San Luis Obispo Zen

“Wabi sabi embodies the Zen nihilist cosmic view and seeks beauty in the imperfections found as all things, in a constant state of flux, evolve from nothing and devolve back to nothing,” – Juniper, A (2003). Wabi Sabi, the Japanese Art of Impermanence. North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Publishing.

At first glance, this may not seem like an approach for bringing a garden to life. But sit with it with time and objectivity, as the book suggests, and you may find answers in this simple and profound method of moving through life. Sharon and John Dobson crafted their front garden themselves, so when it was time for the back yard’s construction, they requested a design that would complement their existing California-native landscape. The Dobsons wanted to create the feeling that their home had been constructed in an existing native meadow, and that it wasn’t in contrast to its environs. “It’s no coincidence that when we’re in nature we’re at our most peaceful,” Sharon says. “We wanted that feeling here. We didn’t want the structure of the nine-to-five work week in our space.”

Before planting their garden, the Dobsons lived in their home for a number of years in order to identify their habits and living patterns. During their study they learned how important nature was to them: They used natural textures and materials to compose their indoor surfaces; they filtered natural light into every indoor space; they ate meals outside in the outdoor kitchen that they built.

Sharon and John ended their search for guidance when they discovered wabi sabi, a Japanese Zen design style. With wabi sabi’s tutelage, they learned to shirk abundance, to employ only what is necessary to complete a task, to create spaces in harmony with nature, and to celebrate seasonal beauty. Sharon used to love a luxurious arrangement of colorful flowers. “Now I love the simple elegance of one single orchid,” she says. As a result of their “observant inaction,” as Sharon calls it, when the time came, everything just naturally fell into place.

Wabi sabi taught the Dobsons to embrace the evanescence of all things, and their garden is a testament to the timeless beauty of impermanence. Their plant palette consists of California natives, whose natural life cycle allows Sharon and John to appreciate their blooming and dormant periods equally. 

In bloom now are the native wildflowers and perennials that we scattered, strategically and randomly, according to plan, among the over 500 carex ‘praegracilis’ plugs (a drought-tolerant native grass) that the Dobsons joined us in planting. Volunteer California poppies have sprouted in colorful patches of waxy white, creamy cantaloupe, rusty red.

The garden surrounding the outdoor kitchen features peppers, tomatoes, chives, sage, and other cooking accoutrements. Single-file, a line of new strawberry plants drip new shoots over a stone retaining wall. Intercepting them in the corner of the garden is a marching row of young sweet peppers. Farther afield, the fruit trees, a trellised apple tree, a pair of citrus, and a five-year-old apricot, are building fruit for future culinary endeavors.

A thin-slatted fence borders the garden, constructed with randomly-selected uneven lengths, which supports wabi sabi’s emphasis on nature’s unimpeded natural process. “Wabi sabi makes you consider nature at every stage,” says Sharon. “Ours is an inviting fence,” Sharon says. “I can see my neighbors through the cracks, I can see the cats. It feels alive.”

In fact, every corner of the garden feels significant--but not posed. According to Sharon, every rock in her garden has a soul, and every tree is like part of the family. Some want to be alone, some want to be grouped together, and each get their moment in the sun, literally. “In nature, there’s a lot going on underneath. With wabi sabi there’s a lot more than what’s on the surface.”

When asked what she would share with other homeowners, Sharon says, “Remember to do something that’s best for your space. Design your garden for your environmental conditions. And remember that your garden is an extension of who you are.”

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