Earlier this year I decided to make a forest planting of water oaks. It was a noble idea. I had some material and I had the pot, so why not?

Wateroak4-3-16Here’s what I had after some digging, positioning and filling the pot with soil. Not too bad.

I know what you’re probably thinking and yes, I know there are six trees here and it’s not an odd number and forest plantings need to have an odd number of trees (up to about 11). My plan was to add another tree to bring the number to seven. That sounded like it would bring some good luck to the forest. I wasn’t sure when that was going to happen, though.

Obviously not soon enough, and so, six being an unlucky number two of the trees in my new forest up and died. I’m not a fan of forest plantings with dead trees in them, so there was only one thing to do – take it apart and figure out what to do with the living trees.


I had an old Tokoname tray sitting on a shelf, so I put together a little three-tree forest (the two small trunks are actually connected). To be honest, while it was okay to have this planting and I was happy the trees stayed alive, it just didn’t quite strike me as artistic in its composition. No rules are broken, and it seems to meet the standards for bonsai forest design to a pretty decent degree. But there was just something not quite right about this composition from the start.

It finally struck me that one of the key features of this small grouping is the extreme height of the main tree. It’s certainly all right to have trees in a bonsai forest that are quite tall relative to the thickness of their trunks; no problem there. But in this case the height is exaggerated because there aren’t more tall trees surrounding this tall tree. You can get away with one very tall tree as long as there are others around it of similar height – this is the essence, in fact, of most forest plantings. But it’s not happening with this three-tree composition.

Wateroak9-3-16-2There was only one thing to do, in my opinion. You can get away with overly tall trees in two bonsai styles: forests and bunjin. The fact that I have a three-tree forest notwithstanding, the only way to make this group look “right” was to render it a more bunjin-style bonsai. So the obvious answer was to reduce the size of the pot, exaggerating the height of the tall tree even more. I had this new Shawn Bokeno oval on the shelf, and it seemed to fit the bill.

You may want to spend a few minutes studying this design. Notice how each of the trunks has a distinctive movement toward the right as you go up the trunk. This makes for harmony among them, and this is enhanced by the fact that each trunk gets progressively thinner as your eye moves from one tree to the next. They move in synch. Their foliage masses are arranged in a pleasing fashion, with the lowest branch on the shortest trunk, with successive branches being higher and higher as you move from smallest to largest trunk. You can see a great degree of visual depth in this forest, which is created by having the smallest tree placed at the rear of the group. Also notice that the trunks get closer together as they get smaller. All in all, I think there’s now some artistry in this forest design.

Hopefully these trees will come through having been potted and then repotted twice in the same growing season. I couldn’t keep looking at them the way they were, though, so I had to take the chance.

Now, there’s plenty of work to be done on this new bonsai. Obviously the trees still have their full-size leaves. Over time I’ll be able to reduce the size of the leaves greatly, with pruning and pinching, and this bonsai will ultimately look very realistic. But that work is for another day.

I’d love to hear what you think of this bonsai. Do you like this rendering better or the one above?