Bonsai Theatre

Bonsai. Even the word is cool.

The word originates from the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese word pen-zai which loosely means tree planted in a container. The first bonsai were grown in China, over a thousand years ago.

There has been interest in Bonsai for use in the Fairegarden for several years now, as gardens were visited with compelling displays of this ancient art. The trip to the North Carolina Arboretum in Asheville last fall opened the final gate to seriously attempt this style of planting. The specimens were studied, noting what types of trees were used and the low pots in which they were planted.

A most wonderful gift was received by offspring Brokenbeat and his missus for Christmas.


An Asheville potter was commissioned to make this bonsai pot. It is so beautiful and such a thoughtful present that will be treasured always. An empty pot can mean only one thing, …


… It must be planted up as soon as possible. The hunt was on for a dwarf evergreen. Asheville nurseries were perused and this likely looking Chamaecyparis of some sort, there was no tag, was chosen as The One. A little pot of lemon thyme, the only name on the tag, was added. The golden spikemoss already growing in some indoor pots here was the final touch. This looks terrible at the moment and might even be dead, but there is some growing inside the greenhouse that can replenish, or maybe moss would be better. The large rock was borrowed from the spot by the tree formerly known as Ferngully. It is my favorite rock and belongs in the special planting. A little ceramic gazebo has been added as well. (Not shown in this photo, but it’s there now, believe me.)

After planting comes pruning. The toenail clippers were put to the task, resulting in several choice stems that were given the rooting hormone routine and potted up into the mix of two thirds perlite to one third seed starting mix. Waste not want not.

There are some other bonsai attempts located along the wall behind the main house, a spot that allows for close supervision by the gardener and ease of watering. And maybe a little work with the toenail clippers. The largest pot holds several Chinese Elms. A post was written about this planting, to read about it click here-How To-Bonsai In Hypertufa. Another small bit of ceramics was added to this pot. We call him Confucius. I love these little miniatures.

Another experiment is with a very tiny pot and a seedling dogwood tree. This little tree was growing in the middle of the gravel path. There are baby dogwoods, maples, pines, cedars, redbuds and every other sort of tree that grows in this neighborhood sprouting hither and yon. When this interloper was pulled from the stones, the roots came out intact and the stem, it is too small to be referred to as a trunk, had a nice twist. We have a set of three of these miniature bonsai pots, also a gift from Brokenbeat. There is a Serrisa, shown in the opening photo, growing in one of these small pots, growing in the greenhouse. The dogwood is wired to this one to hold it in place and there is one empty one left. You know how we hate an empty pot.

Another dwarf evergreen is growing in a blue pot, Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Gemstone’.

In the leaf man trough, two miniatures that were purchased at the University of Tennessee’s fall plant sale are growing well. Golden Chamecyparis obtusa ‘Nana Lutea’ and Juniperus horizontalis ‘Blue Pygmy’ have weathered the harsh conditions of this record breaking winter. I think the gold one needs to go into another pot though, this is too crowded for my sensibilites, leather as they are. The Armeria needs spread about as well.

The idea is to have small trees and shrubs that can be left outside all year for four season enjoyment. Some will be pruned in the Bonsai style, some will be left to grow naturally. Both types will give us great joy as we enter the great outdoors from the back door, the Fairegarden in miniature, Bonfaire.

Added: Joanne and Karen have brought up an important point in their comments about the very tiny bonsai, how to keep them watered during the hot summer. I had planned to move them to a shadier area, but the little dogwood in the miniature pot is a worry. How can this be kept watered enough when we are away during summer trips? Any and all suggestions are welcome. (Your comments add so much to these posts, thank you, everyone!!!)

Frances

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36 Responses to Bonsai Theatre

  1. Joanne says:

    What fun and what dedication. I did attempt this with seedling trees found in the garden but soon lost patience and they died from neglect in the dry summer just as well I never spent a lot of money on buying specimen plants.

    Thanks Joanne. I have added to the post to address the watering problem with a link to you. I have attempted this many many times before as well, never with success over the long term. The Chinese Elms have done the best however, the hypertufa pot holds those that have lived in other pots for a few years. I really like the evergreens though, winter interest and all that. Summer watering is going to be a problem, one that has not been worked out quite yet. Suggestions are welcome.
    Frances

  2. sequoiagardens says:

    “ONEDAY,” he said, “I too will start to play with Bonsai… for now the Bigger Picture keeps me busy enough!” πŸ˜‰

    I would say you have enough on your plate right at the moment, Jack. This is the right time in my life to do something like this, easier on the back to tend these little gardens. πŸ™‚
    Frances

  3. Sylvia (England) says:

    Frances, I would not have the time or patience for this but I do think it is better to grow the outdoor ones. I look forward to seeing these grow into ‘mature’ little trees.

