Kusamono Workshop: Displaying Bonsai with Accent Plants

By Young Choe and Bob King

Figure 1: Young Choe recently gave a presentation and workshop at the West Coast Bonsai Society in North Vancouver, BC.

Figure 1: Young Choe recently gave a presentation and workshop at the West Coast Bonsai Society in North Vancouver, BC.

Figure 2: Composition of Saxifraga hybrid 'Purple Robe' (saxifrage) with rocks at Bonsai Mirai.

Figure 2: Composition of Saxifraga hybrid 'Purple Robe' (saxifrage) with rocks at Bonsai Mirai.

The following article was published in the ABS Journal Vol 50 No 3.

Editor’s notes:

Over the past few years, I have continued to include articles that focus on the “other” components that enhance the presentation of bonsai - giving a sense of completion. In particular, the journal has featured numerous articles on bonsai containers and most recently on bonsai stands. It is only appropriate that an article on the nature of accent plants completes the cycle - in this case an overview of kusamono.

I first met Young Choe at Bonsai Mirai in spring 2015, she was preparing accent plants for Ryan Neil and I was taking a workshop in his studio. Her love and enthusiasm of developing accent plants was seriously delightful. Her compositions were intriguing as well as beautiful. I was convinced that she had lots to offer not only to bonsai enthusiasts but also to avid gardeners. After a bit of lobbying the West Coast Bonsai Society in North Vancouver, BC agreed to host her for a weekend. It was an energetic and enlightening experience.

In the presentation of a bonsai the visual impact of the tree is enhanced by not only the stand but also the accent planting. This planting provides context, a counter balance in shape, scale, texture, and even color. It completes the visual experience - a collaboration of the various parts.

The remaining text was supplied by Young with a few additions of mine:
From the North Vancouver workshop: Figure 3: Composition of Physocarpus opulifolius 'Center Glow' (ninebark), Imperata cylindrica 'Rubra' (Japanese blood grass), Arctostaphylos uva-ursi 'Vancouver Jade' (bearberry), and Ophiopogon japonicus 'Nana' (dwarf mondo grass) in a moss ball - kokedama.

From the North Vancouver workshop:

Figure 3: Composition of Physocarpus opulifolius 'Center Glow' (ninebark), Imperata cylindrica 'Rubra' (Japanese blood grass), Arctostaphylos uva-ursi 'Vancouver Jade' (bearberry), and Ophiopogon japonicus 'Nana' (dwarf mondo grass) in a moss ball - kokedama.

Figure 4: Composition of Imperata cylindrica 'Rubra' (Japanese blood grass), Ophiopogon japonicus 'Nana' (dwarf mondo grass), and Gaultheria procumbens (wintergreen).

Figure 4: Composition of Imperata cylindrica 'Rubra' (Japanese blood grass), Ophiopogon japonicus 'Nana' (dwarf mondo grass), and Gaultheria procumbens (wintergreen).

When you see a beautiful tree on the mountain, you also see the plants growing nearby which are often humble looking grasses and wildflowers. This natural setting forms the basic concept of displaying bonsai with accent plants.

Accent plants are generally smaller in size and are meant to be a complement to the bonsai on display while companion plants are grown in the pot with the bonsai such as a fern. There are two types of accent plantings – Shitakusa and Kusamono. Shitakusa (下草 under grass), unlike Kusamono, are meant to be viewed as an accompaniment with bonsai not as the center of attention.  Kusamono (草物 grass thing) are generally (but not always) larger and meant to be the single focus, not as a complement to a bonsai. This Japanese botanical art derives its name from two Japanese characters, “grass” and “thing”—which together suggest humble, everyday plants. These arrangements of wild grasses and flowers in unique pots or trays are selected to suggest a season or a place. While Kusamono is a wonderful art form on its own, the purpose of this article is to highlight the ways that plants can be used to enhance bonsai displays.

When using accent plants with a bonsai display, several key principles should be kept in mind. These principles include awareness of the seasonal effect, proportion of the accent plant to the bonsai, harmony of the container or pot with the tree and the planting, and knowledge that the bonsai and accent plants exist naturally within the same habitat.

First, the seasonal effect is important.  By using grasses or flowers unique to spring, summer, fall or winter an accent plant can be used to create seasonal character to a bonsai display. Accent plants show the seasonality of the display especially with evergreen trees.

Second, it is important to select grasses and flowers that are proportional in size to the bonsai so that the accent is neither too big nor too small. Bonsai is the main focus, and it does not need competition.

Third, the container should complement the bonsai and kusamono. Another important complementary aspect is that the containers should be different shapes – a bonsai in a rectangle container can be displayed with an accent plant in a round container.

