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by Ron Martin
I guess one could say that forest plantings are just about my favorite style of bonsai. I am kind of passionate about this style, to say the least; obsessed might be a better word.
For some people a forest planting is just a thing to slap a bunch of seedlings into. Or maybe they think, a place to use those trees that are so butt ugly that they will never make a good individual bonsai.
For them this might work but I have found that things that are made from leftovers look like leftovers. Not pretty, not good, just "leftovers". Remember just a little bit of ugly will overwhelm a whole lot of beauty.
But take a little time and select the right trees. Style them individually to make them a part of an artistically planned whole. Notice how things like trunk taper, caliper and branch placement create harmony and flow to the trees in your forest. Pay attention and make sure that all the small pieces go together to make the whole thing look like something to be proud of. Something worth the time and energy to create.
Consider each tree individually, then as a group. Look at how each tree relates to all the others. Each tree in the composition will have a specific position based on logical choices on your part.
A forest does, after all, start with one tree and grows from there. That tree is the primary tree. Naturally it is the tallest and thickest one in the planting. A tree half that size should have a trunk about half as thick. Half the size would, after all, be half the age. The further you get from the primary tree naturally the younger and smaller the trees will get.
Can you mix the specie of trees in your forest? Of course you can but it will be a little bit harder. Each different specie will require a different amount of care. All the way from trimming to watering. This will require more work on your part. Do you really want to do this? I prefer to keep the same specie of trees in my forest. I am a bit lazy. No sense in working harder than you actually need to.
Consider the specie of tree to use for what you are doing. If what you are trying to portray is a forest high up in the mountains, I don't think that maples would be the best choice. They don't normally grow there. Your forest should not only be pretty but it must also be believable. Make your forest something that the audience can understand. Make them feel like they have walked through this forest before.
It doesn't matter how big that audience might be. It could be an auditorium full of people or just your family and friends. Might even just be you. But go all out to impress that audience.
Is all this a bit harder to do? A little but, I think it is well worth the effort. It might even be a load of fun.
Forest plantings are usually attacked differently than the normal single bonsai. Most of the time we find the pot or slab first. Then we look for tree stock to use.This might not be the best plan but it seems to always wind up that way. This makes getting the right stock just a little bit more complicated than usual. Since the average forest planting has between 5 and 9 trees, it can not only be complicated but can border on the expensive side also.
As with most things in bonsai, the raw material can come from several different places:
1. Purchasing suitable material:
The easiest and quickest way to go.That is if your wallet can handle it, this could run into more than just a few bucks.
Always a good source of material. For the most part it is free and might even give you a few good stories to tell your bonsai buddies.
Not all that bad a way to go if you have plenty of time. They are usually not terrifically expensive if you have to buy them. Easy to collect if you want to go that route.
The only problem with seedlings is the size of the trunk. Usually they are all that standard pencil thickness and just about as straight as one. A bit of growing time will take care of this problem. Putting them in the ground to grow for a couple of seasons would seem the logical thing to do. Problem is that they will all grow at approximately the same rate there. A couple of years later we have better trunks but they, for the most part, will all have the same thickness. What might even be better would be to grow them out in varying sized pots.
By using drastically different size pots one will get different growth rates. A seedling might look a bit silly in a 5 gallon nursery container, but in a few seasons it will be much bigger than one that was grown out in a one gallon nursery pot. In just a couple of growing seasons those seedlings will make a much better forest For several years this was how I obtained my material for forest plantings. Occasionally I still do it this way.
Now I am a bit on the lucky side, in that over the years I have been able to find some good nurseries where I can get mature material at a very reasonable price. But I do think that if I weren't getting a bit on the older side of life, I would still start with seedlings. It does give one better control over the material and it can be a lot of fun.
Unlike growing out seedlings for other styles of bonsai, only a few seasons are required to get good material.The trunks don't have to be quite as big as it does with a single tree bonsai, so you don't need to think in decades.
No matter how you wind up getting your trees, it is always smart to spend some time on the roots. Forest plantings need a much shallower root system than almost any other kind of bonsai. You are, after all, shoving more trees in that small pot or slab.
Once the trees are the right size for my forest, I do my drastic root pruning and then put the trees in shallow containers (not more that 2 inches deep) for at least one season. This gives me a nice shallow root system to work with.This makes it a lot easier when I start putting all those trees together in that shallow forest planter. Most of the time you will be putting one root system on top of the other with just a little bit of dirt between them. Not an easy thing to do safely without the proper root preparation. I may spend several seasons preparing and pre-styling my trees and only about an hour or so putting the whole thing together. This seems to work really well, for me at least.
Pot vs. slab
Either a pot or slab will work quite nicely depending on what type of composition you are trying to achieve. To me a slab works best when doing a mountainous scene and a pot when doing the normal lowland forest type planting. This is, however, a matter of personal taste. There are few benefits in choosing a pot over a slab.
Pots are more widely available than slabs and come in a wide variety of sizes, colors and shapes.This makes it a bit easier to match it with your forest planting.
The slab is usually a little harder to maintain. The soil available for the tree is normally much less than in a pot.This, more often than not, means a bit more in the way of watering and fertilizing. Well worth the extra effort though. All kinds of slabs are available - both man made and natural. My personal favorites are the ones carved out by Joe Day of Mobile, AL. They are very distinctive and make for a truly believable base for the planting.
This one is my favorite. It can be used in many ways. You can
almost see the fish jumping out of the imaginary water in
front of the slab. Give Joe a hammer, a piece of stone, a
few trees and something always nice comes from it.
The Mechanics of it all:
My intention in this article is not to tell you exactly how to style a forest planting, but to give you some useful techniques to make yours look better. Simple things that you might not have thought about.
This planting is an excellent example of a planting that is
good enough to be at home in either a pot or a slab.
We will be coming back to this one a little later.
Photo Courtesy ofColin Lewis
Doing a forest is a little bit different than a single tree. Things like perspective, negative space and visual weight are handled differently.
My friend Colin Lewis taught me that styling a forest is much like styling a formal upright. Just consider where those branches would be on that formal upright (Fig. 3), then mentally erase that massive trunk (Fig. 4).
Connect smaller trunks to the branches forming the same basic outline of the original trunk (Fig. 5). Basically that is all there is to it. The overall outline of the two are just about the same. This is a bit simplistic but, if you think about it, is a true statement.