Thoughts about growing and displaying bonsai at home

Thanks to many moves throughout the years, I have had the “opportunity” (corporate euphemism…) to set up bonsai display areas half a dozen times. Each was a little different, ranging from apartment balconies, to yards on rental properties, to two homes with nearly ideal conditions. The current bonsai area runs North-South, and for the most part, the trees face East. I am terrible about rotating the trees, so invariably, the right side is weaker than the left side on most of them. We recently had some landscaping done, partly to address drainage issues (another corporate euphemism), reduce tracking mud into the house, and to address an area where grass just doesn’t grow well. At the same time, I expanded and defined the bonsai display area, and added some additional stands. While we were in the design phase, I really started to consider all the things I liked about display areas, and to add some new features.

That was probably the long way to state that this entry is a list of considerations that went into this setup…after 5 years in this space and after 6 other setups. Here we go…

1. Exposure. Most of the monkey poles and benches run north-south, and the northern half of the display is under a large, but highly-limbed-up oak tree. In the spring, the light is great, and in the heat of summer, the area receives morning sun, and afternoon shade. This is great for some of the deciduous trees that would flame out in our hot summer sun. Further south, they get all the sun the day can offer, which is just fine for the two-needle pines, tough evergreens, and some native plants. This setup accommodates the varying needs of the collection very well, but I find myself crowding trees toward the north end of the benches by July, so a little more space in that area would be good (as opposed to selling some…depending on who you ask).

2. Orientation. As mentioned, most of the trees face East, and I want to see the fronts, so having some benches that face other directions will allow me to change their exposure, while still seeing the fronts. Consider what the view will be from other areas of the yard, and through windows from inside the house as well.

3. Shelter. While it is important to have plenty of air circulation, and exposure to the breezes, sun, rain, and temperature, the more buffer you can provide from extremes, the easier it is on the trees. Some people speak of microclimates in their yards that offer a few degrees of frost protection, just because of the way their yard and buildings are situated. Having the area against the north-south running fence buffets some of the wind, and tall trees nearby keep our yard pretty calm. Having lived where wind protection just wasn’t available, I have never failed to appreciate this feature.

4. Bench height. The biggest challenge I have seen with many other bonsai display areas is getting the bench height right. I have found that benches between 39″-49″ are about ideal. Now, several factors are important in determining this, most importantly, how far away are you likely to view from? The closer the view, the higher the bench should be. My 10′ long bench is 48″ high, and is designed for very close viewing. Often, visitors rest their hands and elbows right on the bench for very close inspection of the inhabitants. This is also a great height for photographing them. Where the trees are observed from some distance (8′ back or so), shorter benches are fine, 36″-40″.

5. Bench size. I have 18 “monkey poles” to display individual trees, and three larger benches. The monkey poles are good for allowing good trees to stand out apart from others, but benches are much more versatile. The benches are 8′-10′ long, and 36″-48″ deep, made from 4×4 posts with 2×2 slat as tops. In the winter these benches double as winter cover, where they can be mulched in, under partial cover, with less fluctuation in temperature, and away from kids and animals. My monkey poles are very simple in design, and I make them so they’re a few inches larger than the pots that will be on them, for the added sense of stability.

6. The ground beneath. Living on a second floor apartment balcony might be the toughest way to maintain a bonsai collection. I always felt bad for the neighbors below…ok, maybe not that bad, but I didn’t make any enduring friendships this way. In our homes, the benches have been set into flower beds or lawn, and that has been convenient to prevent a lot of runoff. Now, the benches have a layer of gravel underneath, called 8910, which is like (might even be) decomposed granite or limestone. It is supposed to pack well, so we will see how it handles a daily deluge, and how quickly the smell of weekly fish emulsion dissipates. Where grass (weeds) grew before, I will no longer have to trim and mow around countless (ok, 21) posts, now I can carefully deal with weeds with some roundup.

7. Access. The best work is done on a daily basis while the trees are growing, and the best design decisions are made after many thoughtful walks up and down the rows. The trees still need to be easily accessed for pinching, watering, and most importantly, inspecting for pest and disease problems, so they can be abated before they become infestations.

8. Security. For obvious reasons, I won’t cover my security measures, but do consider security: physically locking and restricting the space, eliminating visibility from the street, anchoring trees, installing motion lights, cameras, and alarms, owning dogs, maintaining an irregular schedule, establishing a neighborhood watch, having effective home protection/armament (along with training and practice), taking good photographs, and adding detailed insurance riders to cover loss in the event everything else fails.

So those were the main considerations. Here are a few before and after shots. Plantings will come soon. I am still debating on whether or not to use the berm as a growing out area for some junipers that will become bonsai one day. It only stands to reason…but we’ll see… Thanks for reading.

Before…

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And a few after shots…

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4 thoughts on “Thoughts about growing and displaying bonsai at home

  1. Looks like an expensive project, but it also looks like it came out super nice. The ume sure grabs the eye! Do you do anything to secure the pots to the poles?

  2. Thanks Judy, I am very happy with the outcome. Having trees on both sides really defines the space and makes it just a little quieter somehow. Planting will probably increase that. I do secure pots to posts at times, for health, it’s easy to use insulated copper wire and cinch them underneath. Bike chains work well for security.

    The ume is close to done now…makes me look forward to next winter already…thanks for the note!

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