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Forest Plantings

by Ron Martin

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.

2. Collecting:
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.

3. Seedlings:
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.

Figure 1
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.

Figure 2
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.

Figure 3
Figure 4

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).

Figure 5

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.



Visual Weight and The Sweet Spot
In group plantings, more so than in any other style of bonsai, visual weight is one of the most important commodities. It is a means by which we make the viewers eye go to the exact point in our composition that we want them to. They will then see it as we want them to.

In a forest planting this is very important. We must invite them into the composition but control that visit. The best example that I can give for this is that standard old landscape painting that all of us have seen many times. A goodly number of them portray a wooded glen and maybe a couple of hills or a mountain in the background. Almost invariably there is a church steeple or a house with a bit of wispy smoke coming from the chimney. It is usually just a small thing supposedly way off in the distance. Maybe shrouded in a bit of fog.

When you first look at the painting, that building seems to catch your attention. No matter how small it is you notice it right off. It kind of reaches out and grabs you. Brings you almost into the painting. Your eyes keep going back to it again and again.

It is there for a reason. It grabs your eyes and puts them where the artist wants them to be. It forces you to see the entire painting from the view that the artist has selected for you. For lack of a better word, I call this the "sweet spot! A very useful tool in almost all forms of art.

Obviously, in our planting there is not going to be a small house or church steeple. Maybe if we were doing a Penjing but, that is another story altogether.

Figure 6
Painting by Carl Rosner

So how do we put that "sweet spot"in our forest?
Like the painter, we can't scream out "look here" We have to be a bit sneaky about it and just strongly suggest it. The basic construction of the forest will be the biggest hint for them. The biggest and tallest thing in that forest will be the primary tree. Its'trunk is the most massive thing there. Visually it is heavier than all the other smaller trunks. The eyes will naturally wander to that point. But we don't want them to wander, we want them to go straight there. There are many ways to direct the eye of the viewer.

My favorite method is to give just a hint of a winding path through the planting. Not really a path but more of a negative space. This space starts at the front of the forest and gently forms an "S" curve that meanders behind the primary tree, seeming to taper off to nothing somewhere in the forest.

I find that this will catch the viewer's eye and serve as an invitation to enter the forest. That hint of a path going behind the primary tree acts like an arrow pointing to it.The eyes will follow that path. Between the path and the primary tree we have captured the eyes.They will take in the whole forest from there. Just a subtle hint but one that the eyes cannot ignore.

There are many other ways to do this. A bit of strategically placed ground cover. A small piece of jin. Even a high spot in the ground level.Once you have invited them in and shown where that "sweet spot" is, you are basically in control. Now all you have to do is design your forest outward from that spot. Sounds easy, doesn't it? Well, in practice, it is. Just kind of hard to explain using just words.

A few English Elms and a hedge row. A perfectly balanced and beautiful composition. Looking at it one can imagine strolling through it on a chilly winter day in the English countryside.

But what draws you into the composition? How did Colin make your eyes go to the"sweet spot" I have been talking about?

Let's go back to Colin Lewis'planting in figure 2.

Look closely at the ground level just off center to the right. See those cart tracks that meander off into the distance? Don't they kind of hint at "look here?" Once your eyes are directed there the composition seems to take on great depth.The two trees on the right are no longer a big tree and a little tree. They are now a near tree and a distant tree.

Just a little thing, but quite effective, that the artist uses to force the viewer's attention to a point in the composition where he sees the "sweet spot". You now see it through the artist's eyes.

The numbers game. How many trees? Does it always have to be an odd number?

All too often it seems that there is a tendency to see how many trees can be put into the pot. A better approach would be how many trees would look good in that pot.

Most forest plantings have between five and nine trees. Less than five and it looks too much like a clump style bonsai. For the most part these remind me more of a tropical island with coconut trees on it than a forest.
More than nine trees must be done with great care. After nine trees it is awfully easy to overwhelm the viewer with a confusion of trunks and branches.The eyes can get lost in the complexity of it all. It can be done but it does get a bit harder to do after the ninth tree goes into that pot.

Conventional wisdom is to always use an odd number of trees in your forest. One hears all the time that nature very seldom does anything in even numbers.This might be true but I think that it is just easier to compose odd numbers into a believable composition. Even numbers almost always seem to give you a boxy affair.

Less than nine trees in a forest and the eyes can still see individual trees. But once the ninth tree is put into the composition, the eyes get somewhat confused and stop looking at individual trees and start taking them in as a group. For this reason the numbers are less important when more than nine trees are used. Odd and even are just about the same, to the eyes anyway.

The problem is that someone will always count the number of trees in your forest. Good, bad or indifferent it will always be judged on odd vs. even. It's a pity that few can see beyond the numbers and take in the total impact of the composition.

For a little over a year I have been working on a group planting of Bald cypress. Quite a large thing. The pot is a little over 4 feet wide. I was going to put 57 trees in it. A bit of vanity as I was 57 when I started on it. As I was working there came a point where it was just getting too busy and I stopped well short of that fifty-seven. I have gotten a lot of nice comments on that forest. Most everyone seems to like it.

Didn't take too long before the counting started though. Now I hear "Nice forest but it only has twenty eight trees in it". "You need to add/subtract one to make it odd! If it looks good who cares how many trees are in it. Sometimes those bonsai "rules" do get in the way of making a good bonsai.

I may get a lot of criticism over this but here is my best advice on the number of trees to put in that pot. Keep putting them in as long as it makes for an artistically pleasing composition. Stop before it goes past that point. Simple, isn't it?

Let the bean counters count while you concentrate on making a pleasing composition. The numbers will take care of themselves when you have ten or more trees. Nine or less trees make the odd numbers more important but not everything. Aesthetics are really the only real consideration.


