Why a Bonsai Pot?

Why a bonsai pot?  Many centuries of Asian ingenuity, tradition and craftsmanship  produced containers specifically designed to show off their contents ... bonsai.

Bonsai Pot by Sarah Rayner

Today, potters around the world, create both traditional and contemporary containers with the same goals of displaying the tree or accent plant.

Bonsai Pot Guidelines 

Containers are often compared to the frame on a painting. They set off and display the art (in this case a bonsai tree.)
Over the centuries, many “rules” were initiated to emphasize the tree. 

Some of those rules are listed below – today, they are more often considered "pot guidelines."   Don't be surprised if you see some very good bonsai that break these not so hard-and-fast rules. 

Containers are created from many different materials. You can find them made of clay, ceramic, mica, porcelain, stoneware and inexpensive plastic for training. 

Many hobbyist start with nursery plants and train them in the same nursery containers.  Over the years, many growers have found they take better care of trees in bonsai pots, even if they are oversized and/or not the "correct" shapes.  When your bonsai is ready to display, it's time to invest in a more traditional container.

A Few of the 'Rules'

Bonsai artists follow ancient guidelines for selecting the correct pot to enhance their trees. 

Your container should always compliment the small tree's attributes . . . such as flowers, thickness of trunk, bark texture and needle or leaf shapes and sizes.   

Glazed colors are recommended for flowering and fruiting bonsai.  The muted tones of brown and gray unglazed clay are recommended for evergreen trees, such as juniper and pine.

Remember, there are always exceptions to a rule. The flowering azalea bonsai shown above is breaking the rules by being displayed in a brown pot. 

Sometimes a bonsai just looks best in the "wrong" pot

Pot Size Considerations

  • Length – approximately two thirds the height of your tree.  If it is a short tree, wider than it is tall ... consider two thirds of the width.
  • Depth - the same size as the caliper of the trunk at the very base of the tree.  This depth guideline is basically a reminder that very often, “skinny” trunks look better in shallow containers and deeper pots are for heavy trunks.

These size "rules" are very difficult to follow precisely. They are, however, definitely good guidelines.

Guidelines for Specific Shapes

  • Round – are most often used for literati (bunjin), cascade and semi-cascade style trees (depending upon depth.)
  • Square - are not commonly used with very many traditional styles. However, sometimes they seem just perfect.
  • Rectangle – best for straight trunk trees.
  • Oval, and rounded corners on rectangles – suit curved trunk trees.
Juniper bonsai by Michael Hagedorn
in Lotus Shape Pot
  • Lotus Shaped - are used much like round or square pots.
Maple Forest by Vaughn Banting
  • Wide shallow pots (including flat trays and slabs) - are perfect for multiple trunks, rock plantings, rafts and forests. 

Placement of Your Tree
in a Bonsai Pot

  • A bonsai in an oval or rectangle pot should be placed a little behind the center line of the container.
  • Depending upon the shape of the tree, it should also be a little to the left or right of center.  Trees with a longer first branch reaching to the right should be planted a little to the left. This gives the "picture" balance. Those with a first branch reaching to the left, are planted to the right side of the pot.
  • The exceptions to this rule are - square and round containers. Trees are then placed directly in center, when possible. This includes cascades. (However, the root system does not always allow this precise positioning.)

Important Reminders

  • Always shape (style) your tree before you select a bonsai pot.
  • The art forms of Ikebana and bonsai have many similar design guidelines.  In some instances the containers may look similar.  However, ikebana containers do not have holes in them, containers for bonsai do. 
  • Holes provide water drainage and are necessary for the health of the tree.
  • Mica pots are heavy duty, frost proof, will not break if you drop one and have the appearance of the real thing. They make good starter pots.

Where to Go From Here

See more about slabs and marble trays 

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