    Best wishes Sylvia (England)

    Thanks so much, Sylvia. I do believe because there has been posting about this, that we will be less likely to just let them go. They might die anyway, or in a pinch get planted in the ground. That is the back up plan. We shall see what the summer brings, with the watering issues. πŸ™‚
    Frances

  4. Fascinating – I don’t know where you find the time Frances! it is always the watering I find a problem with bonsai – I never manage to get it right!
    K

    Thanks Karen. Winter is the time for this type of thinking, when we are straining at the bit to be doing some kind of gardening. Seed starting helps, but tending these little gardens is a good way to get through the cold months as well. Finding the right plants that can stay outside is the challenge. Summer offers another challenge, watering. I have added to the post with a link to you about that concern, thanks for opening my eyes to it. πŸ™‚
    Frances

  5. Sunny says:

    I have always been fascinated by Bonsai’s but have yet to try it for myself, maybe now is the time. Nice post, has put the seed of bonsaing back in my head.

    Thanks Sunny. It is an intriguing form of gardening. I love the way these little gardens look, even if we have failures, we will keep trying. Just the pots are wonderful. πŸ™‚
    Frances

  6. Edith Hope says:

    Dear Frances, I am afraid that I have never tried Bonsai, probably lacking the patience. It will be interesting to see how yours progress. What a wonderfully thoughtful gift the blue pot was.

    Thanks Edith. The pot gifting brought tears of joy to my eyes, it was perfect on so many levels. It looked good when first planted up, in January when the photo was taken. The spikemoss is not winter hardy, it seems so far anyway, but we have plenty of other moss that could be added. It will get the best of attention, and that evergreen was chosen for hardiness. If watering issues are met, it should live. I hope. πŸ™‚
    Frances

  7. Randy says:

    Frances,
    Your custom pot is awesome and you planted it well.
    Lately in Durham there have been bonsai venders on street corners, lots of corners. I’m left wondering is this the same guy that moves a lot or several different vendors.

    Thanks, Randy. We see those roadside guys too, it is almost always the little procumbens junipers that have been pruned and stuck into pots. Son Brokenbeat actually had one of these, but kept it inside the house so it died. Some plants must be outdoors all year. I wonder how many people buy these and then give up when the plant dies. Watering must be a huge issue. We’ll see how it goes.
    Frances

  8. Les says:

    We were able to go to the National Arboretum outside of DC in our pre-child days. I had high expectations that were not met. However, the bonsai exhibit was spectacular. They had a wide variety of styles and plant materials, several of which were a couple hundred years old. Can you imagine the responsibility, I’d give it to an arboretum too if I inherited such a treasure. My favorite style are the mini forests with lots of the same tree in the same pot, like your elms. Have a great week!

    How wonderful, Les. We have not visited the arboretum in DC on our trips there. If we ever go again, that will be remedied. I believe it has been improved since those earlier days. The bonsai at the NC gardens were also incredible, ancient trees. That is too much pressure for me, these little seedling trees are less scary, the dogwood would have been composted anyway, so the loss is not great. The elms have done well, and the larger pots are much more likely to hold enough moisture to keep them alive during the dry summers and cold winters out of doors. I like the forest look too. Hope your week is wonderful, warm temps predicted finally! πŸ™‚
    Frances

  9. Gail says:

    I admire bonsai and the discipline it takes to train a tree to grow in the direction and shape one envisions. Yours are all quite delightful…the dogwood with the cool bend is going to be fun to watch! The commissioned container is beautiful….gail

    Thanks Gail. The pot blew me away. The planting came out well, it is a treasure. We tried and discarded several seedling trees before deciding upon the dogwood. We’ll see how it goes, the container is so very small. We have been growing the spikemoss in the three little rectangles for a couple of years, inside in the winter, out with the orchids in summer, with success. Maybe they should all be planted with Serrisas and brought inside over the winter. They are so small, there is room in the greenhouse. It remains to be seen. πŸ™‚
    Frances

  10. Good Morning Frances, I so admire your talent for Bonsai! I had one once … a camellia … that I did manage to keep alive and even flower for many years… alas I did finally kill it. I think I did let it dry out too much! I find them so poetic! Miniature worlds as you say in another way. I especially love your first photo! Since I have failed in my efforts in this art … I would not pretend to have advice but since you ask about how to water while away… I would call a dear friend who will come each day during hot weather… and put them in the shade too. Maybe check with a Bonsai Society? Good luck! ;>) Carol

