How To-Bonsai In Hypertufa

This post is going to show how we planted a round trough made from hypertufa mix in the bonsai style.

Bonsai is the art of aesthetic miniaturization of trees, or of developing woody or semi-woody plants shaped as trees, by growing them in containers. Cultivation includes techniques for shaping, watering, and repotting in various styles of containers. ‘Bonsai’ is a Japanese pronunciation of the earlier Chinese term penzai (盆栽). A ‘bon’ is a tray-like pot typically used in bonsai culture. The word bonsai is used in the West as an umbrella term for all miniature trees in containers or pots.*

For more information about making projects using the mixture of peat moss, perlite and Portland cement, the basics of mixing can be seen by clicking here.

The opening photo is purely ornamental and has absolutely zero to do with the project. It is Camellia sasanqua ‘Chansonette’ now in bloom. We like to begin stories with something pleasing to the eye. Onward.

Several hypertufa troughs were made in late summer to be given as gifts to family members at the Fairegarden family fun get together this Thanksgiving. Several weeks are needed to cure the pots, allowing the lime in the cement to leach out to make a more neutral PH planting container. Since we are once again attempting to make a Bonsai, copper wires have been inserted from the bottom drainage holes to hold the miniature trees in place. The planting depth is shallow, about five inches, so the roots will need some help to stay put during wind, rain and accidental bumping by the gardener. Coffee filters are used to cover the holes to prevent the soil from exiting through the necessary drainage holes that were made at the time of the trough creation. Packaged cactus mix will be the planting medium. Over our many years of gardening, Bonsai has been attempted more times than we like to recall. With the best of intentions, little trees, conifers and Japanese maple seedlings mostly, have been planted lovingly in special pots. Every one has ended in failure, usually something to do with improper watering and/or hardiness miscalculations. With age comes wisdom it is rumored however, and this time there has been much studying of the method online. Here we go.

One reason for the optimistism this time around as we enter the Bonsai realm, besides the nice sized trough planter, is the choice of plant material, dwarf Chinese elms, Ulmus x hollandica ‘Jacqueline Hillier’, (formerly known as U. elegantissima) babies from a generously maturing mother planted on the slope behind the main house. This mother tree is one of two that were given to me by a fellow who owned a landscaping supply business in northeast Tennessee. We had just started a small enterprise of garden design and planting there and had purchased quite a bit of mulch and stone for some of our clients from him. He had cuttings of this small leaved Elm that had come from a tree at the J.C. Raulston Arboretum, he claimed, that he graciously shared with me. One was planted at the house where we now reside in southeast Tennessee where our daughters Semi and Chickenpoet were then living. The other was potted up and made the move with us to Texas and then back to this garden. Both were planted on the slope, one on each side of the center concrete steps, but the one that had been planted in the ground succumbed shortly after being moved. Over the years there have been babies noticed at the base of the remaining specimen, suckers from the roots perhaps. These little ones have been potted, given away and planted here and there in the garden. Some have not survived, but the overall mortality rate has been good.

The cactus mix was spread in the pot to about half full. Rocks from the property were placed in the soil to stabilize the tree roots, with some of the roots on top of the stones. The wires were wrapped tightly but not strangling the two largest trees. These wires will be removed and rewound as the trees grow.

The smaller trees were planted in clusters at the edges with stones holding them in place. More soil was added and the trough was watered well. The Bonsai style planned is the Forest style, with naturalistic pruning to mimic a miniature woodland by using several trees of the same type.

Several waterings later we were satisfied that the soil was saturated completely. The roots of the trees had not been pruned much but some of the roots were cut to allow for draping over the rocks and down into the soil. When the positioning looked promising for future growth, mosses were added, taken from the wall and the older trough planters. This combination of mosses looks a little busy right now, but we’ll see how they weave themselves together, some may have to be removed.

Now we wait. Since it is the sin edge of the wedge of winter now, there will be no pruning done. Selecting the branching and shape desired is a major part of growing Bonsai and we eagerly await the return of warm weather to begin. There is anticipation folded into the patience necessary for success. If any of you gentle readers have some bonsai pruning tips, I would love to hear them.

Inspiration for this project came, in part, from a visit to the North Carolina Arboretum in Asheville in October. The Bonsai display was astounding. The staff had brought inside the more tender specimens. It was noted that the Chinese Elms were allowed to winter over on the protective shelves outside. As often happens, the light bulb illuminated inside the cerebral cortex and shouted, “We can do that”! This remains to be seen. Updates will follow.

For other How To posts written by Fairegarden, look for How To on the sidebar page listing or click here.


*Information from Wikipedia, click here to visit the page.

