Container Selection

We had a great time at the last meeting talking about containers for bonsai. The only real problem being that we ran way short of time. Things were just heating up when we had to quit, so I thought I would elaborate a bit moreon the principles that we talked about.  

First of all, we talked about soil volume. Be acutely aware of your trees needs. An inch in width, and especially depth, can almost double the actual volume of soil that the roots have to occupy, or conversely, halve it. On more mature trees, the expansive root base can take up a lot of the space in a pot without really contributing to the feeding root mass of the tree. Sometimes we have only an inch or two around the edge of the pot and a little below the base to work with. We have to be respectful of the tree’s needs and weigh in our abilities to care for the tree properly. That really cool pot might mean that we need to water the tree an extra time each day, but without that pot, the tree may not realize its full potential. So select carefully and know your skill level.

Next, we talked about the differences between masculine and feminine characteristics in pots. Is the pot rugged and strong or elegant and graceful? All of these are relative terms and paying attention to these characteristics will help us bring out the best in each tree. There is no magic formula, and if there were, it would just lead us to the land of boredom. Maximizing the best attributes in any tree may mean using a pot to contrast the color and shape of the bonsai, or harmonize with it. Certainly there will be some kind of difference between container and tree, and we can control the amount of difference. Some examples of contrast might be using a blue colored pot to set off orange colored blossoms. The brighter the blue, the more the contrast between pot and flowers. A dark, navy blue makes the contrast more subdued and refined. The difference is a matter of taste.  

For another example, let’s take a wild, collected juniper. Would you like to accentuate its movement by planting it on an equally rugged lava rock, or contrast the wildness with a stable, smooth-sided ceramic pot? Both can be invigorating and work very nicely, but you, as the artist, have to decide what kind of story you want to tell, and how you are going to tell it. The more showy the tree, whether it be colorful flowers, or fantastical deadwood, the more adventuresome the pot can be to go with it. Here is where I go back to the definition of a bonsai. A tree in a tray – not a tray holding a tree. Get the difference? The emphasis should always be on the tree, or composition and not the container. We have some great containers out there now, but they can often demand all the attention. The best containers are those that work synergistically with the tree to create something greater than either could be by themselves.  

After talking with some of you following the meeting, there were some thoughts that bear going over and clarifying. When thinking about pots and their overall feel, there is a hierarchy.  
If you forget, just go to any website with bonsai pots and it will remind you by the way they are organized. Number one – glazed or unglazed. Seems obvious, but this is usually the first distinction. Number two – the shape of the pot. This is the way that it appears from above, not the side. Square, rectangle, oval, round, etc… And the endless variations after that. Thirdly – the side profile. Does it have straight sides, angled sides, or curved sides? So a round pot that is generally considered feminine can become very masculine with straight sides, or very sensuous with curved sides. The last part to consider is the decoration. This will include the feet - whether straight, curved, cloud, or otherwise, and any banding or ribbing. We would also consider painted or carved motifs. If you have delicate hand painting on the side of a rectangular, straight-sided pot, it is still very masculine. In fact, you might be sending mixed signals.  

This brings us down to the question of taste. You as the bonsai artist get to decide what you like and don’t like. Of course, you can follow all the principles I just laid out and come out with some great trees. But it may not be what really inspires you. Taste within the bonsai world ebbs and flows. I know they do in mine. What I value changes over time. Can you imagine wearing double-knit polyester pants with a silk shirt now? Or a mullet hair cut? So don’t be afraid to let things change and evolve. Even the Japanese are not doing things exactly the same way they did ten or twenty years ago. And certainly they do not have our cultural heritage and references. We have different trees and a different culture, so naturally things are going to look different here. Let’s not settle for just copying but creating something new.  

Remember, Photoshop is your friend. And a bonsai friend is an even better friend. Don’t be afraid to try a new pot with Photoshop if you have the skills. But better yet, get some help. I rely on my wife’s keen eye quite a bit for selecting pots. She has great instincts and spots some of the aspects I have missed or chosen to ignore, that maybe I should reconsider. And then there are those times that I just do what I feel is correct. Matching trees to containers is one of my favorite aspects of bonsai. I am constantly amazed by the differences that a change of pot can make. It is sort of like coming in from a day of digging ditches in the mud. We take a shower and shave, do our hair, etc… But then we put on some nice clean clothes – maybe our favorite t -shirt and a pair of jeans, or maybe nice pants and a jacket for a night on the town. The clothes make the man and the pot makes the tree. Containers don’t change the actual bonsai anymore than clothes change a person, but they present a different aspect of the same soul. Happy potting!

Scott