Pots and Tools
Researching a Proper Pot
| Color Wheel | Pot Preparation
Nanci Strickland, Former Club President
Most bonsai pots first
in China and Japan.
A few were from
Korea, Taiwan and
Southern Asia. Some were made in Holland and
Portugal and imported to
Japan. Soon after World War II, Japan
production of bonsai pots. China and Korea were
producing some but in
very small quantities. Since bonsai has become so
popular all over the
world, some of the other countries have begun to
their own pots including
the United States.
John Naka, Bonsai Techniques I and Bonsai Techniques II
The Japanese Art of Miniature Trees
David De Groot,
Basic Bonsai Design
& Neil Sutherland, Growing &
Ken Norman, Create Your Own Bonsai – 50
Penjing, The Chinese Art of
Peter Chan, The Complete Book of Bonsai Principles and
Koreshoff, Bonsai Its Art, Science,
History and Philosophy
Chinese Pots History
Chinese started making
porcelain containers in the Sung Dynasty
(420– 479 A.D.), Yuan
(1260 – 1368 A.D.), and the Ming dynasty
(1369– 1644 A.D.). These
magnificent pieces and treasured as an antique collection,
but were not used for plants. It
was in the
late Ming dynasty to the Ching dynasty (1645-1912 A.D.), when
started using them for plants.
The city of Yixing,
is located on the west bank of Lake Tai Hu. The
area has a
special clay for pottery called purple sand. There are
several kilns in this area and
all of them combined
are known as the Yixing kilns.
Most of the pots fired in
this area wre unglazed earthenware. These
were made in the period of Kangxi (1662-1722), Yongzheng (1723-1735),
and Qianlong (1736-1795) and produced some of the most popular and known
unglazed containers. During
the period of
Jiaqing (1796-1820) through Xuantong (1909-1911),
which is equivalent to the Meiji period (1869-1911) in Japan, the
Japanese imported their pottery from the Yixing kilns, and
continued to do so until the
outbreak of World War II.
history, during the Yamato era (538 A.D.),
Buddhism was brought into Japan from China and with it the existing
primitive potter. Later many Japanese priests and scholars visited
China and brought back this ceramic culture too. During the Kamakura
period (1192-1319), several Buddhist priests were founding the
different sects of Buddhism. Among their works is a scroll showing a
group planting, arranged with trees and grass in a shallow pot. This is
considered the evidence of the beginning of bonsai in Japan.
In the Muromachi
(1392-1573), there was a famous NOH play called
potted tree”. Caring for potted plants
hobby for the noblemen and Buddhist priests. Toward the end of the
Kamakura period and extending into the Muromachi period (1400-1600),
there were kilns operating in
Tanba, Bizen, Echizen and Seto. These were known
as the six ancient kilns of Japan. During the Edo period (1603-1867),
trade was restricted by Tokugawa Shogunate, so many kilns were
established throughout Japan. These kilns were identified by the name
of the area or the location of the kilns. After the Edo period,
Tokugawa Shogunate returned the government to Emperor Meiji in 1868.
Japan’s trade with foreign countries became wide open again.
Meiji era (1868-1911) was the climax of importing the old Chinese pots.
The glazed earthenware and porcelain became very popular, and it was at
this time that the Japanese discovered the outdoor incense burner that
the Chinese were making. It
was very simple,
unglazed and deep which made it ideal for plants,
so the Japanese ordered some for this purpose. The Chinese people with
their tremendous patience took several months firing these pots at very
low temperatures, using only rice straw for fuel. This is the secret
behind the quality of the Chinese antique pots.
