Part 13 of a series by Eugene Howell
Bonsai pots come in so many shapes and sizes that it can sometimes be difficult to decide which pot to put your tree in. This is particularly true for people who are new to the art of bonsai. Some of the factors in bonsai pot selection are obvious, such as selecting a pot capable of holding the volume of roots your tree has. But there are several very important artistic considerations in bonsai pot selection that have been handed down through generations of experience and expertise from Japanese bonsai masters. By applying these rules you can have a bonsai tree that’s perfectly complimented by the pot it sits in.
First of all, there is a bonsai rule concerning the relationship of the size of the pot to the size of the tree. Therefore, you should always style and shape the tree first before selecting the proper sized pot.
The rule to which I’m referring states that the width of the pot should be slightly more than 2/3 the height of the tree. For example, if the tree is 3 feet tall, then the pot should be slightly over 2 feet wide. This rule is modified for a tree that is wider than it is tall. In that case the pot should be a little bit more than 2/3 the width of the tree. As an example, if the tree is only 18 inches tall, but is 36 inches wide, then the pot length should be about 25 or 26 inches.
OK, we know how to determine the width of the pot, but how do we select a pot that’s the right depth? In this case, with only a few exceptions, the depth of the pot should be the same as the diameter of the trunk when measured just above the nebari (root flair). Thus a tree with a 3 inch diameter trunk would be placed in a pot that is 3 inches deep.
One exception to this rule is when planting a cascade. In this case the cascade tree should be placed in a tall pot so that the tip of the foliage does not touch the stand or table on which the bonsai sits. A rule to remember when using a cascade pot, the distance from the apex of the tree to the lowest tip of the foliage should never be the same as the height of the pot. Also the cascade portion of the tree can be either above the bottom of the pot or below it, but should never be at the same level as the bottom of the pot.
Here’s another exception to the depth-of-the-pot rule in bonsai pot selection. When making a group or forest planting, the pot should be shallow and long. The width-of-the-pot rule also goes out the window with a forest planting. Although you’d normally use 2/3 of the height of the tallest tree to determine the length, if you are intentionally trying to give the impression of a meadow, then the pot may be longer than the tallest tree.
Next we need to consider the shape of the pot. There are some general guidelines on which pot shape goes with which tree style. Usually a formal upright, or fairly straight tree, will go best in a rectangular pot. A tree that curves, such as an informal upright, will usually look best in an oval or round pot.
The character of the tree also sways the decision on the style of pot. A very rugged tree should be placed in a rugged-looking pot. Here is where the intuitive part of selecting a pot begins to come into play. You can’t describe what a rugged pot looks like, you just know one when you see it. Some people refer to this as a masculine pot or a feminine pot. Here again, you know it when you see it. In general a rugged (or masculine) pot will typically be unglazed, earth-toned, and have sharp edges and corners. A feminine pot is typically one that’s been glazed, has a pastel color and will have softer edges and corners.
There are several more secondary guidelines used during bonsai pot selection, but if you apply the ones discussed here, you’ll have a pot that matches well with the tree its holding.
Photo credit: flickr Creative Commons Bonsai Pots by The Greenery Nursery and Garden Shop