I have called this post ‘Fun bonsai’ because there is enormous pleasure to be derived from making and growing plants which, though not strictly bonsai, have a very strong bonsai ‘flavour’ to them.
You can make a huge range of fun bonsai with non-traditional bonsai material. This might be anathema to the bonsai purist — but for ordinary gardeners it is really great fun! I have always maintained that in bonsai it is the end result which matters — how this is achieved is not important. After all, bonsai is an illusion.
There are certain plants which are neither trees nor shrubs but which nevertheless make interesting ‘pseudo bonsai’ and bonsai accessories. Plants such as ferns,, , cacti and succulents, have interesting colours, textures and shapes and offer the bonsai enthusiast tremendous scope for creativity and improvisation.
These plants should be on the small side, preferably no bigger than nine to 12 inches (23-30 cm). They can be used on their own as single specimen plants or planted in mixed groups. Unlike traditional bonsai which can live for decades or even centuries, fun bonsai are not intended to be long-lived subjects. A few years is as much as one can expect from them. Because the object of bonsai is to create a picture with living plant material, it is not strictly necessary to use actual trees and shrubs in every case. Compositions using grasses, ferns and herbs make delightful miniature landscapes. In bonsai, plant arrangements of this kind are called ‘accent plantings’ and they are normally used in conjunction with the larger trees when displayed at exhibitions. Their purpose is to act as a foil to counter balance the grandeur of the large traditional bonsai. The plants most often used for accent plantings are grasses, dwarf bamboos, small flowering alpines and dwarf. Young plants of certain ferns and hostas make particularly nice ‘accents’. Some of the more unusual New Zealand grasses are also very suitable. Carex and houtinyas are good plants to use.
Accent plantings are usually grown and displayed in bonsai pots. The pots may be deep or shallow depending on whether a single plant or a mixed group of plants is used.
Certain herbs and succulents which have a tree-like appearance can be grown to look like traditional bonsai. They can be shaped by pruning into most of the traditional bonsai styles., thyme, wormwood and most of the crassulas are very suitable subjects for this kind of treatment.
In China there is a tradition for growing chrysanthemums in bonsai pots. They are shaped like bonsai and are grown mainly for their beautiful flowers in autumn and winter. All the training is done in just six or nine months from. After the flowers have finished the plants are pruned back to their stumps and the chrysanthemum stools are used for propagating next year’s plants.
In Japan, accent plants are seasonal. They are only displayed at certain times of the year when they look their best. Thus plants grown for their spring flowers are displayed in spring and those which are grown for their autumn colours will be displayed in autumn, and so on. In this way, there is constant change and variety throughout the year. The Japanese have great empathy with nature and this is very much in keeping with Japanese tradition in which even their flower arrangements reflect the changing.