The west’s wabi-sabi beauty

Outdoor Living

The season’s changes prompt a reflection on nature’s transient wonders 

In the garden
Eriko Uehara Hopkinson

Imbolc has arrived, and now the days are lengthening and birds are busy calling to each other. Gardeners’ hearts are swelling with anticipation for new beginnings.
Now is the time to come out from our hibernation, and this year is especially significant as we are also emerging from Covid restrictions.
In the woods, banks are already showing signs of spring with the emerging snowdrops, winter aconite, crocus, daffodils. And in the gardens, the elegant hellebores make us bend to admire their beauty while daphnes and witch hazel reward us with sweet and spicy fragrance in the cold air.
For me, the magic of wood anemones, primroses, sweet violets and bluebells in the wild were my inspiration to start gardening in Ireland. I have never forgotten the mass of dainty white wood anemones (lus na gaoithe/windflower) rippling on a chilly early spring day on Church Island in Lough Carra.
The idea to garden with wildflowers in the natural environment probably came from the tea gardens in my native Japan. Unlike the well-known Japanese formal gardens with their particular aesthetics and philosophy, this way of gardening is something more understated, more humble.
These tea garden patches are called ‘Roji’, and that means alleyway or the pathway to the tea house; literally it means ‘a humble patch of ground’. And these humble gardens are usually dapple-shaded by some thin trees, and have native, wild plants.
Those wild plants are called ‘sanya-sou’ (mountain and field plants), and there are many enthusiasts and collectors in Japan. Sanyasou (山野草) are native and uncultivated, they are often mentioned in ancient poems and literature.  
To practise this type of gardening, you don’t even need to own the patch of garden, it can be in a pot with a crump of moss and a little fritillaria. It’s a way to enjoy the seasons with nature and connect oneself to timeless rituals and art.
Also, for those who practise the Japanese tea ceremony, growing sanyasou completes their mission to use them as a seasonal symbol for ‘chabana’ (flowers for tea ceremony).
You have probably heard of the ‘wabi-sabi’ philosophy. It’s a Japanese concept established by a great tea master, Sen no Rikyuu, whereby transience is accepted and the beauty of imperfect, modest and humble things is appreciated.
This type of gardening can bring interest and appreciation for the native plants and flowers of Ireland – or even an acceptance of fallen trees, the imperfect shape of shrubs and the occasional moss growing in the lawn.
I see this wabi-sabi beauty in the west of Ireland so often, and I believe that the Irish – whose heritage is the richness of language and folklore – will understand this perspective perfectly.

February task in the garden

Plant bare root trees and shrubs
Colder months until the end of March is the time to plant bare root trees and shrubs. It’s an economical and easier way of planting hedges, windbreaks and roses. Check the local nurseries for the bare-root stock. ‘Future Forest’ in Cork has a variety of trees/plants that are native and beneficial to bees and wildlife.

Sort out, order and sow seeds
It’s time to sort out your seed box and, if you haven’t done so, to order seeds. I used to order seeds from the companies whose packaging was compostable, but now that the UK companies have stopped delivering to Ireland, I find we need to look more into Irish suppliers. Irish Seed Savers has good varieties of organic and heirloom vegetable seeds and Seedholic has a wonderful amount of beautiful flower seeds as well as vegetables.
What I regret every year is that I get excited and order too many seeds – plus I collect seeds from my garden too much. If you’re like me, it may be a good idea to exchange seeds with your fellow garden enthusiasts.
The thoughts of the seeds from your garden growing and thriving in someone else’s patch makes brings lots of happiness – and it can be great insurance (if you lose that plant in your own garden!).
Don’t sow seeds too early, though. Wait until mid-March, especially for non-hardy annuals. That said, for tomatoes and sweet peas, now the time to sow seeds.
For some inspiration and help, ‘Seeds’, by Jekka McVicar, is a great guidebook on the magic of growing from seeds.

Eriko Uehara Hopkinson is a member of the Clew Bay Garden Trail, a chain of beautiful and unique private gardens that open to the public during summer to raise funds for charity (see for more). Each month an article by a trail member will appear in these pages.