Sweeter Violets, Zingerberger and Ephemerals

Sweeter Violets

     Sweet violets in the garden are approaching peak bloom. Instead of doing a ground level belly flop to get close to their heady fragrance or using tiny scissors to cut a tiny bouquet, dig up a chunk, repot it and bring it inside for a while. When it quits blooming, put it back in the garden. Keep it cool and you can enjoy that wonderful smell for a week or longer and then recycle it to its original location.


     The next time you need a fresh gingerroot for cooking, buy an extra root with lots of buds and experiment with growing your own ginger plant. Soak the tuber overnight in warm water, and then nestle it in a pot filled sterile potting soil. Barely cover the tuber and make sure the buds are pointed up. Water lightly and keep it in a warm window. As it puts on more growth give it more water. When the outside temperature stays at above 50, put the pot outside in a shady spot. If you need some fresh ginger, just use the small tubers that form in front of the original tuber. Now, THAT’S fresh ginger! The plant can reach 2 to 4 feet. Ginger root (Zingerber officinale) is a zone 10 plant so you’ll have to bring it inside for the winter but you’ll have a steady supply of fresh ginger for your trouble.

Ephemerals-Coming and Going

      Very early bulbs  seem to last about 2 seconds in the garden but nothing is as welcome in early spring as a brief glance at a little color. The sight of purples and yellows cuts right threw the winter blahs.

     Tiny fragrant blue Iris reticulata, snowdrops, woodland anemones and miniature fragrant yellow narcissus are easy to find now and relatively cheap. Someone else has done all the work planting and growing them for you. They’re already blooming in small pots. Grab a few, enjoy the color and fragrance for a few days inside, then pop the pot in the ground when they quit blooming. Next year when they come back into bloom take the pot out and enjoy them again. After about 2 years of this you can divide them, give away a few or (my personal favorite) keep them for yourself.

Column reprinted with permission, Premier Media Group, South Sound Magazine, Tacoma, WA

Wabi Sabi

     Move over Feng Shui, here comes Wabi Sabi; and I, for one, am relieved. Feng Shui is the Chinese theory of proper placement in your surroundings. Proper placement creates energy flow and a sense of harmony. It’s a practical theory that produces amazing results in everyday home, garden and business experiences. Mirrors, bells, the sound of water, furniture arrangement and room placements all play major parts in creating a sense of peace. Strict rules, if followed, promise to make life less stressful, happier and more prosperous. What could be better? Who doesn’t want to be relaxed, cheerful and out of debt? After a little reading I found out that Feng Shui has an enormous learning curve. It takes endless study. It is complicated and exacting. The bells, the water, the correct placement of plants in the garden and furniture in the home seemed fairly easy to accomplish and understand. These were minor changes. Some changes were a little shocking. With further reading I discovered that not only was my kitchen in the wrong end of my house, but according to the laws of Feng Shui, my entire house was facing in the wrong direction…so much for harmony. Then along came Wabi-Sabi and I found my philosophy.

    Wabi-Sabi is the appreciation of things imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. It is seeing beauty in things modest, humble and unconventional. It is a spirit and a feeling. The literal translation of Japanese Wabi-Sabi is “decay-rust” but hidden in the slightly “dark” translation is a world of appreciation for the small, the simple and the meaningful.  Wabi-Sabi is earthy and unpretentious. It praises things natural. Modern is its opposite.

     Wabi-Sabi was originally a source of rebellion and began with the Japanese Tea Ceremony. In the middle of the fifteenth century “tea” was considered a privileged pastime. Beautiful architecture and garden design, elaborate food preparation and elegant foreign-made tea sets all contributed to the elaborate Tea Ceremony in Japan. But the ceremony was for the elite. As a revolt against the slick, perfect and “modern” culture arising in Japan, a tea master, Rikyu, went “back to basics”, trading the opulence of a grand tearoom for a small thatched hut. Misshapen and unmatched tea mugs replaced the Chinese porcelain tea sets. He sought beauty in simplicity.  The tea ceremony was no longer a grand display of status. It was a personal experience. Unfortunately, Rikyu’s employer, a high-ranking military officer, didn’t like the change and ordered Rikyu to commit ritual suicide. The Tea Ceremony was serious business.  A variation of Rikyu’s simple and beautiful tea ceremony is the one practiced today. Today’s Tea Ceremony is Wabi-Sabi because of its simplicity and attention to detail.

