Tour Dan’s Wabi Sabi Front garden of Recycled Treasures in San Francisco

August 2, 2023

When it comes to garden design, I heartily encourage mixing it up and two of my favorite styles to mix into the garden are ancient ideas of wabi sabi, applied to the ephemera of modern industrialism.

Wabi Sabi and industrial styling really are two very different things  – each worth exploring on their own. But they have similarities that, in my mind, make them natural partners.  Both celebrate beauty in the simple everyday utility items of our lives. And both exude an unexpected warmth that comes from time and patina. They also both have the potential to make your garden something unexpected and grounded in cultural history that is clever and personal.

Industrial ephemera largely recalls when society was more significantly based in manufacturing. Wabi sabi, which is based in ancient Japanese philosophy, encourages finding beauty and peace in simplicity. 

Aged metal boxes mounted on a fence as candle holders in a garden
Vintage metal boxes are mounted on a fence as candle holders.

What is wabi-sabi style?

Wabi is to be unmaterialistic and humble by choice.  Sabi means ‘in the bloom of time’ – a phrase I personally love as it makes me think not just of gardens but also of beautifully being pregnant or aging gracefully, and it eludes to having patience for everything to work out (as it always does – eventually). 

Neither wabi-sabi nor industrial style has time for ostentation, pretense, or artifice.  Industrial style loses these things for the sake of practicality and hardworking proletarian usefulness. Wabi Sabi rejects them in a near spiritual desire to live outside of the mainstream – to enjoy a life that finds beauty in imperfection and sagacity in nature.  Industrial style requires upcycling (they just don’t make things as they used to), and wabi-sabi accepts the natural process of growth, decay, and death in a simple, slow, uncluttered, and authentic way.  Find the joy in utilitarian surfaces, stripped back architecture, and salvaged objects.  Together, they create a style that is simple, clean, modest, and effortlessly chic.

How Dan Achieved Wabi Sabi Style in this San Francisco Front Garden

recycled wooden garden wall
The Garden wall is clad in recycled wood.

Dan’s front garden is adjacent to his design shop FLIPP! in urban San Francisco.  When he took over the building, there were remnants of a garden in a narrow alley-like space left by the original owner (a turn-of-the-century longshoreman in San Francisco) scattered throughout. 

garden statues
A collection of garden statues and found art sculpture find a home beneath a tree.

A found collection of stone and concrete statues was resurrected and restored, and they still grace the garden.  But the wooden wall is the main focal point of the garden.  It was constructed of redwood wall lathes that were salvaged when some of the interior walls were torn down.  The asymmetrical lined pattern was inspired by a collapsed barn in nearby Sonoma County, and they do an excellent job of keeping the focus at eye level rather than feeling closed in by the large imposing building behind it. 

Dan is a former watchmaker, and the garden is a direct reflection of his fascination with working objects and interesting relics, and the spirit of wabi-sabi beauty.  The ever-changing collection celebrates fun and funky objects that always have a back story.

dan kowalski

“I love things that are used…objects retain and transport the energy of what they once were, and you can still feel that.”

– Dan Kowalski

Tips for Embracing upcycled and Wabi Sabi garden design style

Embrace Salvaged Beauty

Shun conspicuous consumerism and opt for humble materials.  Gritty beauty is found in recycled metals, weathered wood, and ceramics.  When these pieces find a home among plants in the garden, they instill a sense of constancy.  Just be careful to keep things clean and orderly so this look doesn’t become messy or slovenly.

stone lion face in clover
A stone lion’s face peak out from a bed of purple clover in this wabi sabi sculpture garden.

Let Stone and Materials Speak Their History

Cracks and crevices, the marks of time, the weather, and marks of loving use can be seen in left in stone.  Stone is uniquely made by nature rather than industrial manufacturing processes and stone universally symbolizes longevity and memory. When used in design, it is an anchor for everything around it and brings with it an austere beauty. Stone embodies the same value as wabi-sabi – embracing the beauty that time and uses convey.

Choose Unadorned Form & Function

Clarity of thought and space is just one benefit of a Wabi- Sabi way of life.  Keep things simple and clean as an act of respect.  Furniture and plants that are lovingly cared for can evolve a patina and age gracefully.  Keep it uncluttered so you can appreciate the details. 

tin can planted house number
Numbered Pots help shop customers communicate which succulent they want to purchase. I think this could also be a great alternative to a typical house number.
san francisco front garden
The Front garden of the San Francisco-based plant shop is full of treasures.

Pieces of cut bamboo are strung together like a necklace and are draped over the tree branch to create a textural feature that compels you to reach out and touch.  Filigree-cut tin cans become pretty lanterns.  When paired with stoneware and painted rocks, a beautiful centerpiece is created. 

fox statues in garden
Recycled wood covers the wall of the garden to create a striking artistic surprise.

There are so many interesting ideas here.  The wooden wall, made of recycled materials, is a stunning labor of love and truly a work of art. 

The mirrors with little wooden plant shelves in front are an exciting touch but what I really like is the bamboo strings permanently attached to and dangling from the tree.  I just want to reach out and run my fingers through them – What a great idea for the garden!

wabi sabi style garden
The wabi sabi style garden celebrates the aged, the warn and the textural earthy nature of many garden elements.
recycled garden wall
Vintage sign letters spell out the word garden on the reclaimed wood wall.

If you would like more Wabi -Sabi and industrial garden design inspiration – I have a whole board on Pinterest dedicated to this style and helping to capture the look.

Other San Francisco, Wabi Sabi and Industrial style garden posts:

All images provided by Dan Kowalski or via Seedbyte. Garden Found via Delphine over at Paradis Express.

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