In the meantime,
was greater than the supply, so the Japanese
started making some of
their own. Tokoname is still making bonsai pots.
pots imported into Japan were given specific identification
to indicate the time or period of arrival. The pots that arrived
approximately 200 to 300 years ago were identified as KOWATARI, meaning
old-crossing and are valued today as antique bonsai containers. Pots
imported 60 to 100 years ago during the Meiji era (1869-1911) were
called NAKAWATARI or middle-crossing. There was more variety by then
and the quality was just as good as the KOWATARI and although these are
not “antique”, they are still regarded as being
arriving prior to World War II in the Taisho era (1912-1926) were
identified as SHINWATARE or SHINTO, meaning new-crossing. These were
mass produced in large quantities from 1911 to 1940 due to the increase
in numbers of bonsai enthusiasts in Japan. Pots imported after WWII and
up to today are called SHIN-SHIN-TO, or new-new-crossing. Within the
last few years, the Japanese bonsai people took some of the KOWATARI,
old original pots, back to China (Yixing kilns) to have them
duplicated, and these are also called SHIN-SHIN-TO, the new Chinese
pot. Some of these have been appearing in the different bonsai
nurseries in the United States.
An excellent source
additional information on how to identify
Japanese pots, marks and
seals is John Naka’s book Bonsai
can be divided
into three classes – terracotta,
and porcelain. The difference lies in the ability of different clays to
withstand temperature. Terracotta is fired from 950 to 1100 degrees C,
stoneware from 1100 to 1350 degrees C, porcelain from 1350 to 1400
degrees C and occasionally above that. Clay has to melt a little to
become strong and coherent. Terracotta has a very short range and
usually is not brought to vitrification point. Stoneware is brought to
the vitrification point and water absorption is almost nil. Porcelain
fully vitrified and is a form of glass.
A terracotta pot is
from the horticulturalist’s point
view. It is porous, lets in air to permeate the soil more easily, thus
supplying roots through the porous walls of the pot with needed oxygen.
It dries out quickly giving a headache to the gardener, bu
to the plant. Its drawback is its fragility and garishness of the
Stoneware is stone
pottery. The glazes are beautiful. The gardener
has to be careful when watering plants as the evaporation is proceeding
from the soil surface therefore the soil itself should have as near
perfect draining properties as possible. The stoneware glazed pot is
usually accepted as standard for bonsai hobby. Some are unglazed, made
smooth by polishing very refined clay when in
“leather-hard” state before firing. This type of
usually good looking provided there are no painted designs drawn in a
Porcelain pots are
used for bonsai because most of them have
overglaze enamel decoration. Usually expensive antiques as
collectors’ items, occasionally porcelain pots are used for
flowering plants if it is an older near perfect bonsai worthy of such a
Pots and trays
from stone are usually used for miniature
Western style pots are
being created by potters in unique and
unusual designs, colors, and of numerous materials. Fiberglass is
sometimes used for making very large pots where lightness and strength
are important factors. For the do-it-yourself enthusiast, concrete pots
can be an alternative to proper ceramic ones.
Pots come in all
shapes and sizes ranging from thimble size
to some made for trees over six feet tall. Pots with no holes are
called waterbasins which are used almost exclusively for displaying
rock landscapes or sui-seki, water stones. Collecting pots can also
become a hobby with many collectors only purchasing the small miniature
Researching a Proper Pot
in books and
on computer websites are wonderful tools for
researching the type of container to choose for bonsai. Viewing photos
of the specific tree type to be potted, in the various pots others have
helps to narrow the
selection and make a proper or suitable decision.
Vanbuskirk, owner of
D&L Nursery reminds us of the following basics to keep in mind for
2/3rds tree height = pot length
1/3rd tree height = pot width (turn pot up on its edge)
Once the length is
selected, the width is already determined by the
Trunk diameter = pot
& deciduous) vs. feminine (flowering bonsai)
Unglazed vs. glazed
above basics, branch spread, tree placement in the pot as well as
others are explained very well in "Basic Bonsai Design" by David De
Groot. Selection of pots goes hand in hand with upkeep and
improvement of bonsai. A bonsai pot is an integral part of the
composition and must complement the tree to form a harmonious unit. The
art of bonsai is not just the styling of a tree, it is the comparison
picture of a tree in a pot just as
a painting in its frame. It is necessary to know the relationship
tree and pot. One must compliment the other; the pot should be chosen to
show off the bonsai to the greatest advantage. It is better to err on
of a more subdued pot than to overpower the tree. Never transplant
then shape the tree. After shaping the tree, it can be planted directly
bonsai pot or a temporary growing pot. Always remember that a pot should
be selected for the trained tree. It helps to have an artistic,
philosophic point of view to obtain the best overall effect. Apart from
artistic considerations, one should also think about the horticultural
bonsai, for instance, will the size or depth of the container be
keep the tree in a healthy and vigorous state. Many trees use up the
moisture in the soil at a far greater rate, therefore, needing a deeper
container (e.g. willows, crepe myrtles, alders, wisterias, swamp
Others need a deeper pot in order to produce good flowers and fruit
pomegranates, wisterias, gardenias, camellias).