     Wabi-Sabi is in the garden, in the home and in the world of poets and artists.

      Moss covered terra cotta pots, aged broken statuary, rusty trowels and rakes and misshapen pottery are all Wabi-Sabi. It is the appreciation of time frozen, no matter how small, insignificant or downright ugly. It isn’t for everyone but for those who understand it, it speaks volumes.

     Puget Sound is ideal terrain for the art of Wabi-Sabi, especially where gardening is concerned. If moss and rust are the key ingredients of a Wabi-Sabi garden then we’ve got it made. Once you have lived and gardened here for a while, the running joke, “everything that stands still either rusts or gathers moss” gains new meaning because it happens to be true. While the rest of the country is painting buttermilk and yogurt all over everything from bricks to roofs to speed up the aging process, we just need a little patience, the usual amount of rain and we’re blessed with either green sheen or red rust. Here lies the difference between the Wabi-Sabi spirit and everybody else. Those that grab the high pressure hose to get rid of the moss and run for a wire brush to eliminate the rust are not of the Wabi-Sabi mind. The Wabi-Sabi mind sees beauty where others see work. It isn’t laziness or sloppiness; it’s genuine appreciation for the passage of time and how it affects our surroundings. 

     A broken pot is tipped on its side in a Wabi-Sabi garden and becomes a focal point filled with sedums or sempervivums. As it ages and mosses over, it becomes more beautiful. Lichen on stone is left alone to give the stone a past. Wood is allowed to weather and turn silver-gray. Wabi-Sabi people are the ones who gravitate to the potting benches and tables made from barn wood. It isn’t just the look of the object; it’s the feeling it evokes. Wabi-Sabi isn’t about sentimentality. It goes much deeper. Texture is more important than color in a Wabi-Sabi garden. If much color is used it is subdued. There are no “collections”. The individual plant, rock or pot takes can take on new importance. The paths are winding and not at angles. There is a comfort level. The focus is on the small and insignificant. Beauty is in the common. Greatness is in the inconspicuous.

     Now is the season for those wonderful Puget Sound garden tours. There is usually a Wabi-Sabi garden in every tour. It may not be the garden with the most unusual plant material or the most expensive garden ornaments but it will be one whose gardener sees beauty in the details.

      The Wabi-Sabi philosophy spills into every day. Imperfection, impermanence and incompleteness are implied in homes with simplicity. Wall colors tend to be murky. Instead of pictures, paintings and photographs on every wall, there are pieces that create balance. This is where the expression “less is more” makes a great leap. There is no symmetry. The most important things take on new meaning. Here again, there are no collections because the sight of many takes away from the importance of one. An old chest might be the most beautiful piece of furniture in the room because of its patina and its history. The look isn’t severe because texture replaces shine. Natural materials like wood, cotton and clay replace glass, steel and plastic. Flower arrangements are sparse. Single flowers replace billowy bouquets. The overall effect is one of calm.

     Wabi-Sabi is a thought process.

     Sometimes you get up in the morning and grab the worst looking mug in the cabinet for your coffee or tea.  You choose it because something about it just makes you feel good. Maybe it’s uneven and ugly, has a crack in it or a broken handle. It’s one of a kind and it has meaning for you.  Maybe you have an old table with dents and depressions that make others want to run for the Black and Decker; but you wouldn’t dream of refinishing it because you smile every time you look at it. The appreciation you feel for something so imperfect, impermanent and incomplete is Wabi-Sabi. It is faint and fragile and I, for one, am glad it has a name.

Reprinted with permission Premier Media Group, South Sound Magazine,

Tacoma, WA

Ikebana Meditation

     I was from the “stuff-as-many-flowers-into-a-Mason-jar-as-possible” school of flower arranging; the more plant material I could cram into the mouth of a wide mouthed canning jar, the better. Ikebana, traditional Japanese flower arranging, with its attention to detail and sparseness of plant material, was a real mystery to me. I viewed Ikebana much like I viewed opera. If I could only understand it, I was sure I could appreciate it.

