Selecting the Right Pot

by David Curbow and John Planting

Following on last month’s, How to Recognize a Good Bonsai Pot, this month we’ll dive deeper into how to choose the right pot for your tree. This material comes mostly from presentations John Planting has done over the years at our club.

Trees that are still young and being developed are grown in a larger pot than you would use if the tree were in a show. A tree might start out in an inexpensive terra cotta pot from a nursery and after a couple of years be moved to a cheaper bonsai pot. Later as the tree develops further, you’ll want a better quality pot that compliments your tree.

The pot you use is important to the overall impression your tree makes. You need to get the right shape, size, color and quality. There are several considerations to choosing the right pot. The first one to consider is the style of your tree. That will dictate the overall shape of the pot.

Tree Style - Generally speaking rectangular or oval pots are used for formal uprights, informal uprights and slant style trees. Literati (or bunjin) should use shallow round pots. Hexangular pots can also be used for literati, but that’s unusual. Cascade (semi or full) use deep round, square, hexagonal or octagonal shape. Modern preference is to have cascade pots be about as wide as it is tall. Older cascade pots were usually much taller than their width. Group plantings usually use a shallow oval pot. Drum pots are appropriate for a literati pine or juniper with an interesting bark and shape. Refer to our Tree Style Basics article.

Masculine or feminine - Some trees are masculine (pollen producing) while others are female (fruit producing). But many trees have both types of flowers. In bonsai when we say a tree is masculine we are really describing the feeling of the tree.

Masculine trees have a feeling of strength because they have thicker trunks, rough bark and an angular shaped trunk and branches. Feminine trees have a more delicate appearance – sinuous movement in trunk and branches, smooth bark, graceful taper to the trunk. Some tree species are nearly always feminine, for example maples. Pines are usually considered masculine. Most trees have a mix of both styles so you need to decide which is dominant and which you want to emphasize. Then you’ll choose a pot of the same style.

Masculine pots are heavy, angular (straight sides, rectangular shape), perhaps with a lip on the upper rim to give extra strength. Feminine pots will be softer shapes (rounded sides, oval shape). Bands may be squared off and chunky, to make the pot feel more masculine. Or rounded, and thinner to make a pot feel more feminine.

Masculine pot – straight sides, strong feet
Masculine pot – straight sides, strong feet
Feminine pot – almost unnoticeable feet
Feminine pot – almost unnoticeable feet

There are degrees of masculinity and femininity in pots. For example, the following pot has rounded sides and shaped feet, but overall is masculine.

Masculine pot, softened with curved sides
Masculine pot, softened with curved sides

Pot Rim and Feet - A softly curved rim, as on the feminine pot above, reinforces the curved body. A lip on the upper rim gives more strength to a masculine pot – as seen in the image below. The feet of a masculine pot will usually be larger, maybe squared off while the feet of a feminine pot will be smaller, perhaps curved or decorated.

Masculine pot, with rim and slightly delicate feet
Masculine pot, with rim and slightly delicate feet

What Size? Once you know the style of pot you’re looking for now you need to decide the size. There are three dimensions to consider – depth, length (left-to-right) and width (front-to-back).

John Naka and many others recommended that the depth of the pot should be about the same as the width of the nebari. This is a good guideline when potting a tree for show. But, most of us don’t pot our trees just for a show and then up-pot afterwards. Trees do better in larger pots, so we may want to make the pot a bit larger than John’s guideline. According to John Planting there is a trend in Japan to use wider pots (back-to-front) for this reason.

If you’ve chosen an oval or rectangular pot, the length of the pot should be ~2/3rds of the height of the tree. The width of most pots is usually about 3/4ths of the length of the pot. But you can find pots that are very long and narrow and others that are square, or nearly so. When the roots are deep, you may decide to use a pot that’s deeper but not as long.

Pot Surface – When choosing a pot color consider the color of the trunk and whether the tree has any dramatic foliage, fruit or flowers.

Conifers (e.g. pines and junipers) have dark gray bark that looks good in a brown pot. But shimpaku juniper and scotch (or Scots) pine have reddish bark, so they look good in a reddish brown pot. Both of these are easy to find in an unglazed pot. Olives and oaks often have lighter gray bark. Brown or unglazed gray is a good choice.

Flowering trees, like azaleas or quince, may use light blue or green. Maples are often in pots with a cream glaze. Occasionally a yellow ochre or green pot may be used to compliment the autumn leaf color. We’re seeing more matt glazes now, not just the high gloss of a few years ago. And, sometimes a blend of glaze colors are used, especially when the pot surface is textured.
Color is a matter of taste; don’t feel constrained by these guidelines. Find what you like!

Examples of Different Pots

John Planting allowed me to photograph a lot of different pots he has - each one "just right" for a particular style, size and type of tree. When you click on a pot image you'll see a larger version plus commentary about that pot.

Masculine

Here's a variety of masculine pots.

1-hole cascade pot 1-hole cascade pot 1-hole cascade pot
1-hole cascade pot 1-hole cascade pot 1-hole cascade pot
1-hole cascade pot 1-hole cascade pot 1-hole cascade pot
1-hole cascade pot 1-hole cascade pot 1-hole cascade pot
1-hole cascade pot 1-hole cascade pot 1-hole cascade pot
1-hole cascade pot 1-hole cascade pot 1-hole cascade pot
1-hole cascade pot 1-hole cascade pot 1-hole cascade pot
1-hole cascade pot 1-hole cascade pot 1-hole cascade pot

Feminine

For comparison Here's a variety of feminine pots.

1-hole cascade pot 1-hole cascade pot 1-hole cascade pot
1-hole cascade pot 1-hole cascade pot 1-hole cascade pot
1-hole cascade pot 1-hole cascade pot

Pots for Cascades

Cancade trees may be either masculine or feminine. But all cascade pots are deeper than wide - compared to the "regular" pots shown above.

1-hole cascade pot 1-hole cascade pot 1-hole cascade pot
1-hole cascade pot 1-hole cascade pot 1-hole cascade pot
1-hole cascade pot

How Many Holes?

Now we'll look at the number of holes. Older pots usually had 2 or even fewer holes. But it was recognized that those pots did't always drain as well as was needed, so newer pots have more holes. That doesn't mean you shouldn't use an old pot. Old pots can be very beautiful. You just need to be a bit more careful when watering trees in these pots.

1-hole cascade pot 2-hole pot 2-hole pot
3-hole pot 6-hole pot! 6-hole pot

Unusual Pots

We have more photos to share (soon). This will include unusual surface finishes, shapes and sizes.