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32 Responses to How To-Bonsai In Hypertufa

  1. Fascinating post Frances. I have long admired bonsai plants and I am not the only one. We will get 2 to 3 customers a week at the flower shop asking to purchase a bonsai. We do not sell them as they are a speciality item and require a lot of care. One day, when I am living full time at Kilbourne Grove, I hope to attempt one as well. Great instructions as usual.

    Hi Deborah, thanks. So far, I have killed every bonsai attempted, too many to count. This time might be the charm though. I have grown the little elms in pots with success, the only difference here is the shallow planting space. I don’t plan on getting too fancy with the pruning or training. πŸ™‚

  2. Sylvia (England) says:

    Frances, this looks like an exciting project, I look forward to seeing the results. I think the pot already looks lovely, especially with the moss added. One day I will have the time to try your cement mix, I like so many of the things you have made with it.

    Best wishes Sylvia (England)

    Hi Sylvia, thanks. It seems promising, this might be the one that lives! The hypertufa is so fun, a great project for summertime when it is too hot to do much in the garden. Do give it a try. πŸ™‚

  3. Joy says:

    Hello Frances girl !
    I have always found Bonsai absolutely fascinating .. life in miniature is so interesting and to capture a prospective full sized tree and keep it in such a tiny perfect form is amazing .. then add the hypertufa, perfect ! I want one too !! : )
    I do have an Austrian Pine (known as our Charlie Brown Christmas tree) held captive in a pot for about 5 years now .. so it is some what a custom sized Bonsai tree considering how HUGE Austrian Pines are supposed to be ? LOL
    Joy : )

    Hi Joy, thanks, glad you liked the story. It sounds like your own Pine Bonsai is doing well, five years? You have me beat by a mile! Or metere? HA πŸ™‚

  4. Very neat project! I’ve only had one bonsai tree which never really made it. That was quite a few years ago. One of the problems was probably that I kept it indoors. So many bonsai plants can be grown outdoors year round. Hypertufa sounds like a great way to pot them!

    Thanks Dave. I do think the bonsai need to be kept outdoors, just to accommodate the gardener, in our zone anyway. Indoors is not good a good place for plants unless it is a greenhouse, IMHO, the humidity level is just too low even if there is good light. This trough is nice and roomy, more so than most bonsai pots, so the Elms might have a better chance to live. πŸ™‚

  5. Gail says:

    Frances, Thank you for the step by step instructions and photos…I love knowing! It’s one of the many things that blogging has given me~~access to marvelous information! Love the photos and especially seeing the root draped over the rock. Like Joy, I find bonsai fascinating. gail ps You really put your heart into everything you do….I so admire that about you. xxoo

    You are so sweet, dear Gail, thanks so much for those kind words. I like how you don’t say that you want to make one, or even are thinking about it. Very honest in a nice way, I admire that about you! xxoo back at ya! πŸ™‚

  6. Thanks for such an informative post – I’ve always wanted to try my hand at making a hypertufa pot and you’ve given me the inspiration I’ve needed!

    Hi Rebecca, thanks. The pot making is a much easier project than growing bonsai with success, in my experience! Do give it a try! πŸ™‚

  7. It is amazing how established this little microcosm already looks Frances. Intriguing and lovely. Carol

    Thanks Carol. The photo makes it look better than it really does, for some reason. The moss and rocks help too. πŸ™‚

  8. nancybond says:

    Fantastic! I’ve always wanted to try bonsai, on a smaller scale, perhaps. The moss really finishes your planting nicely.

    Hi Nancy, thanks. I hope this one works out, it does have promise. I believe the bigger the pot, the more likely the trees are to survive, less drying out. πŸ™‚

  9. Too much for me to wrap my head around this morning! πŸ™‚ I must need more coffee!

    The bonsai info is great and I’ve always wanted to try. I love the hyptertufa container, too.


    So sorry, Cameron, I hope you got some more caffeine. Bonsai success has eluded me so far in my long gardening career. This might be the one! πŸ™‚

  10. Rosey says:

    Hi Frances,
    What a clever idea for a hypertufa pot. I would like to try this instead of the usual succulents I stick in there. The moss is particularly appealing to me. It makes it looks ancient, which I love. Good job!

    Hi Rosey, thanks. It never occured to me before, maybe because the round shape seems more appropriate. Succulents do so well in them, I do that too. We are big fans of moss here as well, although there may be too many different ones in the new pot. We’ll see if one or two get too aggressive, they might be removed then. πŸ™‚

  11. Catherine says:

    This makes me want to try bonsai! I’ve seen them at garden shows and am just amazed. I might have to try with some J. maple seedlings from our yard. I love when the roots grow over the rocks like you’ve done. Great post!

