I love forest plantings. With that said, I’ve seen countless poor forest plantings, and it’s all due to poor design. So how do you ensure that your design will pass muster? Is there a formula? Actually, there is. Here’s a bald cypress forest I assembled today from a group of saplings I’d grown from seed started a few years ago.
It’s not much to look at, having been made from an odd collection of less-than-stellar saplings, but focus your attention on the bases of the trunks. If you get this part right, the rest almost takes care of itself. If you get this part wrong, there’s not a lot you can do to correct the problem without ripping the forest apart and starting over.
So if you focus on the bases of the trunks, your brain should recognize something that “makes sense” to it. Bonsai forests are landscape scenes to an even greater extent than individual bonsai are. It’s not just a single tree, a lone sentinel as it were; it’s much more complex. In the grand world of bonsai, the forest planting lies smack in between the individual bonsai and saikei – a planting that consists of trees, stones, sometimes water, and even miniature buildings and figurines. It’s hard to do saikei well; it’s hard to do bonsai forests well. But I hope to make it a little easier for you.
Let’s start with how to plan a bonsai forest. First of all, the obvious. It’s going to have an odd number of trees, unless you’re going for the really big ones that are in excess of 11 trees. After 11, it’s not vital that you stick with odd numbers.
Second, the trees should have similar characteristics in terms of trunk style. For the most part, you don’t want to mix trees with straight trunks and trees with curving trunks (you can see that I need to actually wire a few of the specimens next spring to straighten them – not a huge chore, but necessary). You also want varying trunk sizes, namely, a largest focal tree, one to a few trees of somewhat smaller caliber, and other specimens with decreasing trunk sizes. You’ll want a couple of trees with really thin trunks, specifically to go in the rear of the planting.
Next comes the plot plan. For those of you who are experienced at making well-designed forest plantings, this doesn’t have to be formalized. If you’re new to the game, I’d highly suggest sitting down and making yourself a drawing like the one below.
Here I’ve reduced the design pictured above to a plot plan drawing. It’s basically the layout of the forest. It’s also a sure-fire way to create a design that looks right. Notice the dotted lines I’ve added that show a key principle of forest design – no trunks visually obscuring others, either from the front or side view. I’ve listed this and the other design principles in a nutshell, to the left. If you simply follow these rules, you’ll be hard-pressed to go wrong.
Have you done any forest plantings? Are you satisfied with the results? I’d love to hear any feedback you’re willing to share.