Create A Companion Planting For Your Spring Bonsai Show


Its show time and the time for spring bonsai shows is rapidly approaching. In order to complete the presentation of your bonsai an appropriate companion planting, suiseki or figurine is often utilized next to the tree. Formal bonsai display requires study along with fine taste, which is a lengthy topic. Rather than to attempt to cover the theory, design and background of bonsai display, I’d like to present a quick and easy solution to creating an instant companion planting, which may enhance the presentation of your bonsai for your bonsai show.

Perennials are often used as companion plantings for bonsai. There are almost an unlimited number of different perennial species which are suitable for bonsai companion plantings. Dwarf or low growing plants work best. Often, when pot bound the foliage reduces in size and is more delicate. Pot bound companion plantings usually dry out quickly so keep many of them in a shallow saucer of water during the summer, especially dwarf Hostas with large leaf areas.


Perennial selection at Lowe’s Home Improvement Center

A few days ago I went to one of our local Lowe’s Home Improvement Centers and was surprised to see a display of dwarf Columbines growing in one quart pots for sale. The common Columbine, Aquilegia Canadensis, is a wild flower native to eastern North America, which reaches heights of approximately two feet.


The dwarf Columbine cultivar ‘Little Lanterns’ is an excellent dwarf mounding perennial suited for small areas and rock gardens because it only grows to ten or twelve inches in height. The small deep red and yellow nodding flowers stand above the blue green foliage and often last from April to June depending on the weather. I purchased a few pots of the ‘Little Lanterns’ columbine at $3.98 each and returned to my studio to create a spring blossoming bonsai companion planting.


First an appropriate container was selected. Generally shallow round containers with short feet are best for combining with bonsai for display. A smaller size companion planting is better than one which is larger. The choice of an unglazed or colored container depends on the bonsai container. Personally, if the bonsai container is glazed I’ll select an unglazed companion pot. If the bonsai container is unglazed a glazed companion pot is used. Also, if the bonsai container is symmetrical (round, square or equal-sided) an asymmetrical (rectangular or oval) companion pot is used. Likewise I like to combine asymmetrical bonsai containers with symmetrical companion plants. Many people like to use expensive containers for companion plantings. However, when the plants are fully grown they often overhang the container and sometimes the container cannot even be seen or enjoyed. Therefore, I generally do not use high quality containers for companion plantings and even used chipped or broken pots when the final result will be a full planting.


Two of these three plants are to be combined for the companion planting. The third plant was planted in a smaller container which will be displayed with a smaller size bonsai

I generally first select the bonsai to be displayed, then chose an appropriate companion pot. Then  proceed to create the companion planting or switch pots of an already established planting. If the companion planting is established, it is probably full of roots and the container can be easily switched. This is commonly done to change from a glazed to an unglazed container to contrast with the bonsai to be displayed.


Plastic screening placed over the drainage hole to keep the soil in the container


A small amount of the original soil, mixed with bonsai soil was first placed on the bottom of the container

Companion plantings are best presented when they completely fill the container, often overflowing. Sparsely planted companion plantings are not as effective as a container full of foliage and flowers as well. If a few smaller plants are planted in a larger companion pot and have not completely filled the pot it is best to wait and display in the future.

The bonsai, which will be displayed, is an American larch, Larix laricina, growing in an antique Chinese rectangular unglazed container. I collected this tree “north of Toronto, Canada” over thirty years ago on the lakeshore. Therefore a round blue glazed container was selected for the companion planting so it would contrast with the rectangular unglazed container of the bonsai.

Two of the ‘Little Lanterns’ columbines were selected for the companion planting since I wanted a full container of plants. Plants with plenty of unopened flower buds were selected to prolong the flowering season display. Its always advisable to select plants with many unopened flower buds to extend the blossoming period. However, try to select plants with at least one open flower bud to make certain the color will be suitable for displaying with a bonsai and especially is not the same color as the companion planting container.


First sharp trimming shears were used to cut the root ball in half


Although the pant appears to be pot bound, it is not


Note the roots are primarily growing around the perimeter of the pot and the center is dry


A bamboo chopstick was used to carefully tease the roots of each plant

Each plant was removed from the one quart plastic growing pot and was severely root pruned. Then about half of the soil was removed from one side of each of the two plants and they were combined to create a single plant.


A little bonsai soil was mixed with the original peat/bark nursery soil to fill the display container. The completed companion planting was immediately thoroughly watered and placed in the shade to recover from the transplanting.


The first plant was positioned in the new container


The second plant was added trying to keep the crowns of both plants close to each other so they appear to be one plant


Additional soil mix was added and gently firmed with a chopstick

A few days later the companion planting was groomed to remove any damaged leaves, old flowers and to create a symmetrical appearance. A stand was then selected for the formal display of the American larch bonsai. The companion planting must also sit on some kind of display table as well. Flat boards, wooden burls or bamboo rafts are commonly used for companion plantings. Since the bonsai is in a rectangular container on a rectangular display table I did not want to repeat the straight lines and selected an irregular shaped wooden burl for the companion planting.


The completed ‘Little Lantern’ columbine companion plant ready for display with a bonsai

This companion planting of ‘Little Lantern’ columbine is only an example of what can be created from commonly available perennials at local garden centers. There are hundreds of different Hosta cultivars which can also be used as well. Annuals can also used as companion plantings as well.


This bonsai display is being prepared for the 49th Upstate New York Bonsai Exhibition on May 16-17, 2015 in Rochester, New York. Everyone is invited to visit the exhibition and see nearly 100 beautiful bonsai including my American larch bonsai. Also, it is no accident that both the American larch and ‘Little Lanterns’ columbine are both native to eastern North America. It is sometimes desirable to use companion plants which grow in the same area as the bonsai.

5 thoughts on “Create A Companion Planting For Your Spring Bonsai Show

  1. Thanks Bill for a great post on your approach and process for creating companion plants in time for a show. I will apply your technique for my entries next week – Our Spring Show of the Puget Sound Bonsai Association is May 2-3 and this year hosted by the Pacific Bonsai Museum.
    I especially appreciate your sequence of detailed photos for fitting the root structures into the smaller container. Best wishes for your successful show in May!

    – Grant

  2. Bill, this is really excellent and will help me and many other people with your very clear how-to explanation and photos. Thanks. Felix

    Sent from my iPhone