    Thanks Carol. I don’t know if there is any talent here, so far all that has been accomplished is the initial planting. That is the easy part. Your Camellia sounds divine, so sorry for its loss, but just keeping it alive at all must be considered a success. Flowering is gravy. Watering will be the catch here. That is good advice about the Society. I will do some research. πŸ™‚
    Frances

  11. Joy says:

    Frances girl .. I have always found these so fascinating .. maybe it is the child in us appreciating the tiny secret garden ?
    I have a larger scale, purely by accident, Bonsai .. what I call my “Charlie Brown Christmas Tree”
    It is an Austrian Pine (which are enormous trees) caught in a pot and is kept miniature by scale of its true demensions, it is about 3 feet .. I am amazed it is living and doing so well, frozen in time ? ..
    These are such awesome creations : )
    Joy

    That is so cool, Joy! It is the wonder of it all, something so large in nature kept small that holds our imagination, as you say. Your Pine sounds perfect, well done! πŸ™‚
    Frances

  12. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    Bonsai is something I have always wanted to try. I guess you have read this statement every time you post about your bonsai. I am facinated with them yet have never taken the bit. I would even like to collect the little people and buildings you have found for your pots. Ha… You need a good friend to come by while you are out of town to water your plants.

    Thanks Lisa. Aren’t those little ceramic things great? You could have a little garden without any plants even, just rocks and the figurines. No maintenance gardening! πŸ™‚
    Frances

  13. Very neat! The box stores sell 1/4 inch rubber tubing that you can puncture for drip irrigation. When you go on vacation just fix a timer to the house faucet and hook it to the drip line. I use a similar method for the veggies, although with all the rain last year I didn’t use it much!

    Oh Dave, you are a genius! Thanks so much for this watering tip. We will rig something up and give it a go. It makes perfect sense too. There is a hose faucet right there by the orchid shelving too, perfect. πŸ™‚
    Frances

  14. lotusleaf says:

    Bonsai is something which I have always liked, but never mastered. Your bonsais are very pretty.

    Thanks Lotusleaf. I cannot say that the bonsai has been mastered, only project begun. Time will tell if we are on the correct path, but each journey begins with the first step. πŸ™‚
    Frances

  15. Randy says:

    Frances! How in the world do you find the time to do all that you do? “In a world of mere mortals you are a Wonder Woman!”

    Oh Randy, you are too funny, and too sweet. One word to answer your question: winter. Finding ways to garden in winter gets tougher each year, with this year being by far the worst. It was so cold for so long, we couldn’t go out and piddle like we normally do. But I appreciate the kind words. πŸ™‚
    Frances

  16. RainGardener says:

    Frances you’ve done great with the combinations you’ve put in your lovely containers.
    I’ve always been so fascinated by Bonsai and attended some talks on it. After attending them I decided I just couldn’t do it. Killing a new plant I’ve purchased is bad enough but if I destroyed an old one it would kill me. But I LOVE them. We went to a Weyerhauser Bonsai display up north and it was beautiful. Some of the trunks were so old and huge and some trees were in bloom – gorgeous. But I was most fascinated with a forest – a whole forest of evergreen trees. It still amazes me to think of it!

    Thanks RG. These long term plantings have worked out better, so far, than the lovely annual combinations that have been tried for years that always disappoint. Maybe it’s a good thing I don’t know anything about Bonsai, it seems that the classes are very discouraging for people to give it a go. That is not our philosophy, we will try anything garden related that doesn’t cost a lot of money. What’s the worst that can happen? The plant dies. Try again with something else then, just like everything. My attempts will never be like those fantastic ones seen in public gardens, but they are still fun. πŸ™‚
    Frances

  17. kimberly says:

    Impressive! Admittedly, bonsai intimidates me. I’ll try it one day…hopefully.

    Thanks Kimberly. I am always amazed at the comments of things being intimidating. What if only the people with really good voices were allowed to sing? Or only the very talented were the only ones allowed to pick up a paint brush. Thank goodness life isn’t like that. I firmly believe that it is the effort, the journey that is what is important, not the end result. πŸ™‚
    Frances

  18. Darla says:

    This takes a special talent. You, my dear friend are not lacking in the talent department. Always something new and exciting going on at Fairegardens!