Every bonsai contains
visual elements – line, form,
and color –
by which we define its style and character. Those same elements
define a container, the line being either horizontal or vertical,
whether the container is shallow or deep; the form being its overall
square, oval, etc.); the texture being the presence or absence of
lines, panels, or other surface decoration, the treatment of the foot
grain of the finish; and color being the color of the fired clay or
between tree and pot is very important and cannot be over
emphasized. The pot should enhance the quality of the tree by being
and refined. It must provide a base solid enough to satisfy the eye,
not dwarf the tree itself. The four main parts to a bonsai pot are the
rim, body, corner and foot. Shape of the pot should relate to the style,
shape or character of the tree. Straight trunk style will balance
better in a
rectangular pot. Curved or soft-lined trunk will look better in an oval,
round, round corner, or rectangular pot. Trees trained in slanting
such as the cascade and the wind-swept, look best in a round or
pot, the trunk planted in the center and the branches sweeping down over
side. Upright trees show to advantage in oval or rectangular pots and
are placed slightly off-center. A tall tree with a slim trunk and
foliage should never be planted in a deep, heavy pot, but such a pot is
excellent for a tree with a thick trunk and dense foliage. Literati
traditionally planted in round in curve pots, but look great in modern
shapes of the pots themselves are really a matter of taste. Although
they are determined to a large extent by convention and fashion, your
personal opinion – what looks right to your eye –
matters in the
end. Remember the Chinese proverb: “rules are for
observance of fools,but
provide guidance for the wise”. So do not follow the rules and
conventions of bonsai too slavishly. There is scope for improvisation in
bonsai, and it is in fact by occasionally breaking these rules and
conventions that true creativity results, to give a new and refreshing
into the art.
must be taken to
plant the bonsai with its best side to the front
and in such a way that the branches harmonize with the shape of the
pot. If the branches are longer at one side than the other, the trunk
is placed off center, giving the longer branches the greater area of
earth to spread over. Following the same principle, the high
point in a group planting should be about one-third from one edge of
the pot. If the pot has three feet, the bonsai is placed so that one
foot is in the middle of the front of the pot, giving symmetry to the
whole; in a cascade style, however, one foot must be directly under the
cascading trunk in order to steady the pot.
Below is a summarized
chart showing the types of trees and the suitable
pot. A few exceptions can be made because of individual taste and
availability, but as a whole they have been tried and tested by the
masters. The shape, (whether round, oval or rectangle), depends on the
tree and the style.
TYPES OF TREES TYPE OF CONTAINERS
Type of Tree
Type of Container
tree with small trunk
tree with large trunk
upright, smooth trunk
lines, simple, shallow
shallow, various shapes
or bright colors, but not gaudy
subdued colors, sturdy
with small leaves
with large leaves
depth to deep
Koreshoff’s book “Bonsai – Its
History and Philosophy" has additional helpful charts for shapes and
colors of containers for various types of trees.
It is not wrong to use
wooden boxes, fiberglass, cement, plastic or
flagstone for temporary pots, but not permanently. These pots are only
temporary because eventually they will deteriorate, whereas ceramic or
earthenware will acquire a beautiful quality with age. There are some
stones or slabs that have the naturalness that can be used in place of
and landscapes look best in shallow natural or
brown trays (oval or rectangular), slabs, or stone. For the clustered
group style where the trees are closely grouped, as though gathered up
in the fist and thrust into the dirt, a circular clump looks well in a
rather ornate hexagonal or petal-shaped dish, which emphasizes the
artificial quality of the tree arrangement, it can also be planted at
the highest point of a gentle slope in an oval dish. A long, narrow
clump of trees in a narrow, rectangular pot should be so arranged that
the tallest tree comes at the focal point.