    Do it, Catherine! I have never had any luck keeping them going, and have begun many. But you can’t succeed unless you keep trying. Thanks for the encouraging words. πŸ™‚

  12. I have always admired Bonsai and was amazed at how much work goes into them when we learned about them in one of my horticulture classes. Unfortunately, I do not have the patience to try this myself, but I am thankful for those that do because they are so beautiful.

    Hi Noelle, thanks for stopping by. I don’t have much patience either, it may be why we have never had success. The plan here is to leave it alone until spring and do some light pruning. I have been able to grow these trees in pots before, so optimism is high. πŸ™‚

  13. Sweet Bay says:

    Combining the hypertufa and bonzai is a good idea. I have to say I have always found bonzai too intimidating to even try it! I love seeing bonzai that other people have grown though.

    Hi Sweet Bay, thanks so much. The round trough seemed perfect for a little forest, don’t you think? Free plants makes it much less intimidating too. πŸ™‚

  14. Love the bonsai in the ‘tufa pots. Love how you have a whole landscape with the stones and moss. Sweet!

    Thanks Monica. I love those little miniature landscapes too. Hope this one does well so we can play with it. It might make me want to make more too, if this one works out, all in hypertufa. The sky’s the limit! πŸ™‚

  15. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    You are brave to attempt this. I have always wantted to but I am chicken. I just hate for plants to die in my care. Like that moss you have there in that pot. I can never get moss to grow here. I often wonder why. Good luck with your tree. I can’t wait to see what happens.

    Hi Lisa, thanks. Don’t be chicken, what’s the worst thing that can happen? I have killed plenty of plants over the gardening span, don’t look back, only look forward! I wonder why you don’t have moss on the north side of things at least, it is moist there I know. If you see some moss along a ditch somewhere, dig it up and try to get it established in a shady spot, now is the right time to do it, wintertime. Just scratch the soil and push it in real hard. Good luck. πŸ™‚

  16. easygardener says:

    Good luck with your project. I have β€˜Jacqueline Hillier’ in a pot and it should be an ideal candidate – slow growing with neat tidy leaves. I think I will go looking for moss and rocks to decorate mine. Mine is not Bonsai – I’m not sure I am disciplined enough for the pruning!

    Hi EG, thanks. Glad to hear you also have the little Elm, it is a beauty. I have pruned the larger mother plant that grows in the ground ruthlessly, and it always grows back to cover my mistakes. Think of it like hair, a bad haircut will grow out. πŸ™‚

  17. Rose says:

    Frances, I have always admired bonsais and the gardeners who have the patience to grow them. Like Lisa, I’m too chicken at this point to try them. But I’m imagining some succulents in those containers; wouldn’t they look good? Your tree looks great so far; I’ll be anxious to see how it grows next spring.

    Hi Rose, thanks. Succulents do very well in these containers, as do many others types of plants. But we have been there, done that. Life is for living! Dare to be brave and try new things, what is the worst thing that can happen has been my modus operandi! HA πŸ™‚

  18. mothernaturesgarden says:

    Good job! I like the way you added lichens and moss.

    Thanks, Donna. The mosses are an easy way to have instant success with any planting. πŸ™‚

  19. Lola says:

    That looks so pretty. I didn’t know that they should be kept outside. It really looks like a natural setting for a forest. Great job.

    Hi Lola, thanks. I believe they should be kept outside if hardy, which this is. I moved it close to the house to protect it since it was just planted and to keep an eye on it. Houses, as opposed to greenhouses are too warm and dry and dark for most trees.

  20. linda says:

    Fascinating post Frances! I admire your willingness to put this out there for the world to see in spite of past unsuccessful attempts. Best wishes with your bonsai in hypertufa project!

    I love bonsai, and will continue to admire them from afar. πŸ™‚

    p.s. the camellia is lovely, as is it’s French name. It does look like a little song!

    Thanks Linda, especially for the meaning of the camellia name, I like it so much better knowing that! The bonsai is an experiment, nothing to be afraid of. It’s not brain surgery. πŸ™‚

  21. Kathleen says:

    I admire your persistence Frances. That’s what makes you so successful ~ you try, try again. There’s a message in that. I hope this times the charm. The finished container looks very professional and pleasing. I’ve never attempted Bonsai or been tempted to ~ so far it’s an art I just appreciate from afar. Who knows if and when that will change since things often do.

