Bonsai Accent Plants

May 28, 2015 garden 052~

While visiting pages written by some of my favorite Bonsai artists last evening, I was absolutely fascinated by a Japanese art form called, ‘Bonsai  accent plants.’  Growing perennials, ferns, herbs, and wildflowers in tiny, shallow little Bonsai pots, over many years, is an horticultural art cultivated along with woody Bonsai.

When I saw these beautiful spring accent pots, I had an “Ah-Ha!” moment.  Immediately, I recognized the mature form of the little “moss gardens” I constructed all winter long.


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Finally, at long last, I saw how these beautiful living masterpieces should be constructed and cultivated.

These accents must look absolutely natural.  In fact, oftentimes seeds germinate after they are constructed, or unexpected perennial roots begin to grow, and are left as part of the composition.

I was especially touched by the compositions of ferns and moss growing on lava rock or hunks of wood.

Having never encountered this art form before, I searched for every scrap of information and photo I could find.  In traditional Bonsai display, the tree itself is displayed along side a calligraphy scroll, and an accent plant which expands on the theme of the tree.


Pteris cretica 'Albo-lineate, Variegated Cretan Breakfern

Pteris cretica ‘Albo-lineata, Variegated Cretan Breakfern


The accent reflects where the tree might grow in nature, and compliments its form.

The accent plant should also reflect the season in which the tree is displayed.  Plants with spring interest; either spring flowers or unfurling leaves, would be displayed along with Bonsai at a springtime show.  A complete vignette is created by the Bonsai artist to express a mood.

As lovely as the plants themselves, I was entranced by the beautiful handcrafted ceramic bowls paired with many of the plants.  Depending on the plant’s needs, the container might have drainage or not.  Some of the most interesting displays feature succulents, ferns, moss and vines growing directly on rock, as they might in nature.

How does one construct these intriguing displays?  How does one care for them?


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Of course, I was inspired to create another little moss garden today.  I used a little fern purchased last weekend, which was sitting in the shade waiting for inspiration to strike; a handcrafted pottery bowl, and moss lifted from the garden.

Since this bowl offers no drainage, I mixed a base layer of vermiculite, sand, fine aquarium gravel, and a little perlite.  Good quality fresh potting soil fills the bowl, topped with a thin layer of builder’s sand between the soil and layer of moss.  The sand, I learned last night, provides a better base for the moss than does placing it directly on uneven soil.  The moss makes better contact, and so grows more happily.

Moss should never completely cover the soil, and so fine gravel may be used around the edges of the container to make a thin margin, framing the moss, and also in seems between sheets of moss.  I was doing this instinctively, but learned so much more about moss culture and use last night.

Bare areas of soil, around 25% for trees, allows the tree’s roots to breathe.  Water permeates the soil more easily if it does not need to first soak through a layer of moss.


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Ideally, an accent plant should be cultivated for several years before it is first displayed.  Like Bonsai trees, these living works of art grow better over time.

Showing you this little arrangement the same day it was created is entirely presumptuous, as is showing it to you alongside a seedling Acer Palmatum in a pot, which is in no way a Bonsai.

I’ve only had the Acer for a few months.  But photographing them together may give  you a faint idea of the beauty Bonsai artists create by pairing a tiny potted plant with a Bonsai tree.


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Now that I’ve finally had a formal introduction to the concept of accent plants, I have fresh inspiration for my own potted arrangements.  I’ve seen a further horizon of possibility.

I’m keen to experiment with the instructions I read last night for cultivating moss in shallow trays, ready to use when needed.  I’m also now in search of an appropriate wooden or lava base for experimenting with designs layered onto a solid foundation, rather than anchored in soil in a pot.

Oh, the possibilities!

“An artist’s concern

is to capture beauty

wherever he finds it.”

Kazuo Ishiguro



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Woodland Gnome 2015


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