A Guide to Creating Group Planting for Bonsai

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There are a number of useful guide-lines that can be followed when designing your group planting that if followed will greatly enhance the final outcome:

Do not arrange the materials at random. No trees should be parallel to each other.

Use shallow, wide containers and leave enough empty space to simulate the vastness of land.

The tree with the thickest trunk is the focal or primary tree and should be planted towards the front along with the secondary tree.

Shorter, thinner trees should be placed towards the back in order of importance, with the smallest tree at the very rear of the container.

No three trees should be in line with each other from ANY angle.

The primary tree should incline slightly forward at its apex to create a sense of height.

The primary tree should be planted highest on top of the soil in the container, the smallest tree should be lowest.

Trees to the right and left should be arranged so that when viewed from the front or sides of the composition, no tree conceals another.

Trees at the front of the group should have branches that start higher up the trunk to allow the viewer to be able to glimpse through
the planting. Trees at the back should have branches that start to grow from a lower position.

Branches should grow out from trunks uniformly, this creates cohesion to the composition and reflects the fact that all the trees would be subject to similar growing conditions as each other in nature.

Consider the effect on the growth of the trees by areas lack of light and shading. The dominant tree will never of lacked light at its apex as it grew and will have grown straight. Lesser trees in the composition would have to search for light in the shadow of the primary tree and this would result in trunks that lean away from the primary tree.

Consider the effect on the growth of branches that are in the shadow of other trees. Branches that face into the centre of the composition should be very short or missing from lack of light, however branches growing on the outside of the group would search for light and will be far more numerous and vigorous. These branches also help form the silhouette of the composition as a whole.

The overall silhouette of the planting should be that of an asymmetrical triangle.


Group plantings should only be assembled in Spring at the time when individual specimens of the species would ordinarily be root-pruned and repotted.

Fill the container with a shallow layer of soil and start to arrange the trees in the pot starting with the primary tree and working backwards towards the weakest tree.

The following series of pictures illustrates the assembly of a group planting of Cryptomeria japonica 'Yatsubusa' by Harry Tomlinson in his book "The Complete Book of Bonsai". It demonstrates how using the above guide-lines, a simple but very effective group of five trees can be assembled.

Arranging the trees in the group

(1) Position the tallest tree first about a third of the way in from one side and towards the front of the pot so the tree stands closest to the viewer.

Arranging the trees in the group

(2) Select a shorter and more slender tree and position it close to the first tree, let it lean slightly away from the first tree as if competing for light.

Arranging the trees in the group

(3) Position the third tree on the opposite side to the last and slightly back in the container, make sure the space between the primary tree and those on each side is varied to give a natural asymmetry.

Arranging the trees in the group

(4) Place the thinner trunked fourth tree at the back of the container to increase perspective and the fifth tree leaning out slightly on the extreme right of the composition to complete this five tree group.
After positioning the group, the trees should be firmly tied into the pot and soil can be worked in around the tree roots and watered in.

This is by no means the only layout for a group planting; there are an infinite number of variations that can be used. Below are a few suggestions for layouts of differing numbers of trees.

bonsai group


When the planting has been thoroughly watered in, branches can be groomed. Remove downward growing shoots and any branches that cross to open out the structure. Prune back branches so those at the top of each tree are shortest and each branch as you travel down the trunk becomes gradually longer; ensure that the branches of each tree create a triangular silhouette to the overall composition. Generally, you need prune to create numerous short branches.

Some branches may be growing at awkward angles at present but do not attempt to wire them into position for at least two months so the group has enough time to settle in and the trees can recover from transplanting.

Maintenance pruning in the future consists of keeping branches shortened and occasionally thinning out congested areas of foliage.


Under planting with small plants or moss can be used to complete the image of a group of trees in nature. Moss is often used to represent grass in group plantings.

Ensure that anything used as a underplanting is in scale with the trees themselves. Position moss in the planting where grass would be able to grow around a group of trees; reflect the lack of light around the base of the trees by leaving bare soil.

Group plantings need repotting and root pruning at the same intervals as individual bonsai specimens and at the same time of year. However, it is worth leaving the first repotting of a new group for a couple of years. Before then the root-systems of each tree will not have grown enough to become inter-connected and there is a danger that upon removal from the container, the composition may fall apart and have to be reassembled.

Upon removal of an established planting from its container, remove old soil from the outer edges of the rootball, cutting wedges of roots as you go. Always inspect the roots to ensure that each tree in the composition has sufficient roots of its own to support its foliage.

The soil in the centre of group plantings becomes very compact and dense, eventually becoming impenetrable for air and water. Every time the group is repotted, soil should be replaced from localised areas in the centre of the planting by gently displacing it with the aid of a thin stick and/or a narrow jet of water, and replacing it with fresh soil.

Care for group plantings is very similar to that of individual bonsai specimens of the same species though extra care must be made to ensure that all trees within a planting receive sufficient water and fertiliser. Group plantings should be turned once a week to ensure that all trees in the group receive enough sunlight.

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