A few weeks ago I was interviewed about keshiki bonsai for a short piece in NZ House and Garden. Thanks to the very nice folks there.

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article, NZ House and Garden

Here I thought I would expand a little on what I said, and include some of what did not appear in the piece, having to do with what I specifically like about ‘the potted plant.’

The potting of plants came about, no doubt, because of a desire to have plants somewhere where there is no earth to put them in. Indoors, for example, or on a deck or patio. For the same reason, it’s not a great look to have potted plants sitting on grass or other surfaces that look perfectly suitable for planting. It makes the pot look superfluous.

At the same time, there is an aesthetic to the potted plant that goes beyond this ‘out-of-the-ground’ functionality. I like pots because they frame a plant, whereas when in the ground, a plant loses some of its individuality – as it becomes part of the larger landscape.

Pots can be beautiful in their own right, but that is not the point here. Consider the example of bonsai. Here the emphasis is on trees (versus other plant types), usually placed in relatively small and shallow pots. The particulars of bonsai can overshadow a more general desire, which is to remove the plant from the wild or natural setting and place it in a controlled setting – again, to frame it  up.

When applied to the potting of plants generally, bonsai and related disciplines (like the Chinese penjing) remind us that we can made a composition out of ‘plant’ and ‘pot’, regardless of whether or not we prune the plant in some kind of ‘bonsai style.’

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Not a bonsai

In this sense, bonsais are not a closed off area of plant enthusiasm, and there is much to learn about styling our composition from the school of bonsai even if we don’t do ‘bonsai’ (more on this in a later post).

Of course there’s also more to plant life than trees. My interest is in potted plants of all sizes, and not just bonsais. I do lots with grasses (including bamboo), succulents, cacti, et cetera, with an emphasis on individual examples that have a unique appearance.

Often people who do ‘bonsai’ have little interest in plants otherwise, and vice-versa. This seems quite artificial to me. Bonsai are just a type of potted plant and we should not think of it as so specialised (and equally demanding). I don’t care too too much about the ‘rules’ of bonsai in part because I do plants for myself, but also because I want my plants to be enjoyed by people generally. Wouldn’t it be odd if a painter only exhibited his or her art to painters, yet that’s what bonsai enthusiasts typically do, especially in the west.

I particularly like the small ‘keshiki’ bonsai because they create a little landscape or scene all on their own. They can be a real eye-full for something so small. They require a bit of attention, but as they mature they change, and the experience of witnessing this is rewarding, even from week to week.