Creating A Companion Planting For Display

9There is more to displaying a bonsai than to clean the container and groom the foliage. I enjoy creating a distinctive and effective display with a main bonsai and companion planting. Sometimes if necessary a hanging scroll is used to denote seasonality.


I’m displaying a Dwarf Brush Cherry, Eugenia myrtifolia ‘Compacta,’ bonsai for the 40th anniversary Mid-America Bonsai Exhibit that will be held this weekend, August 18-20, 2017, at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, IL. I also displayed the same bonsai at their first show 40 years ago.

The bonsai has been groomed, moss artistically arranged and the container has been cleaned. The display table selected for the bonsai is a thick wood round from a historic 200-year-old tree in Canada. I have a taller display table for this bonsai, but don’t think it will look good in this exhibit because the sponsoring organization raises the table heights so the public can easily see the trees. I personally do not like raising the table heights and generally use taller display tables to raise the height of the bonsai.

For this composition since the companion planting is in bursting bud, it was not necessary to add a scroll. The fewer elements as possible in a formal display create a more effective and refined quiet display.

My personal taste for display avoids duplication as much as possible. Of prime importance is a difference in containers. If the main bonsai is in a symmetrical (round, square or even-sided) container, then the companion planting should be in an asymmetrical (rectangular, oval, irregular or stone slab) container. Likewise if one container is glazed, the other should be unglazed or at least of a different color.

The Dwarf Brush Cherry is growing in a handmade custom made container by Tom Dimig from South Carolina. Unfortunately he does not make container any more. The container is round and blue-green in color. The symmetrical shape was selected to draw emphasis to the long, low, sweeping character branch. The blue-green glaze was selected to contrast with the small white fuzzy flowers.


Companion plantings in a shade house

Unfortunately, due to a quite wet summer (we have only reached 90F twice this summer) all the flower have not opened, but the buds are there.



Companion plantings in a sunny location

Now that the main bonsai and display table have been selected and prepared for exhibit it’s time to select a companion planting. I generally have approximately 100 companion plants and plantings in two different areas, sunny location and in a shade house. Of course I could have easily selected an established planting I decided this morning to create one specifically for this special display.


First an appropriate container was selected and to tell the truth, more time was spent selecting the container than creating the companion planting. For my taste the container ideally should be asymmetrically shaped and unglazed, PLUS the appropriate size, not too small and not too large compared with the large size bonsai. Finally, underneath my collection of bonsai containers I discovered an oval, unglazed Japanese container, which I obtained in Tokoname, Japan, a few decades ago. The container is unusual because it is does not have smooth sides, they are irregular. Also, I prefer companion planting containers to have very short feet so they do not detract from the composition and to present a solid stable feeling.


Next I selected a golden color bamboo raft stand, which was an ideal size for the container. Generally black bamboo rafts are used, but I wanted to emphasize the summer season with the golden color.


A mixture of perennials was selected which included:

Stonecrop, Sedum, sp.

Miyazaki Toad Lily, Tricyrtis hirta ‘Miyazaki’

Burgundy Glow Ajuga, Ajuga reptans ‘Burgundy Glow’

Dwarf Mondo, Ophiopogon japonicus ‘Nana’

Creeping Thyme, Thymus sp.

Selection of mosses

Often artists use plants native to the habitat of the main bonsai for a companion planting. It is not wise to use tropical species for a companion planting when displaying a tree from a temperate region.


Flowers should not be duplicated on the main bonsai and companion planting ideally. Since the Dwarf Brush Cherry has shiny dark green leaves and is in bud with a few blossoms, I decided to use primarily light-green plants for the companion planting. However, to indicate seasonality the Sedum was in bud and perhaps might blossom for the weekend. The larger three Sedums were cuttings I took from a taller companion planting earlier this summer because it grew too tall. Three cuttings were simply put in a small pot. Also, I have more Sedums in even smaller pots, some with green foliage and other with purple leaves. The Burgundy Glow Ajuga was selected to brighten the color of the composition in a couple of areas. Tall Miyazaki Toad Lilies were used in a several areas because they will soon blossom and this companion planting is destined to be used in autumn when they are in flower. Dwarf Mondo was used to add texture to the composition and the Creeping Thyme was added to hide part of the container edge.


When designing the companion planting eye movement direction is quite important. The main bonsai is leading the eye from left to right; therefore the companion planting direction should be from right to left. Combining the directions will lead the eye to the center of the bonsai display. Therefore the tallest Sedum was positioned on the right side of the container. The smaller, thinner Sedums were planted to the left of the main Sedum leaning towards the center. Also, this companion planting also looks good from the other side, so it can also be used flipped around to compliment another bonsai with a different eye movement.



When completed and photographed I noticed that the front of the companion planting seemed a bit dark, so additional smaller Burgundy Glow plants were added. Yes, I’m familiar with important negative space, but the area was too dark and a brighter green moss did not work. Generally companion plantings are full and lush, not sparse.


As this companion planting becomes established and matures the plants will slow down in grown and the foliage will reduce in size, which will make an even better addition to a bonsai display next season.

I’ll post a photo of the final exhibit of the Dwarf Brush Cherry and newly created companion planting as displayed in the 40th Mid-America Bonsai Exhibit. Come, see and enjoy the beauty of about 100 bonsai this weekend.

Did you realize this much thought and planning is necessary for the creation of an effective companion planting? Also, I had fun planning and creating the composition!

You can also see this companion planting at the upcoming 2017 Open House & Sale on September 2-3, 2017