Article 10 – ‘Selecting the correct pot or container’

Before we commence with the discussion on pots or containers, perhaps the following perspective might be of assistance in the interests of saving money.

Potential bonsai specimens purchased from a store, garden centre, nursery or indeed other sources will need training to suit a particular design. Sometimes, they are accompanied by a mundane ceramic pot, which is mass produced. Buying a more expensive pot purely for cosmetic values is a needles expense, because the design of your tree may change over time and probably will not suit or fit into that particular pot. Therefore, one buys another pot Ad infinitum resulting in a stack of pots that are redundant.

A potential bonsai regardless of its origin needs space to grow, to develop its root system, trunk girth, branches and ramification and it cannot do this if restricted in a pot. The solution is to make boxes out of chemically free scrap wood and old pallets usually free from a builders or timber merchant are ideal for this purpose.

The box can be made in any size to suit your needs for example, 30cm x 30cm x 25cm deep, but it will require plenty of drainage holes that are covered with plastic mesh to stop the soil from escaping. Such mesh can be the sort used to protect small trees from animals and can be found in most stores and garden centres and is inexpensive. Furthermore, this mesh is also ideal for covering the drainage holes of bonsai pots.

Wooden box

Pine in a box

The benefit of a box is that it gives plenty of room for ‘root-run’ establishing a strong and healthy root system needed for good Nebari. In addition, guy wires can be placed anywhere for stability and to aid in the tree’s design, which cannot be done if in a ceramic pot. Moreover, if undisturbed for example three years this will allow the tree to develop more quickly. In reality, a bonsai does not need a pot until it is at least 80% near to its final design and there is an important reason for this consensus.

A bonsai is a ‘living’ work of art and can be likened to a picture just like the work of Rubens, Goya and Rembrandt. These masterpieces are incorporated into heavy gilt frames to emphasize their meaning and message. Now imagine if we substituted the gilt frame for a plain satin finished aluminum one, the whole design frame and painting would be out of context losing its magnetism. Bonsai has exactly the same principle, the tree is the picture and the pot is the frame and both have to compliment each other in order to accentuate the overall composition.

But knowing which pot to select is not as easy as it may seem, because a tree in the wrong pot can actually lessen the visual impact diminishing the tree’s full potential. Alternatively, a tree in the right pot will look quite remarkable. Then how do we find the right pot?

Bonsai pots can be relatively cheap to buy as in for example those made in China and Korea, whereas Japanese and hand made pots tend to be more expensive. For example the small cream Japanese glazed oval used in the Tanuki experiment (See bonsai styles part I) was bought in 1975 for about the equivalent of about 20€ and if purchased today, would cost 6 times as much. In addition, there exist a large variety of shapes, sizes, glazed and un-glazed pots available. Therefore, when choosing a pot it is wise to examine the tree’s design, colour of leaves and bark and whether the tree is a conifer or a deciduous including those that fruit and or flower.

Generally speaking, the accepted rule is that un-glazed pots are for conifers, whilst glazed pots are for deciduous, but as you are the artist/designer the final decision is down to your own personal tastes. Nevertheless, to arrive at a suitable conclusion when selecting a pot, there are some points that may assist for example. The tree itself, pot shape, dimension, colour and texture.

In the articles ‘bonsai styles’ there were a selection of illustrations depicting various styles and from these we are able to determine if a tree is masculine or feminine for example.

A tree that gives an impression of strength through its large trunk and mature weather beaten nature, strong canopy including any deadwood it may have can be considered as masculine and Pines are a good example of this.

Alternatively, a tree having a more delicate appearance via its trunk’s gentle taper and delicate foliage can be viewed as feminine, such examples of this are the weeping silver birch Betula pendula and Acer Acer palmatum.

But some trees are able to project both masculine and feminine appearances for example. The Rowan Sorbus aucuparia with its bright red/orange berries may have good movement in its trunk, but has fine ramification at its apex can be considered to have both male and female attributes. Therefore, when selecting a pot one must consider both these characteristics.

Pot shape and dimension – are also considered to have masculine or feminine attributes for example. Deep pots with strong angular features are considered masculine whilst feminine pots are shallower with softer lines. The following images illustrate this meaning, 1. a deep rectangle pot with strong robust corners giving the impression of strength is especially suited to Pines, whereas 2. has delicate rounded lines suitable for flowering/fruiting trees such as Cherry or Quince. Alternatively, trees having wide canopies that may be considered neither masculine or feminine for example a Beech, are best suited to a wider shallower pots 3.


Other factors considered appropriate are the dimensions of a pot in relation to its tree for example. The depth of the pot should equal the diameter of the trunk just above soil level. For rectangular and oval pots, the size should be approximately the height of the tree. For round pots it should be about the tree’s height.

The colour and texture – of a pot can be used to enhance a tree’s particular feature for example, an un-glazed brown pot can highlight the ‘craggy’ brown bark of a Pine. Pinus sylvestris, a dark blue glazed pot could be used to emphasise the red berries on a Cotoneaster Cotoneaster frigidus a green glazed pot would enhance the leaves on a Beech. Fagus sylvatica. From these examples we see how a pot’s colour can be used to depict a tree’s particular feature.

Pot texture – For masculine pots textured finishes are ideal as they enhance the wildness of a tree’s rugged appearance however, some contend that a smooth textured unglazed brown pot is able to enhance the tree’s ruggedness even further. Pots with smooth finishes are more suited to feminine trees because their glazing highlights the tree’s feminine attributes. For trees that are considered neither masculine nor feminine should be in pots that enhance their best characteristics either glazed or un-glazed.

Referring back to the comments made earlier regarding the paintings of old masters (Rubens, Goya and Rembrandt) and of how both frame and picture compliment each other and that a bonsai in its pot is viewed in the same way; well this is what we try to achieve when combining a tree with a pot. But having said this, as you are the artist it is your decision when selecting a pot for your tree – what you believe to be ascetically right.

Nonetheless, one factor that is crucial when planting a tree in a pot is its position, meaning how it will look. In most cases all bonsai apart from semi-cascades and cascades styles are seldom positioned in the centre of the pot. They are positioned slightly to one side in order to achieve visual perspective and correct alignment. The illustration given below explains the importance of this.

In the next post we discuss the topic of selecting material for bonsai. So until next time. BW, N.


wrong position

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