     Traditional western flower arranging was easy to understand. We appreciate its symmetry, colorful flower mixtures and over-abundance of plant material.  Western floral arrangements are decoration. What we want out of our arrangement is the finished product; even better if it matches a tablecloth, makes a splash in an entrance hall or goes with a bedspread. The Japanese art of flower arranging, Ikebana, is much more complex and is appreciated for entirely different reasons.

     Instead of beauty in the “eye of the beholder”, the beauty of Japanese Ikebana lies in the eye of the creator, much like the beauty in the abstract art of Jackson Pollock lies in the “way” he created, as much as his finished creations.  The art of Japanese flower arranging is a meditation, a state of mind. It’s the serenity of yoga without the mat.  The beauty is in the process and it is very personal. 

      Thirteen centuries ago Ikebana was closely tied to the Buddhist religion. With the passage of time (about 400 years), religious aspects of Ikebana gave way to an art form steeped in symbolism. Today the creation of Ikebana relies on those same ancient symbols: Heaven, Earth and Man.

     In Japanese arranging, Heaven, Earth and Man are represented by carefully placed stems. These three symbolic stems form the lines upon which the whole structure of Ikebana is built.

     The line of the first stem is the most important. It symbolizes Heaven. This forms the central line and is the strongest stem. The second stem, symbolic of Man, is placed sideways and forward from the center line. The third stem, Earth, is the shortest and is placed to the front or slightly to the opposite side of the roots of the first two. All three appear to grow from the same spot. Additional flowers are added but it’s the placement of the stems that are the most important. The stems develop the lines that recreate the landscape.  The landscape represents the passage of time: past, present and future.

     Past, present and future are represented by carefully chosen plant material. Full blown blossoms, pods or dried leaves symbolize yesterday. Half open blossoms or perfect leaves symbolize here and now. Buds suggest future growth and symbolize tomorrow. The idea of continual growth is important. Choosing plant material in the garden at the time of making the arrangement adds to the experience and completes the overall idea and ideals of Ikebana. Japanese arranging is all about the appreciation and contemplation of nature with some serious geometry thrown into the mix.

     Once the fundamentals of Ikebana are understood, the real education begins.  Plant material is worked and shaped; pruned and placed. Since pruning is an art in itself it becomes an important lesson when practicing Ikebana. Just think of all of the beautiful Japanese gardens with their high maintenance perfection. Ikebana is a scaled down version… a landscape in miniature.

       Today there are more than 3000 Ikebana schools in Japan representing many styles, each school with its own set of rules.   Traditionally, the headmaster-ship of these schools passes from one generation to another, keeping the integrity of the school intact.  For example, one of the oldest schools in Japan is Asakusa Enshu Itto Ryu. The founder, Honshosai Ittoku, was the most famous Ikebana teacher of his time. He taught until the age of 103. There are more than fifty Enshu schools in Japan today all originating with its first priest-headmaster.  The Enshu schools teach Moribana (freestyle), Classical Style and Seiku Style Ikebana.

     “Moribana”,  (free-style), teaches beginning students techniques in bending stems and using the knife in cutting branches for classical arrangements.

     “Classical” style begins with three formulated plant material groups of different lengths, arranged in an imaginary circular space, partitioned in air to create asymmetrical balance in elaborate designs.

     “Seika” style is characterized by its bending techniques creating beautiful curves in space in asymmetrical balance and harmony.

     Ikebana is a solitary journey for its creators culminating in an art piece that we can all enjoy.

      I attended an Ikebana class in Lakewood to expand my somewhat limited flower arranging horizons. The class was 2 hours long and began with a room full of students hauling in branches, stems, leaves and flowers of all sizes, shapes and colors.  They were animated, friendly and social, i.e., they talked a lot. Then, after about 30 minutes, as if on cue, the room got very quiet. Ikebana is about tradition, serenity and the appreciation of nature.

     Reprinted with permission Premier Media Group, South Sound Magazine, Tacoma, WA