The Bonsai Pot Revealed – The Importance of Style, Function and Quality

When you first start your awesome adventure into the world of bonsai, you quickly realize that the two most necessary pieces you need are a tree and a pot. Of course you will need tools and fertilizer and soil, but not at the start. Initially, the most important, most relevant items you will need are the tree and the pot. I mention this because most people tend to look at the tree and the pot as foundational, as the basics and subsequently do not pay much attention to them as they progress through the hobby. I think you should take another look at pots. That’s what this article covers. And not just the style of bonsai pots, but also the function and the quality.

But since I mentioned style, let me just add my two cents about style. First, I like to think I’m not big on style. I don’t feel particularly gifted in my design skills. Yet even I know that you probably shouldn’t use a blue pot with a red Japanese maple. Yes, I’m talking about colors here. Some colors are, as my web developer friend tells me, complementary, and some are contrasting. With bonsai, we want to get a soothing feeling from the composition that is comprised of the complementary colors of the tree and pot. There are no rock and roll styles and colors in bonsai. Maybe some would say jinning is edgy – but that’s another topic.

Similarly, there is the shape of the pot. Cascade pots are for trees that, wait for it, … cascade! But the reason to choose a drum, square, oval, octagonal, rectangular or other shaped pot depends upon the shape of the tree you are putting into it. This may seem nuts, but I look at it this way: A woman is round and curvaceous, a man is wide and angular. Does your tree give you a sense of being male or female? The way it is shaped, is it soft and round, or bold and angular? Is it stylized? When you are choosing a pot, you can’t really go wrong because you will know instinctively what works and what does not. If you ever get a tree into a pot and think, “does that look weird?” the answer is, “Yes!” so repot it!

So what about function? Most people think a pot holds a plant, and they are partly right, but the difference in a pots function is really 2 things – size and drainage holes.

Bonsai pots are shallow and it’s this shallow-ness that keeps the tree growing slowly and small. 1 year in the ground equals 7 years in a pot. That pot is, severely slowing the growth of that tree. The deeper or more shallow the pot, the more the effect. The larger or smaller the pot, the more the effect – it is proportional.

Drainage holes are also a very important aspect of a bonsai pot. They need to be large enough to allow for adequate drainage. In most pots, the drainage holes are used when you need to wire a plant into the pot, but in the higher quality pots, like Tokoname pots, there are additional holes for wiring the tree in. These help because they are spaced more toward the corners of the pot. Think about it like this. A bonsai 101 rule is to not place the tree in the center of the container, yet the drainage holes are placed in the center of the container (rectangular) and if you wire a tree in and snug it down, it will naturally pull toward the center of the container. Special wire holes in the corners allow you to place the tree anywhere you please, and to firm the tree to the pot. These holes allow you to ensure the tree and the pot are one.

Finally, as to the quality of pots. Are all pots the same? Absolutely not. I always suggest Japanese bonsai pots. I don’t know why the Japanese are such sticklers about their tools and pots, but they are and they won’t accept less than a fine level of quality. I think it’s part of their culture. It would be dishonorable to sell sub-standard bonsai items as their heritage is enmeshed in the craft. Still, high quality pots, are not that much more expensive than poor quality pots. Ok, sure you could spend $1,000 or more dollars on a pot. I’m not talking about those. I’m talking about a nice quality Japanese bonsai pot. If you choose any Tokoname pot, you have made a wise decision. Here’s why:

Your pot will be outside in the elements. It will endure the heat of August and the Freezes in January and it’s going to be holding the tree, and it’s soil and water the entire time. Over time, cheap, thin ceramic pots will chip and crack. The cheaper pots use dark glazes so that you can’t easily notice that your pot has cracked under the glaze during the first winter. About 2 years is all you can expect a cheap Chinese pot to last. I’m not harping on the Chinese, it’s just that they are the main suppliers of these pots. They don’t seem to be made in Japan. You can also find these cheap pots made in Mexico, but you can also find some very nice quality pots made in Mexico. Back to my point, there are Japanese Tokoname bonsai pots that are easily a hundred years old or more. How is it that these Japanese pots can last so much longer? Better quality clay, and thicker wall construction of the pot. A Japanese pot is heavy. It’s built to last.

So remember, your bonsai pot should match, complement, your bonsai’s color and shape. The pot should be the size that matches your bonsai and have the drainage and wiring holes that help you instead of hinder you and your pot should be high quality! You will enjoy your trees more if they are in high quality pots! If you want to save money on your pots and you are looking for the cheapest there is, go plastic! For about $3 you can get an attractive plastic pot that will last ten years or more instead of two. When you are ready for a ceramic pot, buy a Tokoname ceramic pot from Japan. Trust me, you won’t be sorry! They are incredibly attractive, and when you unwrap it and look at it for the first time, you will understand the difference between a real bonsai pot and the junk we don’t sell. Then, you will use nothing else.

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