If you look at the composition and feel the necessity of counting the trees then something is wrong. It could be just a peccadillo of the viewer or there is something wrong with the composition. Most of the time there is a flaw in the composition. But, and this is an important consideration, if you only see a forest then are the numbers important. I personally think not.

There really are no hard and fast rules to creating a forest planting. If there were then they would all look the same. All boring "cookie cutter" copies of the original. There are however some things that they do have in common.

There are three trees that set the tone in that forest. I have seen lots of names put to these trees. Primary, secondary and jumper tree or Mother, father and son etc. It all depends on what book you are reading.The names are not really all that important just as long as you know the purpose of those three trees.

I like the more technical names given to them. Number one, two and three. Makes more sense to me that way. Easier to tell what tree goes in first.

The first (or primary) tree is the oldest tree. It is the tallest and has the thickest trunk. The number two tree is the next oldest and largest and naturally the third tree is somewhat shorter and younger than the number two tree.

All the other trees will fall somewhere between those trees in both height and girth. Again this might sound a bit complicated but it really isn't.

Since the #1 tree is the largest its placement is the most critical. Being the largest and most dominate feature the viewer's eye will naturally gravitate to it. Its position will set the tone of the composition more than anything else.

Let me simplify this as much as I can. Let's only consider the first three trees in that forest. Naturally they are the largest. The heights and placement of all the others will be dictated by them.

The Standard forest (as per illustration below)
#1 is the tallest tree.
#2 the next tallest.

Any tree between #1 & #2 should be taller than #2 but shorter than #1.The #3 tree being somewhat younger is naturally shorter than #2. Any tree between #1 and #3 should be shorter than #2 and taller than #3.Trees on the outside of #3 should be shorter than #3. Same goes for the trees on the outside of #2.This will always give
you that nice scalene triangle one hears so much about. Sounds complicated doesn't it? Not really.

Take a pencil and add 2 trees to the drawing below using those guidelines. Add an outward facing branch to the two outside trees.The result will almost invariably be a 5 tree forest with an overall triangular shape.

There are many different variations on this but this is the most popular one. It will give you the start of a good forest planting. In the beginning of this article I said that my intention was not to tell you how to make a forest, just how to make your forest look better. You have the hard part. My part is easy. I just give suggestions you have to decide what to do with them.

A forest planting is almost a misnomer. For the most part what is called a forest in bonsai is actually a grove of trees. Or maybe a stand of trees.

We try to make this group of trees look like a forest. We hint at what is not really there. The vastness of the forest is merely suggested. Our few trees are placed in such a way as to suggest that there are many more in the background and that they are bigger, more massive. So big that we almost feel like we could take a stroll through those little trees all the way to Grandma's house.

The vastness is shown by what isn't really there.

Cramming as many trees into that pot as possible just confuses the eyes. We don't want to confuse the eyes, we want to please them.

There is an old bonsai adage "Less is more! This may not hold much credence in the stock market but here it is an absolute. So how do we do this? How do we create mass when there is none or at least very little? Not an easy question to answer. Almost like asking how long a string is.

Let's take that word mass and change it to something called visual weight. Bring it over to what the eye perceives and how we can fool them. Visual weight is just another way of looking at the relationship between positive vs. negative space. Dark vs. Light. Visual weight has nothing to do with actual weight. It is all about where the eye naturally wants to go to. We build our forest much like one would balance a scale.

We want the viewer's eye to go more or less to the center of the forest. Once there the illusion begins.The eye will pick out the #1 or primary tree first. It has the most mass and is visually the heaviest thing in the composition. Usually that tree is just off center in the pot. We want to add to that tree without making the eye stray too far from that point. It is the center of gravity for the eyes. As we add to the forest we must do so in a balanced manner.

So what is heavy and what is light?
1. A thick trunk is visually heavier than a light one. The thicker the trunk the more to the foreground it seems to be.
2. A dark area is heavier than a light colored area.
3. A dense area is heavier than a sparse area. (Almost the same thing as #2).Thick trunks on one side of the primary tree can be balanced out by several smaller trunks on the other side.

Since visually thicker trunks move to the foreground thin trunks at the back of the composition can show depth.

An area of dense branching can be counterbalanced by a strategically sparse area of branching. The same goes with the number of trunks in a particular area.

Forest planting using Black olives (Bucida spinosa)

Consider the spacing between the trunks. A negative space is always visually lighter than an area with something in it. Keeping the negative spaces between the largest trees in the composition to a minimum will bring them to the foreground.This apparent increase in mass will make the forest look bigger.

A smattering of thinner trunks in the back of the forest will look like distant trees.This will create depth.

Consider the pot in relation to the forest. If all the trees come to the edge of the pot then the land portion will appear too small to support the forest. A bit of negative space on one side of the pot will make the land space look bigger. Especially if it is counterbalanced with a smaller negative land space on the other side of the pot.

Balance the scales to keep the viewer eyes on the center of the whole composition. With a little thought and planning this is not all that hard to do.

In the preceding paragraphs I have tried to do more than just show pictures of forest plantings. I wanted to go past the standard 1,2,3 steps of making one and opened up some possibilities for you to understand the why of things.

I have tried, to the best of my abilities, to explain some of the things I think about as I pick up that first tree and put it into the pot. I can't tell you how to build a forest, just how I go about doing one. Building that forest is now up to you. The theme, how many trees, and the location of that all important "sweet spot" are decisions you will have to make.

.......... Ron Martin

Illustrations by Carl LRosner
8907 Amherst Avenue, Margate NJ 08402

The Journal of the American Bonsai Society - Summer 2005 & Autumn 2005 (2 Parts)

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