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Saikei Tray Garden

Create a miniature world inspired by the Japanese art of tray gardening.

Making a tray garden is the perfect way to garden in the city. This miniature composition brings the serenity and calm of a natural landscape indoors. Saikei is a less formal style of bonsai, and combines living trees, rocks, and moss. This art form was developed in Japan by Toshio Kawamoto after World War II. Kawamoto wanted to make the art of tray gardening more accessible to gardeners by using less-developed trees, with an emphasis on the rocks and soil and overall appearance. In this saikei-inspired tray garden a young ficus bonsai is planted high up next to a large rock, with peat moss below and around the bonsai to hold the tree in place.

Many bonsai are intended for outdoor growing environments. For this project, select a species that can live as a houseplant. I used Ficus benjamina; other plants that can work long-term indoors and are good bonsai candidates are jade plant (Crassula ovata), Punica granatum (pomegranate), and Sageretia theezans (Fukien tea). If you use a seedling that has been growing outdoors but is suitable for indoor use you need to acclimate the tree by gradually moving it to an outdoor area with less and less sun over a two-week period. Indoor light, even in a bright area, is less intense than outdoors. Ficus benjamina does not like to be moved, so you may experience a complete leaf drop when you replant the tree. Don’t be alarmed—it will recover and should have new leaf growth within two weeks.

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MATERIALS

  • Live moss (A)
  • Peat moss (B)
  • Rectangular tray (I used a 6- × 12-inch ceramic platter) (C)
  • Small piece of bonsai wire (D)
  • 2 pieces of plastic mesh (available at garden stores and online) (E)
  • Small-grain gravel (F)
  • Rock (I used a moss-covered 3 1/2- × 5 1/2-inch piece of granite) (G)
  • A bonsai start at least 3 years old that can grow indoors (H)

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TOOLS

  • Bowl (I)
  • Drill (J)
  • Diamond hole saw bit 1/2 inch or 5/8 inch (K)
  • Needle-nose pliers with wire cutter (L)
  • Large tweezers (M)

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If you have purchased live moss on the Internet, keep it moist until you are ready to plant. In a bowl, mix your peat moss with water until the peat moss is fully saturated but not sopping wet and allow it to sit for at least an hour.

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If you’re using a tray that does not have a drainage hole, drill two drainage holes on the bottom. I drilled one about 1/4 of the way in from each short end. Keep surface wet with water while you drill to prevent heat build-up and cracking.

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Cut two pieces of wire to a length of an inch or less and bend them into a U-shape.

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Cut two pieces of plastic mesh that are about 1- × 1-inch square. On the top side of the tray, place a piece of mesh over one of the drainage holes, hold it in place with one hand, and turn the tray over. Holding the plastic in place, insert one of the U-shaped wires into the hole and push it up through the mesh. Repeat with the other piece of mesh and the other U-shaped wire.

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Bend the ends of the wires over the top of the mesh, about the same width apart as the drainage hole width, so that they hold the mesh pieces in place. If the ends are too long trim them. Be sure to make the hook of wire just barely fit into the drainage hole so that it holds the mesh tightly in place.

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Place an even layer of gravel on the tray.

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Place the rock on the tray, centered between the long sides of the tray. Leave enough room for the tree and soil on the right, and a few inches of empty space on the left. Align the center of the rock a little to the right side of the center of the tray, so there is room to put the tree next to the rock. The rock I used has a flat side that I have positioned toward the tree.

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Take the tree out of the pot and determine which side of the tree you want to be the front. Place the tree to the side of the rock. Use as much peat moss as needed under the tree to make the tree level with the rock.

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Pat more peat moss over the soil until you have a mounded shape that continues the slope of the rock.

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Cover the peat moss with the live moss, pressing the live moss into the peat moss. Allow the moss to come to the edges of the right side of the tray. Leave the left side of the tray free of moss.

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Use the tweezers to remove any bits of debris or dirt from the live moss and gravel. Level the gravel with the flat side of the tweezers.

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WATER

Bonsai have little soil so watering frequently is key. In summer it may need to be watered as often as twice a day. To water, start at the edge of the moss and move inward. Water until the planting is saturated and water drains out of the drainage holes. Mist the moss at least once or twice a day. Humidity should be fairly high, which will be helped by the gravel on the tray. Placement in the kitchen or bathroom can also help if the other rooms in your home don’t have very much humidity.

LIGHT

Both moss and ficus like bright indirect light. Place the planting near an east or west window in the fall, winter, or spring. In summer either filter the light with a sheer shade or move the planting away from windows.

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MAINTENANCE

Remove vigorous new growth in spring and periodically throughout the growing season. Never remove all the new growth at one time—retain two or three leaves at the base of the shoot. Remove training wire (if any) after several months by snipping it into short lengths. Do not allow the wire to stay on the tree long enough to create scars.

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CAITLIN ATKINSON