    Hi Kathleen, thanks. Seeing those Bonsai at the NC Arboretum really got me willing to try again. We had been growing the larger Elm babies in a deeper hypertufa for several months already, so we just dug those up and a couple of smaller ones around the mother tree and planted them. Pretty easy since all had smaller root systems and the new trough is good sized. Really more like just repotting since the roots were not pruned much. I like it so far. πŸ™‚

  22. Liisa says:

    Thank you so much for the lesson, Frances. I was happy to find your hypertufa ball post, and I am excited to try this out. This will be my first hypertufa experience. Then, who knows… maybe a bonsai will be in my future!! πŸ™‚

    I am so glad to hear it, Liisa! One cannot have success at anything without trying it! I wish you the best of luck with your hypertufa, and do let me know how it turns out. πŸ™‚

  23. I like the look of hypertufa. It’s got age to it.

    Funnily enough, I was clicking around your blog the other day looking for the hypertufa balls post. Anyway, et voila, so I’ve saved it to favourites.

    I wonder whether there’s something that could be used in place of peat moss? I don’t seem to be able to locate it here in France.

    The bonsai looks superb, I hope you can do an update sometime as stuff grows ‘in’.

    Hi Rob, thanks. I have added the category of *how to* so these types of posts will all be easier to find. Instead of peat moss, hmmm. Maybe dry potting soil mix of some kind should do the same thing, I would think. Be sure and sift it to get any larger lumps out first. Don’t get the kind with fertilizer or watering crystals in them, if you even have those available. Or maybe dried sifted compost would work too. Good luck with your projects! πŸ™‚

  24. Balisha says:

    This post is so informative. They are really lovely…Balisha

    Thanks Balisha. I know very little about bonsai, this is just a beginning. πŸ™‚

  25. Janet says:

    Good for you to have the patience to do Bonsai. Our Botanical garden has a collection of Bonsai too, must be a growing trend to include this style of gardening. The contorted growth of the trees in bonsai is really interesting. Would be an interesting thing to explore in the pruning process– who to cut and who to allow to grow?

    Hi Janet, thanks. I am just a beginner, so will learn as the plants grow. Patience, what is that? I expect the elms to tell me which branches to prune. πŸ™‚

  26. Weeping Sore says:

    I too, visited the Asheville Arborateum in October. It was lovely and inspiring. I too share your failure rate with bonsai, but retain your hope as well. I take heart from your pronouncement that age brings wisdom. By that standard, I should be pretty smart by now πŸ˜‰
    Good luck with your lovely bonsai. I look forward to seeing it age gracefully.

    Hi WS, thanks, so nice to see you. Did you get to see the Mum show and judging inside the building when you were at the Arboretum? We were thrilled to be able to enjoy flowers inside that day since it was so cold and rainy when we were there. We liked the lunch counter too, nice hot soup! The hopes are high for this bonsai attempt since the pot is so large and the trees so small, but hardy. As for the wisdom, do you ever think, If I only knew then what I know now? Or, youth is wasted on the young. HA πŸ™‚

  27. greenwalks says:

    Hi Frances – Oh, at first I thought you were going to bonsai a cammelia! That would be truly wacky. πŸ™‚ There is a big Japanese community here in Seattle and I always enjoy seeing bonsai and ikebana (flower-arranging) demonstrations. I guess real bonsai takes, as you’ve seen, immense reserves of knowledge and patience. I hope your latest efforts are successful! I love the moss carpet too. Cheers!

    Hi Greenwalks, thanks. Camellia would make a lovely bonsai! Hmmmm. How lucky to be able to see the real bonsai makers at work. Key word here is REAL. I have merely potted up some tree babies in a fairly shallow pot with rocks and moss. Good enough for me to enjoy the process without the extreme knowledge and patience it takes to master this art. πŸ™‚

  28. Patsi says:

    Love your planters !!
    Very attractive shape.
    Bonsai…what don’t you try ?

    Hi Patsi, thanks. With respect to gardening, I will try anything, and if it fails I will try and try again. Taurean determination! HA πŸ™‚

  29. Town Mouse says:

    Very inspiring! I’ve actually been thinking about trying bonsai on some CA Native trees, but so far, time has been an issue. I won’t start until I know I can really take care of the little tree. Great photos…

    Hi Town Mouse, thanks. Living in CA, you have so much to choose from that can stay outside all year, do give it a try! πŸ™‚

  30. Kat says:

    I never thought of making my own bonsai pots out of hypertufa. Another one for my project list. Thanks for the idea. And good luck. I too have several failed attempts at bonsai.

    Hi Kat, thanks, glad this was inspiration for you. I didn’t make the pots with that intention, but might make more with that in mind next time. These little elms should do well, for I have grown them in regular containers for several years with no problems.

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