As you read bonsai literature about forest plantings, you’re likely to run across the widely accepted idea that bonsai forests are the natural habitat of lousy trees. When I think of this I picture a busy forest scene, with the trees trying to hide behind one another out of shame for being ugly. I’ve never liked this whole idea, frankly, because it tarnishes the dignity of bonsai as an art. If you put together a forest scene, each tree has a role to play and thus each has to carry its own weight or the composition suffers. You don’t take some really nice trees and then throw in some butt-ugly trees you’re trying to get rid of by hiding them in the forest. Trust me, they will be seen. And just as your eye will stop on a bonsai’s flaws when you observe them, your eye will be drawn to the tree that doesn’t fit the forest.

Now consider a three-tree forest planting, which we can call a group planting though it’s the same concept. Just as a specimen bonsai has to carry its own weight – I mean, it’s out there all alone – when you put three trees together there’s really no room for a bad tree.


The other day I took these three Cedar elms, Ulmus crassifolia, and made a forest planting out of them. Individually, each tree is nice and you could make a case for potting them individually. But when I collected them this past April, my goal was to make a group planting out of them and I potted them in a nursery container with that goal in mind.

If you spend a little time examining each tree, you notice a few things:

  • Each one tapers gently from soil to chop point
  • Each one has subtle but attractive trunk movement
  • Each one has nice character
  • The trunk sizes are variable enough to make a group planting work

When I put this group together, the only thing missing was a branch structure for each tree. This is another misconception about forest plantings, namely, you can ignore the styling of the individual trees since they’re all crammed together into a group where you can’t see the lack of styling. Wrong, wrong, wrong! There are rules of the forest just as there are rules for individual bonsai. So let’s see if I can apply a little bit of the necessary structure to this group planting.


I’ve applied wire to those branches ready for it. The main tree, the one on the right, has more mature branches and therefore most of it got wired out. It’s very easy to see the intended design on this tree.

The tree on the left was more of a challenge, having a branch that was growing back into the composition. Well, that’s a no-no! So I wired it and brought it back toward the viewer. As it develops, I’ll be able to put foliage over on the left-hand side where it belongs.

This tree had slight branches to serve as the apex, so I put on some very thin wire and positioned them. They need to grow out and thicken up, so I didn’t trim them. Later on they need to be lower in the silhouette than the apex of the right-hand tree – just a bit.

Finally, the back tree was only ready for wiring of the apical branch, which I did. Part of the reason for this is to get that branch pointing upward, toward the sun, so it grows with more strength. When done, this tree will have the lowest foliage in the group (which it does now) and the lowest terminating point (which it does now).

As with all bonsai, this tree has gotten the work it needs at the time it was needed. Every tree is developed in stages, and you just can’t rush them.