Wabi-sabi isn’t easily translated into the English language—in fact, there is no direct translation. It is an all-encompassing term for the Japanese aesthetic school of thought that the imperfection, incompleteness, and irregularities of a thing are the qualities that make it beautiful. Wabi-sabi is the acceptance and appreciation of the natural state of things, free from interference or editing of any kind, including what we might consider flaws or defects that come through when we don’t intrude and correct them.
It is this concept of wabi-sabi that inspires one of the newest trends in aquascaping, wabi-kusa. Aquascaping is the art of creating highly manicured submerged aquatic gardens in an aquarium setup. Traditional aquascapes include a variety of mosses, aquatic plants, driftwood, and decorative features arranged very thoughtfully and precisely, and the upkeep of these arrangements can be very demanding and time-consuming. For the fans of aquascaping, this involved maintenance is part of the joy of building these amazing pieces of art, but for most, the space, time, and financial investment of an elaborate aquascape is just not feasible. With the advent of wabi-kusa, however, nearly anyone can experience the satisfaction and beauty of the aquatic garden without the huge outlay in money and time.
Wabi-kusa differs most from the traditional aquascape in design and layout. While aquascaping employs heavy planning and editing to ensure that plants mature into exactly the shape you want, wabi-kusa embraces the idea of wabi-sabi—you might pick the color of the gravel you want, the shape of the tank you want, and the type of plants you want, but once planted, the plants are left to grow as they will, and your job is only to keep it watered, fertilized, and enjoy watching the plants take over. Wabi-kusa is also typically done on a smaller scale, like in a glass container instead of an aquarium, making it a great way for apartment-dwellers to get involved. The chosen plants are planted or attached to a substrate ball, and this ball is emerged or submerged fully in water and allowed to fill in and grow wild. Wabi-kusa displays can be as simple as water with a wabi-kusa ball, or can feature hardscape items like wood, gravel, or sand, or can feature a fully planted bottom that the wabi-kusa ball rests on. Once the wabi-kusa is planted, the regular maintenance required is as simple as misting, changing the water, and adding a fertilizer.
As was mentioned, practically anyone can make their own wabi-kusa at home. The wonderful thing about wabi-kusa is that though it is an art form that presents new challenges to experienced aquascapers, it’s also an art form that is accessible to those just starting out. Small spaces and budgets are not as prohibitive, and it’s a wonderful way to bring relaxing water features inside the home, especially if you can’t have your own ornamental pond or aquarium.
Here’s how you can start your own basic emerged wabi-kusa garden:
- A planting container – This can be an aquarium or planting container designed for wabi-kusa, or you can use a decorative glass container, like a pitcher, apothecary jar, or large bowl
- A substrate ball – You can attempt to create your own substrate ball, or you can purchase one ready-made. Many prefer to use the ready-made balls because they don’t make the water murky. The purchased substrate will need to be soaked for a few days to become pliable and ready for planting.
- Semi-aquatic plants or cuttings – Remove any stem plants from their own planting medium, and trim the roots and leaves to motivate growth. You may want to get an aquatic moss to cover your substrate ball for a more green and wild look.
- Long tweezers
- Fishing line – This will be used to tie your moss down, and won’t degrade because of the water.
- Liquid fertilizer for aquatic plants
- Plastic wrap
- Decorative hardscape elements – Like gravel, stones, wood, shells, and sand. This is totally optional.
- If using, go ahead and add your gravel or sand to the planting container first.
- Lay your moss (if using) over your substrate ball as desired, and use your fishing line to tie it to the ball. Carefully wrap your line around the ball until the moss is securely attached. Tie off your line, and trim the excess.
- Use your tweezers to puncture the substrate ball where you would like to insert your stem plants. Pick up each plant by the stem with your tweezers such that the rooting end is pointing down, and use your tweezers to embed the rooting end of each plant or cutting into the punctures you’ve made. Do this until you’ve arranged all of your little plants just how you want them. As you work, you might want to make sure your plants stay moist by giving them a mist of water every once in a while with your mister—after all, they are aquatic plants.
- When you’ve planted all of your plants in the substrate ball, go ahead and put it into your container and rest it on your gravel (if you’ve used it). At this point, you could also add any other hardscape items you might want to complete your look.
- Measure out enough water to immerse your substrate ball in water in your container.
- Add liquid fertilizer to the water per the directions on the bottle. Be sure to only add the exact amount of fertilizer needed as too much could cause algae.
- Add your water to your planting container. The substrate ball should now be completely submerged in the water, and the leaves of your plants should be above the water line.
- You will now want to cover your planting container with plastic wrap, leaving only a small slit for ventilation. This plastic wrap will trap in the humidity of the water.
- Keep the plastic wrap on the container for at least two weeks, slowly either widening the slit in the top to allow more humidity to escape, or puncturing the wrap with a knife. This process will get your plants used to the levels of humidity in your home so that you can eventually take off the plastic and leave it off without hurting them.
- To keep your wabi-kusa in tip-top health, mist it several times a day with water, and fertilize regularly. Keep it near a window with good indirect light, or put it under a grow light.