    Thanks Darla, I do so appreciate those kinds words, but it seems that what it really takes is to not be put off by a fear of failure. My bonsai are not anything special, and will never be on display anywhere but this blog, lol. Trying new things is what makes life interesting. Life is too short not to. πŸ™‚
    Frances

  19. What beautiful examples of bonsai. I love special gifts like the bonsai container you received. I remember learning about bonsai in college and was frankly amazed at what work went into them. We were also fortunate to see some wonderful examples in China. I look forward to seeing more from you.

    Thanks so much Noelle. I can imagine how wonderful the bonsai in China must have been. Mine will never be anything like that, they are just some little trees and shrubs in containers. It is good that I know nothing else about Bonsai, what is the phrase…fools rush in…. πŸ™‚
    Frances

  20. Hi, Frances!
    I imagine there are more practical ways to water bonsais in hot weather but here’s mine for what it’s worth! I set them in a shady spot in the yard. Put a timer and sprinkler near them and let technology handle things while I’m on vacation. You’ve got some lovely things growing here!

    Thanks so very much, Kate. That sounds like a terrific idea. It seems that the key is the timer. I didn’t even know there were such things that were not part of an elaborate system. The sprinkler idea is perfect. πŸ™‚
    Frances

  21. Okay, now I’m kicking myself. I had a cute little bun of a Chamecyparis in my hand at the Chicago Flower & Garden Show & I didn’t buy it. I love your grouping. My super-cheapo suggestion for watering when you are away is to get a small plastic water bottle, poke a few tiny holes spaced around the neck, and stuff it upside down into the container.
    BTW – you would have loved the gorgeous bonsai specimens the Chicago Botanic Garden brought to the Chicago Flower show.

    Aren’t those little ones too cute? I can hardly resist them, but they aren’t cheap, thank goodness, that holds me back. Thanks for the watering tip. It won’t work for the little dogwood, but would be good for indoor plants. I can imagine the CBG had some amazing specimens, what a first rate outfit they are. I envy your going to that show, too. πŸ™‚
    Frances

  22. joey says:

    Oozing with talent, dear Frances, when do you sleep! As much as I love bonsai, I wouldn’t dare since I too am gone for long periods over the summer. But do I love them, indeed I do, and your examples are stunning!

    Oh you are too sweet, dear Joey, thanks. There is extra time for projects during the winter months. You would have to take your Bonsai with you as you go from one home to another! That is too daunting even for me. πŸ™‚
    Frances

  23. Catherine says:

    It turned out so nicely. You are so creative with your plantings and use of rocks, etc.
    We used to babysit our neighbor’s bonsai when they went on vacation. At the time I thought it was funny that he brought it over to our house rather than us cross the street to water it. Maybe you can find a plant sitter when you’re away? πŸ™‚

    Thanks Catherine. Placing the rocks and moss is a fun part of these projects. We love looking for likely rocks around the property, they keep turning up in the beds somehow. That was very kind of you to babysit your neighbor’s bonsai. In the past, we probably could have asked Mae and Mickey to take care of ours, but his health is not good and I don’t feel comfortable asking, sad to say. I think the sprinkler and/or drip tube sounds like a good plan.
    Frances

  24. Love the gorgeous blue pot, Frances. I’ve never been into bonsai–which isn’t to say I don’t like and admire it when other people create these lovely, living works of art, because I sure do. Just never had the inclination myself. The best display of bonsai I’ve ever seen was at the Montreal Botanical Garden. Incredible. But yours are just as wonderful, and in fact much warmer and joy-filled.
    I wonder if one of those glass watering globes would be useful for watering the little evergreen when you’re away? If it could be put into the container without being topheavy or apt to blow over in a windstorm, of course. Just a thought.

    Thanks Jodi. I do believe that the big botanical gardens have the best Bonsai displays, they have the staff, facilities and knowledge to keep them going. I like the looks of the glass globes, thanks for adding to the suggestion box! πŸ™‚
    Frances

  25. Willow says:

    They are so cute. My Daughter had one when she was a teenager. I still look every now and than for another one to buy her, but have not seen one yet.

    Thanks Willow. It sounds like your daughter needs another! πŸ™‚
    Frances

  26. Sylvia (England) says:

    Frances, I have a timer and water system for when I am away. It is worth all the effort it takes to put up and down. I find for small plants and seedlings that the best way is to put them on capillary matting and water the matting. Before that I cam home to some over watered and washed out their pots, some didn’t get any water at all. Other plants in larger pots either have their own dripper or are in a area which I can ‘flood’ and then it drains quickly. Not an easy thing to achieve – I just happen to have a concrete service type trench with drain!

    Best wishes Sylvia (England)
    Off to visit your posts on small leaves syndrome!

