Pots

The Pot is often referred to as the 'Frame' to the bonsai's 'Picture', this is wrong, a bonsai is the bringing together of both in visual harmony.

Choose the pot carefully, and remember that the two of them may be together for a very long time.
Anyone starting a bonsai collection now has a far greater choice of pots than were available ten or so years ago, with some fine potters throughout the world, and bonsai traders being driven by customer demand, and their own ever increasing knowledge.

Selecting the pot for your tree if you are developing either a wild, or nursery stock tree can be a hard choice. The illustration below shows a tree (broom style) in three different pots, the pot on the right is wrong, it's only suited to a cascade, or semi-cascade style tree. The one in the middle is better, a more appropriate width, and about the right depth, but perhaps a rectangle is the wrong shape. The pot on the left I would suggest is the most suitable for this style of tree.

Even when you've got the right shaped pot, you'll need to be careful about the size.

To the right you will see the same formal upright Pine in three different sized versions of the same pot, let's look at which of them is best, and why. (it's a sort of Goldilocks and the three pots!)

This pot is just too big, both too deep, and wide. The tree looks a little lost in the pot, and this will detract from the impression of a massive, mature tree that you are trying to create.

This pot is better, but it's still too wide, and is a bit shallow. Shallow pots tend to dry out quickly, and trees are less stable in them. This lack of stability can damage new roots even if you think the tree is properly wired into the pot.

This one is about right. Its slightly narrower than the tree, and the depth is fine.

Although the example is of a Formal upright tree, the guidelines apply to most single tree, upright styles.

You should not be in too much of a hurry to get your tree into a proper pot, remember that doing so will restrict the roots, and slow down the development of a tree that is still in training. By far the largest number of my own trees are in training pots, generally washing up bowls, when the time comes to show them they're potted up. The temptation, when you have only a few trees to have them in good pots is immense, if you give in to temptation always go for a pot larger than might seem appropriate.

Looking through magazines, and books over the years, and of course visiting exhibitions, I've noticed there is a tendency to pot conifers, particularly Pines in deeper, plainer, darker pots than used for deciduous trees. These pots, often dark brown, and rectangular seem to go well with pines. 

Apart from suiban pots, all pots used in bonsai have drainage holes, often they have smaller holes to pass wire through to secure the tree when repotting

Here we see top and bottom views of a pot ready for a tree. Securing wires have been passed through the holes and a piece of plastic mesh covers the drainage hole..

Here we have a closeup of the mesh and a clip bent from Bonsai wire waiting to go into a pot

Pot Colour

As a rule, Conifers tend to be planted in plain, often earth coloured pots, however deciduous, or flowering trees may be planted in a pot of a colour that complements the tree at a particular time of year. The maple illustrated to the right shows the tree with its normal foliage in a pale blue pot. It looks fine in a pot of this colour, however when the tree takes on its autumn tints, the blue pot and yellow foliage really come together.

The same rule applies to flowering plants, select a pot that suits the time when they are in flower, but still looks good throughout the remainder of the year.

To the left you see the Munsell colour wheel, showing the relationships between both harmonious, and complementary colours. In bonsai we tend to choose pot colours to complement the colours of a tree at a particular time of the year, be that when it's in flower, fruiting, or to enhance autumn colour. The colours shown are the full colour, but of course many pots are available in pastel shades of a particular hue.

The wheel should only be used as a guide, and not taken as a rule. I would also add that these guidelines generally only apply to deciduous trees, or evergreens that flower, or fruit. Conifers are generally planted in pots with earth shades.

Choosing a pot to enhance the 'Mood' of the tree

Try to select a pot that suits what the tree is trying to 'say'. The example above, in a deep grey pot seems to be isolated from the landscape. This is fine on a more formal, or heavier tree, however if you wish to evoke a tree which is in harmony with the landscape, go for a shallower, oval pot .

