.  Create the rhythm.  Frame views of the garden.  Byers said to think of a chorus. Many people are in the chorus, but one person is usually on center stage. Use the form, texture, line and color the same way.  Employ three in the chorus, and put one on center stage.  If everything is handled equally, Byers joked, you get a potato garden.  He has built many potato gardens in his time!

Bob Byers ended his talk with this: “If all else fails, Break the Rules”!  He quoted Dr. Slawson, his mentor and original landscape designer for Garvan Gardens.  Dr. Slawson liked to say “Show what is spectacular about the ordinary, not the unusual.”

Now, go out and look at your gardens.  How can you create a sense of mystery, intrigue, interest and restfulness in your area?  Are you a statue person, or are rocks your thing?  Do you like mounds of chrysanthemums (very seasonal right now) for interest, or paths that amble through a section, or have an herb garden with various colors and shapes of foliage? 

Adapt the Wabi-Sabi principles in your garden.  Come up with a design or pattern appropriate for your situation, showcase your favorite tried and true plants, and throw in a standing stone or stone bench.  Sit back and contemplate your navel, umbilicus, belly button…..just quietly enjoy your garden.