    Thanks so much Sylvia. I have seen those mats in catalogs and wondered how well they worked. That plus the timer might be just the thing. I saw your search for the little leaf! Thanks for giving business to the older posts! πŸ™‚
    Frances

  27. Hi Frances

    Beautiful bonsai and terrific blue pot.

    Seems there are some good irrigation ideas in the comments, failing that you need a plant sitter!!!

    Thanks Rob. There is no one available to take care of the plants, so we will be using a timer and some device, probably a sprinkler. Or maybe we will put them in a shady spot and hope for the best, like we do with the orchids. πŸ™‚
    Frances

  28. bloominrs says:

    Hello Frances,
    You really do it all, don’t you? I really like the planting with the cool rock in the container from your offspring.

    Thanks Bloomin, we have tried nearly every type of gardening, it is true. Many failures later, we are better off for the experience. πŸ™‚
    Frances

  29. easygardener says:

    Bonsai are interesting and I am always surprised at the age of some of the specimens. I did dabble years ago but lost interest. I’m sure I’ve still got a little pot somewhere. In the summer (during vacations) it might be worth sinking the small pots in the ground in a shady spot.

    Thanks for that great idea, EG. Too much water is a danger, more so than not enough actually. I think your suggestion is worth considering. It makes sense, and I have done something similar before with good results. I had forgotten about that, thanks for the reminder! πŸ™‚
    Frances

  30. Stevie says:

    Bonsai is a cool name – they even have a British TV show named Bonsai that spoofs japanese game shows – it’s hillarious! Oops, that Bansai – well, still cool.

    Great planters you have created – the time and dedication I would love to have – but I’ll have to view from afar and enjoy via your lovely posts!

    Thanks Stevie, that sounds like a funny show! I don’t know how dedicated I am to these, they had better be pretty low maintenance. We shall see how they fare when we go away for a few days. πŸ™‚
    Frances

  31. Sweet Bay says:

    You are very ambitious! Your plantings look lovely and interesting. I know that if I tried bonsai here it probably wouldn’t last a week.

    Thanks Sweet Bay. We really just consider them plants in containers, nothing special. We’ll see how it goes, the watering seems troubling during high summer. Hope we get good rainfall! πŸ™‚
    Frances

  32. TC Conner says:

    Bonsai is way cool, I wish I had the patience. And a good pair of toenail clippers.

    Have you considered those long-necked decorative glass watering globes? You fill them, stick the neck in the pot, and you’ve got the trickle down effect as the plant needs it. (The tips have a tendency to clog though.)

    Thanks TC. Toenail clippers are very important! HA Thanks for that hint about the glass globes clogging, while pretty, that is a big minus for keeping plants alive. πŸ™‚
    Frances

  33. Grace says:

    Hi Frances~~ I have a really good tip for keeping plants watered while you’re away. Fill a child’s preformed swimming pool with a few inches of water. Voila. A temporary watering hole.

    I call my bonsai experiments “Quasi-bonsai.” It’s fun. Good luck with yours.

    Thanks so much for that, Grace. We have some large tubs that could work perfectly. Our attempts are also quasi-bonsai more than the real thing. I believe we are of the same mind. πŸ™‚
    Frances

  34. Tatyana says:

    Frances, you are a real inspiration! I love what you’ve done! Last summer, I put a volanteer cedar(?) seedling into a succulent dish, just because it looked so good and I hated to discard it as a weed. It survived! I think I need to find a separate planter for it.

    That is wonderful, Tatyana, thanks so much. The little trees are sometimes too sweet to discard, you are right. What’s the harm in trying to give them a new home? πŸ™‚
    Frances

  35. commonweeder says:

    After our time in China I came to love bonsai. In China they call it ‘penjing’. However, I think I have to mature more in my understanding before I try again. Maybe if I do as you have and start from scratch myself. You are always so encouraging.

    I was trying to find that phrase used in China, Pat, but wiki, that most reliable of sources, HA, had the other word. Your time in China must have been wonderful, I am envious. Thanks for those nice words. I believe people should try new things without a fear of failure holding them back. Just do it! πŸ™‚
    Frances

  36. Radhika says:

    I have been dabbling with miniatures since the last 5-6 yrs now and find the hobby very satisfying. I quite enjoyed being here and sharing your experience with Miniatures greens. The pictures are beautiful. Thx for sharing

    Thanks Radhika and welcome. I might be coming to you for answers to my questions concerning the growing of these delightful specimens. I am so intrigued by the Holi! πŸ™‚
    Frances

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