Pot Color Selection
is an art form
dealing with living trees. The tree is the
primary object and the pot secondary, but the pot must also be
complimentary to the tree. The color of the pot must suit the type of
tree and ought to contrast with the tree. Glazed and unglazed
containers are equally suitable for growing bonsai – just
sure the glaze is not continued on the inside. Pots glazed on the
inside should only be used for water plants or to keep a
roots from attaching to the pot but it is not recommended. A heavy tree
with dark green leaves requires a dark, rich colored pot, but a
delicate, silvery trunk with light green leaves requires a light,
delicately colored pot. Pines and deciduous trees require less showy
pots, those which will not
distract the eye from the
beauty of the tree itself. The dull, unglazed
pots in the subdued neutral colors of reddish, grey or brown are best
for most evergreens. Glazed pots are used mostly for the deciduous
trees. It is always permissible to use unglazed pots for deciduous
bonsai. Some deciduous bonsai should be planted in a larger and deeper
pot because it
will require extra
consideration due to root conditions.
Green pots are
only used for trees with brightly colored flowers, foliage, or fruits.
The flowers, fruits, berries and different shades of foliage need to be
emphasized and considered along with the shape and style of
tree. The pots of flowering or fruit trees are chosen to display the
than the leaves, since it
is then that the bonsai is enjoyed;
consequently, colored pots and pots with a high glaze are often used. A
pastel colored pot is best for bonsai with spring flowers; a dark
colored pot for bonsai with beautiful autumn foliage. For red flowers,
use a green pot. For orange berries, the pot can be blue. Subtle colors
of unglazed earthenware have become popular. Not only do they harmonize
with most plants but the colors bring a philosophical enjoyment and
satisfaction of being close to the earth. Most conifers, deciduous,
flowering or fruit trees will accept the natural colors of theunglazed
pots. A white pot
(not chalky white), but an off-white, such
as ivory, beige, or light gray can be used for non-conifers. A famous
saying in Japan is “Green pine growing in the white
Occasionally pines are planted in white pots for this reason but
normally the unglazed pots are preferred.
purchasing pots, the
following points should be remembered:
the pot is stoneware, which is
front-proof, as opposed to
earthenware, which is not. Earthenware pots will rapidly
disintegrate with the first hard frost. A simple test is to
the unglazed surface of the pot to see if it absorbs the water. If
it does it is earthenware, if the water wipes off
the pot is stoneware.
must be excellent drainage. The holes
should be at least three
times greater in number and size than in a conventional flower pot.
floor of the pot must be level, so that
no pockets of water can
accumulate in the base. Check that there are no
in the corners where the feet are fixed.
All pots must have
feet in order to leave
space for the drained water
to flow away.
pots which are glazed on the inside.
This provides an
inhospitable surface for the roots to adhere to for stability of
the tree and will cause the soil to dry
quickly around the perimeter of the pot.
To assist in determining what pot color to use keep in mind the color wheel
Colors that are contiguous go best for bonsai.
Complimentary colors can be used if appropriate.
That is a Red/Maroon/Brown pot with a tree with green foliage.
A rust or light orange pot could be used with a tree with a blueish foliage.
An orchid colored pot could be used with a tree with yellowish foliage or yellow flowers.
using a new pot, there are a few points that should be checked.
Firstly, while not essential, it is a good idea to soak a new
earthenware (terracotta) pot or one that has been sitting in a dry
storage area for awhile,
for about 30 minutes in
water. The reason for this is that a very dry
or new earthenware pot is likely to draw too much water into itself
before roots can take in the moisture for the newly planted tree.
that the drainage holes in the pot allow the water to
drain out completely – if there is a raised ridge around the
holes, this should be ground down so that water may escape easily.
Finally, when choosing the front of the pot, check which side has the
better color and shape.