Fourth, the plants selected should ideally complement the habitat in which the tree naturally grows thus creating a more realistic sense of its place in nature. For example, a native grass that is from a mountain environment would complement a bonsai tree from the same environment. An artist should avoid having a tropical grass or plant with a mountain tree.

Figure 15: Molinia caerulea 'Variegata' (variegated purple moor grass) and Geranium macrorrhizum 'Bevan's Variety' (bigroot cranesbill).

Figure 15: Molinia caerulea 'Variegata' (variegated purple moor grass) and Geranium macrorrhizum 'Bevan's Variety' (bigroot cranesbill).

Figure 16: Armeria maritima (sea-pinks).

Figure 16: Armeria maritima (sea-pinks).

Soil mix

The soil used consists of nursery potting soil with a small-screened akadama in a ratio of 1 part akadama to 5 parts potting soil. The kusamono containers are prepped in the same way as bonsai containers with screen covering the drainage holes. In some cases small gauge aluminum wire is also used to hold larger plants in place. As the display reaches completion, the application of moss and “clean up” is the last task. The arrangement must be neat with a clean container. The planting itself should show a naturalness, without a messy appearance. The plants must be healthy without evidence of insects or disease. The display requires careful maintenance so that any dead or poorly formed leaves are removed to keep the simplicity and beauty of the plant or flower as the complement to the bonsai.  Also, the choice of moss must complement the size of the plant or pot: the smaller the pot, the finer the moss that should be used. The variety and display options for bonsai and kusamono are many, with each display creating its own emotion and vision.

Following the above principles and paying attention to proper maintenance will help you and others to have a more artistically balanced and visually appealing display that evokes the beauty of nature without the messiness of its decay.

Care

After creating kusamono, store them in the shade for at least 2 weeks so they can get acclimated. After the two week period, you can gradually move them into a partial shade environment. Plants grown in small pots require extra watering. So it is important to water them frequently and thoroughly. If the soil becomes completely dry, you must place your pot in a saucer with water. This will allow the water to soak up into the root ball and slowly wet all the soil. it is also important for kusamono to have winter protection. They need protection from freezing. Group them in a plastic tray and put them in an unheated garage. Don't let them dry out.

Kusamono

Figure 5: Tool set for building kusamono and kokedama.

Figure 5: Tool set for building kusamono and kokedama.

Figure 6: Each participant was given a basket of plants to use.

Figure 6: Each participant was given a basket of plants to use.

Figure 7: Beginning the composition by placing the tall grass.

Figure 7: Beginning the composition by placing the tall grass.

Figure 8: Small complementary plants are then placed.

Figure 8: Small complementary plants are then placed.

Figure 9: Additional plants are introduced and secured using wire if necessary.

Figure 9: Additional plants are introduced and secured using wire if necessary.

Figure 10: The exposed soil is mossed to complete the composition.

Figure 10: The exposed soil is mossed to complete the composition.

Kokedama

Figure 11: Mud ball is secured on bonsai drain screen. The excess screen will be trimmed after the composition is completed.

Figure 11: Mud ball is secured on bonsai drain screen. The excess screen will be trimmed after the composition is completed.

Figure 12: Again the grass is placed first into the mud.

Figure 12: Again the grass is placed first into the mud.

Figure 13: Additional plants are added. A chopstick is used to push the plants into the mud and secure the location.

Figure 13: Additional plants are added. A chopstick is used to push the plants into the mud and secure the location.

Figure 14: The entire mud ball is covered with moss to complete the composition.

Figure 14: The entire mud ball is covered with moss to complete the composition.

Workshop Plant List

Arctostaphylos uva-ursi 'Vancouver Jade'                       bearberry
Blechnum spicant                                                               deer fern
Carex flacca 'Blue Zinger'                                                 sedge
Cornus canadensis                                                            bunchberry

Fragaria 'Lipstick'                                                               ornamental strawberry
Gaultheria procumbens                                   wintergreen
Gaultheria shallon                                                              salal
Gaylussacia brachycera 'Barried'                                     box huckleberry
Imperatata cylindrica 'Rubra'                                            Japanese blood grass
Ophiopogon japonicus 'Nana'                                           dwarf mondo-grass
Ophiopogon planisicapus 'Nigrescens'                            black mondo-grass
Physocarpus opulifolius 'Center Glow'                             ninebark
Polygonatum multif lorum                                                 Solomon's-seal

Figure 17: Gaultheria shallon (salal)

Figure 17: Gaultheria shallon (salal)

Figure 18: Iris setosa var. arctica (dwarf arctic iris)

Figure 18: Iris setosa var. arctica (dwarf arctic iris)