"The Athshean word for world is also the word for forest." ― Ursula K. Le Gui
Most of my bonsai trees are alone in their pots, but very few trees in nature are found without other trees near them, although it can be dramatic when they are, e.g., the Lone Cypress, El Árbol del Tule, the Tree of Life, the Lahaina Banyan Tree. In our bonsai trees, we do often strive for the dramatic, but at times, it is nice to try a forest, raft or other group planting.
In general, there are a few rules, the most universally recognized of these being that the group should contain an odd number of trees. I don't necessarily buy into the reason this is so, but if you have 2 or 4 or 6 trees, you will have people questioning why you used an even number, so if you ever want to share your creation with others, you should start by selecting an odd number of trees. For example, this planting that I photographed at the Huntington Library earlier this year, has nine trees.
The group should include trees of different sizes, both in height and girth. Generally, the tallest trees will be near the middle of the group, although having the tallest to one side is also acceptable. Having the shortest trees in the middle can look unnatural and awkward, although I have seen compositions in which a small tree beneath two larger ones works well. Thinner trees are usually placed toward the outside and/or the back, allowing larger and thicker trees at the front to provide perspective the creates the illusion of greater size and distance in the landscape. Usually trees in a group planting will have upright shapes, although it is also common to have upright trees in the middle or one side, with trees along one or both outer edges being more at an angle, like a windswept tree. Most group plantings contain trees of the same species, or at least the same botanical family, but not always. Accent plants or other plants of a different species can add a lot of value to a bonsai landscape.
One of the great advantages of a group planting is that it is a suitable destination for trees that are, taken alone, deeply flawed. If you have a tree with no good lower branches, but you put it in the middle of a group planting, it might look great. If you have a tree with poor growth on one side or the other, putting it at the edge of a forest planting works. Even in John Naka's famous forest planting, Goshin, some of the trees used in the group would be uninteresting on their own, but together, they form a spectacular group.
The pot needs to be fairly large, and preferably very shallow. The color and shape can vary according to the trees and their arrangement, but most often, an oval shape is used. Slabs are also popular for forest plantings. Like any other bonsai planting, good, well-draining bonsai soil must be used. I still like my mixes of 4 parts non-organic soil to 1 part organic matter (compost, potting soil, small orchid bark).
I haven't done a slab planting yet, so I'll cover that another time. For a forest planting in a pot, these are the steps to take once the pot and the trees have been chosen:
- Wire into place your screens on all of the drainage holes;
- Set several anchor wires through the drainage holes to wire your trees into place;
- Place a base layer of bonsai soil across the entire pot at least half an inch to an inch deep
- Prune any long branches on your trees;
- On your larger trees, remove or jin any branches in the lower third of the tree;
- Rake and prune the roots on all of your trees;
- Place the largest tree first, off center. I like to imagine a tic-tac-toe pattern in my pot and place the first tree somewhere along one of the corners of the center square;
- Add the smaller trees at distances pleasing to the eye and far enough to accommodate the roots;
- Wire the trees into the pot to hold them in place. Smaller trees might not require this step;
- Fill the rest of the pot with soil and work the soil into the roots with a chopstick;
- Leave some space along the lip of the pot so that water does not simply flow off and away when you water;
- Water thouroughly with a mist sprayer;
- Place some moss along the edges of the trees to reduce erosion.
It is best done when the time is right for repotting, so in most cases, that means early spring. Once you finish your design and everything is in place, put your forest in a shady place, or a place that mostly gets morning sun, for two months or so, and give it a year before doing any radical pruning or shaping. In a couple of years, when it is time to repot the group, hopefully you will have a root mass that has blended into a single mat of roots. Like Goshin.
I only have a couple of yose-ue plantings, and to be honest, they aren't impressive enough to share yet. Perhaps next spring, I'll do a post about one of those.