Choose the side
that has no warp or scratch marks and make sure that
all the legs of the pot touché the table or floor. If they
don’t, one leg may be supported with some material like
cement and this leg placed at the back. Pot
thoroughly clean your pot inside and out then let it dry to kill any
unwanted bugs, fungi and diseases prior to potting the tree –
even new pots might be considered for this cleaning procedure.
Cover the holes with a
porous material; plastic mesh is good to stop
the soil falling through. This also prevents certain types of unwanted
pests from entering the soil through the holes. Insert wires prior to
potting if you think they might be needed to hold the tree upright in
the pot. Wires can always be removed if not used or not needed. An
alternate to wiring the tree/trees in place is placing stones on top of
the root system, filling dirt underneath the stones; leaving the stones
in place (sometimes several months) until the dirt has settled in
around the roots stabilizing the tree.
putting the plant into the pot, the root system should be examined and
the older roots removed. When the plant is ready for the pot, it must
studied to determine which side is best to face the spectator. If a
rectangular or elliptical container is used, the tree should be planted
toward one end, the right or left according to the shape of the tree;
in either case it should be placed at a point seven-tenths of the
distance from one end just back of the middle. That is the best spot,
not only from an aesthetic point of view, but for trimming, training
and developing the tree.
layer of small stones or coarse grit should be spread over the bottom
of the pot to allow free drainage of excess water. Depending on the
type of tree, this is not always done. When placing the tree in the
pot, it is a good idea to make a mound of soil under the root ball, so
that when you settle the tree down you know the roots will be in good
contact with the soil. Remember to twist the tree round clockwise and
anticlockwise (carefully) when you are potting, because this also helps
to ensure a good contact between roots and soil. When adding the final
amount of soil, work it in carefully around all the roots with a
chopstick to make sure that the soil is in contact around all of the
roots. The tree should be firm in its place, if not, continue to add
soil into “cones” made with the chopstick until the
plant should be watered as soon as it is potted. For a week or more
the pot should be kept in half-shade and foliage sprayed freely; and it
should be placed in the sun half-a-day for four or five days, and after
that exposed to the sun all day.
left to right……..
Rake with spatula*
Paste to seal any ‘cuts’ made on bonsai
There are special tools used in bonsai. Basic work can be done without
purchasing all the tools initially. However, the starred (*) tools
above should be in your tool box.
Basic Bonsai Tools
by David Van Buskirk, Owner of D&L Nursery
first tool you will need for bonsai is a good pair of shears. I use a
Garden Cut Shear for most small branch pruning and a Satsuki Hasami
Shear for leaf removal, and up to small branch pruning. There are many
types of shears in various sizes, as you get more experienced you will
be able to tailor your needs to specific shears. You must keep your
shears clean and sharp. I wipe and oil mine every time I finish the
day. It is easier and better to keep your tools sharp then to let them
dull and have to bring them back to sharpness. A sharp pair of shears
will make a cleaner cut. I do keep an older, duller pair of shears for
when I work on Ficus, it seems they bleed less then when using a sharp
next tool you will need to add to your tool roll, is next to your
shears the most important, a concave cutter. They come in several
sizes, the most useful size to start with is 8" overall length. These
tools are designed for cutting branches flush to the trunk, they will
bite into a branch completely from its base and cut the branch base
flatly, which will promote faster healing with less scarring.
that you have your shears and concave cutters your next tool to add to
your tool roll, oh yeah, you have to get a tool roll to keep them all
in, will be a wire cutter. Bonsai wire cutters have a rounded head so
you can cut right up next to the branch without harming it, also long
handles to easily reach into branches. Wire cutters come in various
sizes, the thickness of the wire dictating the size of cutters. A good
basic size has 3/8"-½" head and is about 8" in overall length.
