Turning Japanese


I have to start with declaring, as it will quickly become obvious, that I know nothing at all about bonsai.  But with the power of google I am willing to have a go.

At our recent horticultural show one of the members donated a couple of bonsai trees to the plant sales table and my youngest bought one.  He has always had a fascination with Japan and had wanted a bonsai for years so at £5 it was rude to turn it down.  As the show drew to a close and we were clearing up there were a couple of small cotoneaster shrubs which were being grown as bonsai but in a standard plastic pot.  The gentleman who had donated them, having noted my son’s interest, gave him one of them and needless to say it ended up sitting on my patio table waiting for something to be done.


Having found an old shallow square terracotta pot while tidying up, the germ of an idea started to form.  I looked around the garden and sourced some bits of Malvern stone and set to creating a Japanese masterpiece – being a natural optimist what else would it be!  It took some time to tease the roots apart and clipping the more tangled fibrous ones so I had something manageable to handle.  I then carefully assembled the rocks into an outcrop, although I am sure it is completely incorrect geologically.


Getting the little tree to balance on top of the rocks while I spread the roots over the rocks was very tricky and fiddly. I can spend ages doing embroidery but this sort of thing I find very difficult and have little patience with probably because the roots didn’t want to stay where I wanted them to.  I weighted them down with gritty compost and then top-dressed with gravel.  I think maybe bonsai are normally topped dressed with moss but the gravel will hopefully hold everything in place until it establishes and then I can always add moss.  You will note in the top picture there is a small cane holding the branch up and this is to try to push the tree into a more upright position.  Saying that I recently saw some photographs of venerable old trees in Japan which were supported in just the same way!


Continuing the Japanese theme I was thrilled that little fernlets of Cyrtomium fortunei (Japanese Holly Fern) have started to appear.  The spores were collected from my own plant so this makes them extra special.  Building on this success I sowed Pyrrosia lingua ‘Ogon Nishiki‘ spores which I got from my favourite nursery Growild in Scotland.  You have to sow spores on sterilised compost and my preferred method is to bake the compost in the oven – leading to cries of ‘What is for dinner today? Oh the old family favourite John Innes!!’.

There’s a chance I might be going to Japan next year so maybe I will get to see these growing in the wild which would be amazing.

Author: Helen Johnstone

I live in Malvern, Worcestershire and am a very keen gardener. I started the Patient Gardener Blog in January 2008 as a way of recording what was happening in my garden and connecting with other like-minded people. I started a second blog PatientGardener 365 January 2013 in order to try and post a photo a day to capture what is growing in my garden or places I have visited

19 thoughts on “Turning Japanese”

  1. How Impressive! I think given your fine gardening experience and emboridery dexterity and ‘good eye’ for detail you must be a natural! Bonsai is a such an intricate art, this looks very promising, very well done indeed.

    1. Oh that cotoneaster looks as if it has been there for years Helen. Job well done. I find bonsai quite fascinating. How exciting to see your baby fernlets. No prizes for guessing what song is going be in my head for the rest of the night.

    2. Hi Anna
      Thank you I am quite chuffed with the result, we will see how it goes. Sorry about the song

    1. Hi Rachel
      I hope it doesn’t become consuming as I have too many other consuming interests

  2. Oh what a good start you have made with this bonsai Helen – you must be chuffed with the result, despite your supposed lack of patience at the time. And fernlets from your own fern spores – how exciting, as is a potential visit to Japan!

    1. Hi Cathy
      I am very pleased with how it looks. I have been told via FB that I need to lightly cover the roots until they establish and then remove the compost later to exposed the roots – fascinating stuff.

  3. Your cotoneaster looks like a real bonsai – only problem with me I don’t like them – cruel putting wires around, pruning harshly, branches and roots. It can get a real addiction, there is a garden in Auckland that only has hundreds of bonsai’s! your ferns look healthy!

    1. Hi Yvonne
      I agree with you I don’t really like bonsai either for the same reason but given I had the bits I thought I would give it a go

    1. Hi Charlie
      As all the components were free it was worth a go. It will be interesting to see how it works out.

  4. I’ve been ‘looking after’ a bonsai tree on behalf of my son for over a year now. It is still a baby but I’m amazed at how much a similar one would cost at my local garden centre where they now run courses in looking after your very expensive purchase! I think my son bought his for a couple of quid at a Fresher’s Fair, quite a sweet thing to buy I thought! I would love to visit Japan. About 10- 15 years ago I spent ages reading everything I could about Japanese gardens, both cultivated and wild, (via the Wisley library) and I’m sure it heavily influenced me when I laid out my garden 10 years ago. One day …My tip for successful bonsai is regular/daily misting. I also stand the pot in a shallow tray of water for a short time and never water from above as you wash away all the compost.

  5. Good luck. It looks a really promising start. I love the way that you’ve woven the roots over the rocks. Most authentic. I’ve got cotoneaster seedlings and now i’ve got itchy fingers!

  6. I’ll be really interested to see how you get on. My auntie used to travel to Japan for work and brought back bonsai trees, which as a child I found absolutely magical.

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