Archives for category: Technique

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.

Screen Shot 2015-02-10 at 7.23.01 PM

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.’

Screen Shot 2015-02-10 at 7.59.38 PM

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.


One giant succulent container


One method of creating succulent containers is to start out big. For a large pot I’ve used everything from large pots to styrofoam containers to shallow wooden boxes and ceramic bird feeders. In it, you allow many succulents to grow and to clump together.


Many from one


Once that’s achieved (6 to 18 months later), you then break up the whole into parts that you then re-pot. In the example here, one big pot of succulents became about 15, including one that’s medium size. Each has three to seven succulents in them that can now fill in the pot, with future pruning finishing off the creation.



One example of the many




The jade plant can be nice, but it can also be an overgrown mess. I see them for sale and the main attribute that’s usually considered for merit is the size. But size is meaningless when the plant becomes a massive jungle of branches, many thin with weak growth, with uncontrolled suckers hiding the trunk. This is the result of the plant never being pruned, of course.

Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 6.22.34 PM

Example of what could have been a great jade but instead is a horrible mess.


Here’s a nice example, which was being sold under the banner “Huge Jade Plant”

Screen Shot 2014-09-17 at 7.41.58 PM

‘leggy’ example


Here’s another example, note how very leggy the branches are



For me the Jade has been a good instructor for pruning. Focus on cutting out the undergrowth and weak branches, so that you have a nicely shaped top canopy of dense, healthy foliage growing off of thick solid branches. Branches should be visible and attractive. You should not see a mass of branches and relatively few leaves, however.

You can also bonsai the bonsai and I’ll post an example of that soon (done, see bottom image). Essentially this just means cutting away branches so that the remaining ones create distinct levels of growth on main branches circling 360-degrees as they move up the trunk. The example to the left has just a single umbrella canopy so it is not a good example of the bonsai style.

Some of this is just preferences or aesthetics, but the goal of a good potted plant cannot just be it’s size. Pruning matters. Fortunately, the Jade responds well to radical pruning, so if your Jades have run amok, or you want to try your hand at plant rehabilitation, give it a go and see whether you like the results.


different angle


a larger Jade from the garden; about a meter tall from the top of the pot to the top of the plant


Jade bonsai example from the garden added – at bottom (last image)


Bonsai-ed Jade


%d bloggers like this: