Pot Selection

Compiled By Jan Hettick

The first consideration in selecting the "right" pot for your tree is identifying the tree's stage of development. At the February 2004 meeting, Anne Spencer explained that in the first stage of bonsai development the tree is grown at a medium-fast rate to its ultimate size (according to your PLAN for the tree), concentrating on developing good roots, branching structure and tree form. Every time you repot, put the tree into a larger sized pot to allow for development of a larger trunk and root system. During this stage the kind of pot is not important - wooden box, plastic pot, mica pot, almost anything that will hold soil and allow for drainage. Do not even consider an "artistically correct" pot during the first stage of bonsai development.

After you've reached your goal for ultimate trunk size, you begin to repot into smaller pots to slow growth. By the end of the first stage, creation scars are healed. The second stage concentrates on development of permanent branches and defining the apex, while at the same time, you undergo the gradual process of reducing the root system.

In the third stage of development, the goal is to create fine branch ramification. By this stage the trunk and roots are the right size and fit well into an appropriate pot. We can now consider guidelines for selecting the artistically correct pot to complete your composition. There are many tools available to help select the right size pot. One is the Fibonacci sequence, a series of numbers that define the basic architecture of nature. A more simple "rule of thumb" is that the length of the pot is roughly 2/3 of the tree height of the tree OR spread of the foliage (depending on if you want to emphasize height or spread), and the depth of the pot is roughly equivalent to the diameter of the trunk just above the rootage. There are several good books on the subject, including one by David DeGroot, Bonsai Design, which should be in every bonsai artist's collection. Remember... horticultural needs of the plants overrule the use of the artistically sized pot. Will the size or depth of the container be adequate to maintain the tree in a healthy and vigorous state?

Michael Hagedorn, potter and bonsai artist, showed us this method of pot selection at the 2003 PNBCA conference. Instead of approaching the problem from the perspective of the tree (think lists of pots "suitable" for thus-and-such style tree), this method is taken from the perspective of the pot. When you learn to analyze the characteristics of the pot, you can more easily match your pot with the appropriate tree. The following chart is a tool for categorizing pot characteristics. Please understand the positions of styles on the chart is not absolute - many factors interact to define a pot, and the chart is used only to help identify the general characteristics of a pot. The left side of the chart represents FORMAL, the right INFORMAL, and in the center is NEUTRAL.

According to Michael, the most formal pot shape, as seen from the top, is the rectangle, placed on the extreme left of the chart. The square is slightly less formal than the rectangle. On the other side, the most informal shape might be the irregular slab, then the "nonbon" (a rather squished shape pot, originally used in Japan for feeding ducks). The most neutral shape would be the oval, with the round pot slightly less formal and the rectangle with soft, rounded sides slightly more formal. The hexagonal or octagonal pots, with their angular sides, would be more formal than the oval, while a petal or lotus pot would be less formal.

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The next section rates side shapes. On the formal side are straight sides, then slanted sides. On the informal side would be the moon pot and the slab. Concave sided pots can be formal or informal, depending on the degree of slope. A convex, round-sided pot would be more neutral, as would the straight or sloping side with rounded corners - the formality of the side is softened by the curve.

In considering ornamentation from this perspective, look at lips, ridges, side panels, feet, texture, etc. Thick lips on stout rectangular pots are more formal than thinner lips; plain panels are more formal than panels with ornate decoration. Drum pots can be formal or informal, depending on complexity and other ornamentation, such as ridges. Heavy feet that appear as part of the side of the pot are on the formal side, more formal than feet added to the bottom, or stepped feet. Cloud feet, with their more irregular outline, tend toward the less formal. Delicate feet, such as points, are on the informal side, as are pots with NO feet. Texture is also significant; a heavy, coarse texture would match a more powerful, formal tree while a smooth surface might better match a less formal, more graceful tree. Again, we're talking CONCEPTS here, and can't hope to show all details and variations.

Bonsai trees can be described using the same criteria as the pot shapes identified above. On the formal side, probably the most formal, is black pine. Other pines are somewhat less formal. Clumps tend to be informal, such as quince or Japanese maples, and forests. Fruit and flowering trees are generally more informal than formal. Needle junipers and most conifers tend toward formal, while elms and shimpakus are less formal. Tridents and corkbark trees are toward the formal side. Boxwood, umes, malus and other deciduous trees are more neutral to informal. Remember, these are guidelines, and there are exceptions to every rule.

Other characteristics to consider (think mood here, or attitude) include things like MASCULINE vs. FEMININE, or angular lines vs. flowing curves. Strong vs. delicate. Powerful vs. quiet. Old vs. young. Consider also that pot color can be warm vs. cool, or dark vs. light.

The point of this article is not to quote all the rules of pot selection, but to offer an alternative approach to the LOGIC of pot selection. As you read other, more official and knowledgeable texts, keep in mind that pots tell their own side of the story, and keep in mind Michael Hagedorn's advice:

Think of the tree as the NOUN and the pot as the ADJECTIVE.  The four visual elements define a pot's style and character. 

Line: is either horizontal or vertical, depending on whether the container is shallow or deep. 

Form: the overall shape, round, square, oval, etc.

Texture: the presence or absence of lines, panels or other surface decorations, the treatment of the foot and grain of the finish.

Color: the color of the fired clay or glaze.

Every bonsai has 4 visual elements: Line, form, texture, and color

Line:
-Upright and semi-upright styles: the horizontal line of the container helps balance the vertical line of the tree; shallow container.
-Cascade & semi-cascade styles: trunk lines run nearer the horizontal than the vertical. Deep pot provides a vertical element to balance the generally horizontal movement of most cascades, so there is enough visual mass for good balance.

Form: The overall shape of the tree (rounded, oval, triangular, etc.)
-Taken together, line and form of a tree indicate the proper shape of the pot: straight, formal, or strong angular trunk lines and triangular foliage shapes get angular pots (square, rectangular, hex. etc.)
-Curved lines or rounded foliage gets pot with rounded contours (round, oval, lotus, cloud feet, etc.)
-A double trunk tree gets pot edged by a double raised line.
-Trees with a lot of motion in trunk lines (bunjin, cascade, strongly slanting) are put in symmetrical pots (visually static) which give a stable rather than a dynamic feeling, and help visually anchor the very active trees. 

Texture: The container reflects the texture of the tree it contains.
-Rugged tree = rugged pot.
-Smooth texture =smooth, undecorated

COLOR: Complicated. What aspect of tree is most important? Bark, foliage, dead wood, flowers, fruit, autumn foliage?.

Intensity:
-
Dark colored pots-visual weight balances heavy crowns.
-Light colored pots-lighter visual weight, doesn't overwhelm delicate tree.
-Warm colors provide feeling of warmth, comfort, energy.
-Cool colors balance and refresh the color scheme.

Unglazed earth tone pots (brown, gray, tan, red, bluish gray (purple?) are appropriate for any tree, esp. conifers.

Pot color can harmonize, using one of tree's own colors. Little visual interest? Calm?

Contrasting colors are those near to each other on the color wheel. They can contrast in both color (warm vs. cool) and shade (light vs. dark) e.g. red berries with blue pot, etc. Greater impact? Blue with green, green with yellow.

Complementary (opposite) colors: Usually for smaller size bonsai. Colors of equal intensity but the negative of each other. (Straight across on a color wheel. e.g. yellow-purple, red-green, blue-orange.) e.g forsythia in purple pot.


A pot is the bon for the sai. It could be a natural stone slab, or a slab like Lee Cheatle makes, an antique Chinese or Japanese pot, or a fired clay pot from one of the world's numerous kilns. It could be a shallow marble or soapstone container. There are pots from all over the world available to us. We want you to think of the tree as the noun and the pot as the adjective. The pot completes the picture you are trying to make. A bonsai is not a bonsai without its container.