Faux Bonsai

by John Tullock

Gardeners with even a passing interest in Japanese gardening always notice bonsai -- potted trees maintained in miniature by a combination of pruning and careful cultivation. Unfortunately for gardeners of average means, genuine examples of bonsai, which can be decades or even centuries old, can cost hundreds (or thousands) of dollars. The art of creating bonsai can be practiced at home, but it is a rigorous and meticulous craft. Not everyone may have the time to develop basic skills, much less become a master.

For those willing to settle for something a bit less demanding (and far less costly) than the real thing, trees that remain tiny on account of their biology may be incorporated into container gardens that evoke actual bonsai. Such "faux bonsai," as I like to call them, can be put together in an afternoon for under $50, and will provide enjoyment for years on a care regime to which any gardener can adhere.

First, choose an appropriate container. The larger the container in relation to the tree, the smaller the tree will appear, and the greater become the possibilities for a natural-looking miniature landscape. Although it does not matter to the tree, a design motif that suggests the Far East will emphasize the "bonsai" message. Note, however, that containers designed for true bonsai are usually a bit shallower than the ideal size for a genetic dwarf evergreen. About halfway between bonsai pot depth and standard pot depth is an oft-repeated suggestion.

Any companion plants you include in the same container should be in proportion to the dwarf evergreen, in order to complete the illusion. Pay attention to leaf size. Plants with tiny leaves, such as are found on mosses, look better than those with larger leaves. Among the better choices are thymes and small-leaved sedums, which, along with mosses can weather the outdoors alongside the evergreen.

Usually, include not more than three types of plants per container, lest you run the risk of the whole thing looking busy. The dwarf evergreen itself, a suitable ground cover, and perhaps a third selection should complete your palette. The role of the third plant would be to play second fiddle to the main attraction. Thus, if you choose an upright, conical evergreen as the main focus for the design, select a low, mounding one as the complement. The same effect, creating a natural-looking setting for the dwarf evergreen, can also be achieved by including rocks, pebbles and even miniature statuary in the scheme. All such items should remain in proportion with the overall design. Pebbles can replace some or all of the ground cover. Choose smooth ones to evoke water, rough crushed stone to suggest a mountainous landscape. Faux mountains, of course, can be created via clever placement of rocks. Choose rough, broken pieces to suggest mountain crags, and look for materials with dark green, charcoal gray or black coloration. To produce the impression of a woodland streamside setting, use smooth stones in pale, creamy tones or earthy tans and reddish brown hues. A tiny Japanese lantern or stone Buddha can be the perfect finishing touch, but avoid the temptation to add too much to a smaller pot. If using more than one material, try to achieve textural contrast. Create rugged "mountains" with a "stream" of tiny, smooth gravel at its base. Rock groupings, by the way, will look best if you choose odd numbers of pieces and have no two pieces exactly the same size. Avoid symmetrical placement, or the whole arrangement will appear unnatural.

Planting a container with a dwarf evergreen is easy. Use a well-drained mix. I prefer to add extra perlite to bagged commercial potting mix. Offset the tree to one side if using an oblong or oval container; center the tree in a square or round container. Set the plant at the same level as it was growing in the nursery pot, or slightly higher. Don't bury the crown. Trim any dead or broken branches, and loosen and trim roots that have circled the container. Fill in the soil to hold the plant in position, then place any large stones you may be using. If the base of the stone is buried, it will look better than if it is merely placed on the surface. Add more soil, firming it gently with your fingers. Don't fill the container to the rim if you will be adding a gravel mulch. Add secondary plants and ground cover as desired, then finish with the mulch, if using. Granite chips, widely sold for poultry grit, make an excellent mulch, or you can use crushed lava rock or any other type of crushed stone. Avoid limestone or marble chips, however, as they will raise the soil pH, something most evergreens dislike.

Generally, care of a dwarf evergreen is the same as for its full-size counterpart, except that very little fertilization is necessary. This is because the growth rate of dwarf evergreens is extremely slow and thus they require very little food. Incorporating a timed-release fertilizer into the potting mix, at one-quarter the recommended rate, is sufficient for two or three years, after which time the plant should be repotted in fresh mix.

Water only when the soil is dry. Overwatering is as likely to cause problems as underwatering. Protect plants from hot afternoon sun, but generally expose them to as much sunshine as possible. During hot, dry weather, daily syringing the plants with a garden hose is a good idea. As a rule, however, dwarf evergreens are carefree, and the ground covers suggested above should respond well to the same conditions.

Some good choices for faux bonsai include:

Pinus mugo 'Paul's Dwarf' (Mugo pine) — A replica in miniature of its famed, often-overused, full-size cousin, this tree should have lower branches removed to expose the trunk and its scaly bark.

Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Nana Gracilis' (Hinoki cypress) — Century-old specimens of this form of the Japanese garden standard barely exceed 12 feet in height.

Cotoneaster dammeri 'Streib's Findling' (dwarf cotoneaster) — This dwarf form of the garden standard shrub sports coral-red berries in fall and winter. Its mounding habit and tiny, flat, serrated leaves make it the perfect foil for a tall conifer in the same pot.

Thuja orientalis 'Morgan' (dwarf arborvitae) — A diminutive version of the widely used landscape plant, 'Morgan' develops a lovely red-brown color during winter. During warm weather, the yellow-green foliage almost glows. Careful pruning of lower branches exposes the trunk, creating the impression of a much older, taller tree.

Tsuga canadensis 'Canby' (Canadian hemlock) — Dark green foliage and a preference for damp partial shade set this hemlock apart from many other dwarf evergreens.

Just about any other commonly grown evergreen tree can be found represented among the ranks of dwarf evergreens. The popularity of these plants has led to the development of dozens of cultivars, too, as an Internet search on "dwarf evergreen tree" will quickly reveal. Widely propagated by specialty nurseries, dwarf evergreens can be found in many garden centers during the growing season. Expect to pay around fifteen dollars ($15) for a well-grown plant. Specialists may offer extremely rare or unusual cultivars for considerably more.

Create your own faux bonsai by choosing a suitable dwarf evergreen and pairing it with other plants in a Far Eastern-motif container. Add rocks, a decorative mulch or even tiny statuary to complete the illusion of a natural landscape in miniature. With the kind of care anyone can manage, your faux bonsai will quickly rival the finicky and costly genuine article in its beauty and garden appeal.

Faux Bonsai Design Guidelines

  • Select an appropriate container
  • Keep companion plants in proportion
  • Include not more than three types of plants per container
  • Keep decorative items in proportion
  • Keep it simple
  • Choose materials to provide textural contrast
  • (Click on any photo to enlarge)


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