It is always best to cut the wire off a branch than to try to unwind
it, you don’t want to take the chance of damaging the cambium,
new buds or even worse breaking the branch.
are starting to get a collection of tools you will need to learn how to
care for them. Ever heard the saying, take care of your tools and your
tools will take care of you? The best care for your tools is never
allow them to rust, I clean and oil mine after each use. Keep them
sharp, it is easier and better to keep a sharp edge then to allow the
tool to dull and then try to re-sharpen it. I use a Joshua Roth
tungsten carbide sharpener on my tools, the knives in the kitchen and
every thing that needs an edge. I could probably sharpen my lawnmower
blades with it, it is the best sharpener I have ever used, Oh, and by
the way we sell them. Don’t use the wrong tool for the job,
especially one that is too small, a sure way to chip the cutting edge.
When cutting a large branch, cut in increments, not all at one time.
you have your pruning shears, concave cutters, tool sharpener and tool
roll, the next tool or tools you might want to add is a fork, they are
good for removing soil from the root ball. A root pick for getting in
closer around base and roots you want to keep. Tweezers are another
handy tool, great for pulling weeds, I use them a lot for pinching off
know, you are getting pretty serious and will need to start wiring your
trees, removing the wire will require wire cutters. Bonsai wire
cutters, unlike the wire cutters found in most home tool boxes are
designed specifically for bonsai wire, with a rounded head to prevent
damage to the bark with jaws that cut the wire symmetrically and
cleanly. This allows you to get close to the trunk or branch as you cut
the wire. Wire cutters are available in different sizes and grades. A
good basic cutter is intermediate grade and 8" overall length.
the last tool was a wire cutter now I guess you might need some wire.
Bonsai wire is either copper colored aluminum wire which is the most
commonly used wire or anodized copper wire. Copper wire is mainly used
on Pines and where you need more holding strength. Aluminum wire is
easier to work with and is reusable. Although in most instances it is
advisable to remove the wire from your tree by cutting it off rather
than unwinding it, which could result in bud damage or branch breakage.
root cutter should be next on your tool list. They are specifically
designed for pruning roots during transplanting and re-potting. They
generally come in two sizes around 8"and 11". The straight cutting
blades are much stronger then your concave cutters. This makes it
easier to cut larger roots and branches. You can use the straight
cutting head to push the smaller roots to the side while getting up
into the root ball to remove the larger roots.
also use them for cutting larger branches and removing a larger amount
of wood when carving a trunk down. They will make a flush cut to the
trunk or branch, unlike the concave which gives you a concave cut. A
concave cut will generally heal completely over and eventually
disappear. I will use the root cutter when I want a flush or slightly
raised cut, this will leave a scar showing a branch was there, adds a
to Care for Bonsai Tools
Strickland, Former Club President
for bonsai tools is far easier than trying to work with dull or
rusted ones, and it is cheaper than buying new ones every few years.
You've made a significant investment purchasing bonsai tools for
cultivating and training bonsai. You owe it to yourself to honor your
investment and clean your bonsai tools properly after each use.
inspect your bonsai tools after each use to be sure they are clean and
in good working order. For the most part,
these are sharp instruments and deserve
each bonsai tool of debris and dirt with a cloth. Be gentle and be
careful - the blades are very sharp.
any sap. If the blade on your bonsai shears has sap on it, use a little
soapy water to remove it. Neglecting to remove the sap
will likely cause your bonsai tools to rust.
all difficult stains with a piece of bamboo or a wooden spatula.
Specially made cleaning oils such as 'TriFlow' will help loosen stains
and add lubrication to help the blades resist
rust between gardening jobs.
bonsai tools. Wipe your bonsai tools dry with a clean rag, and then
spray a lubricant on them to protect the metal
corrosion, especially if
you store your bonsai tools in a damp garage or basement. Tools
to constant humidity fluctuations will corrode at an accelerated rate
a rust eraser like Sand Flex to remove light coatings of rust, as they
can affect both the appearance and utility of your bonsai tools. Be
residue is carefully washed and rinsed away.
rust prevention oil. Once the rust is removed, apply a coat of oil to
the newly exposed steel to stop the oxidation process in its tracks.
Bonsai Outlet recommends using TriFlow as it does not attract dust
like other lubricants, however, lubricants such
as '3 in 1' oil or choji oil
will work fine.
Bonsai tools can and should be quite sharp. Handle with care, supervise
children, and instruct them in proper use.