The width of the pot (a) should slightly less than the spread of the branches (b), and the depth (c), about the same as the width of the trunk at the point where the root flare ends (d). This is of course a guideline, and really only applies to single, upright trees.

Cascade pots

Selecting a suitable pot for a cascade tree can be difficult, pick a pot that's too wide, and it makes the tree seem less substantial than in a narrower pot. Picking a pot that's too deep will have the same effect.

Ideally the pot width should be about half the span of the tree, and its depth no more than half the depth (height) of the tree.

Remember that Cascade trees are always displayed on stands, lifting the lowest part of the tree off the surface.

Here we see, a semi-cascade tree, in two pots, and on two stands. On the far left, we see a good selection of pot, and stand.

The tree looks well in balance with the pot, and the stand gives the tree height, evoking the image of a tree on a cliff face. The combination to the right does none of these things.

A young Pyracantha in cascade style, shown on a stand.

Literati pots

Choosing a pot for a literati can be difficult, you will need to bear in mind the top of the tree may not be over the pot, and this may cause it to topple over, select a good sized pot, or tie it down.

Choose a pot that the top of the tree, were it a separate tree would look good in.

Athough you may live some distance from a supplier they're well worth the trip. This is a typical pot stock that you'll come across.

If you cannot travel a number of suppliers will do mail order and there's always Ebay.

Part of a supplier's pot sales shed.

A selection of small bonsai pots.

A 'Nanban' the pot could be described as 'Rustic', and although the uninitiated might think it crude, the pot enhances the trees rugged appearance. .

The pot need not be 'Pot' shaped, the picture to the right shows what might be called a semi-cascade tree in a 'crescent'. or 'halfmoon' pot'. These pots can be formed using cement, over chicken wire, with a flat base, feet and drainage holes.

Crescent pots are best used with the cascade styles.

Cement

Cement is misunderstood by most people. A requirement of most civil engineering projects is that 'test blocks' of each batch of cement delivered are kept. These blocks when they are set, are stored under water for a couple of weeks, then tested to distruction under a massive press (I worked on the test segments for the channel tunnel linings). The reason for keeping them wet lays in the way that cement works.

As part of the curing process crystals grow between the aggregate used (sand, rocks, etc).The longer the cement remains damp, the bigger and better the crystals and the stronger the cement.

If you are using cement to make pots, then keep it in the shade and when it's solid place it in water if you can, or keep it in a large plastic bag to retain the moisture. Give it at lease two weeks before use.

Low temperatures will affect the curing of cement, try to avoid using it if the ambient temperature is, or is likely to drop below 6c.

Don't forget that cement dyes are available from hardware stores,

Alternative's to pots

Not everyone has access to 'proper' bonsai pots, so let's look at a number of alternatives. I have seen earthenware casserole dishes, pie dishes, and such, used with drainage holes drilled in them. I've seen pots made from cement over a glass fiber mat. Although nothing quite comes up to a proper bonsai pot, you sometimes have to go with what your ingenuity will give you.


You may consider planting your bonsai in a slab of rock, this is a well recognised alternative to a pot. The rock need not have drainage holes but should, if you are able to do so, have holes drilled in it to enable you to tie the tree down. If you cannot drill holes in the rock, try 'supergluing' some metal hoops to the slab, looping the tying material through those. 

Slab plantings suit most styles except for formal upright, and full cascade.

You can of course create your own slab using cement.

A raft style tree planted on a slab

Suiban are often available with a divider, and one part of the pot has no holes. Unlike other Bonsai pots, it is glazed on the inside. The glazed part is filled with water to symbolize the sea or a lake. This pot is used in Saikei or Tray Landscapes

A pot by Bryan Albright.This type of pot is called a 'Nanban' and to the unknowing it looks rough and crude, It's not!. with the right tree, perhaps an informal upright, or literati Pine, or Juniper they will complement each other well.

Another of Bryan's pots. This time a square cascade, or semi-cascade pot

Allen. C. Roffey 19:52 20/04/2018