From the enchanting land of raked sand rivers, moss covered courtyards and knotted bonsai comes Kokedama. The Japanese have enjoyed moss balls as a form of garden art for centuries and only lately has it caught the eye of the West. Loosely translated “Ko ke” means moss and “dama” means ball. It’s quite apparent that the Japanese have elevated the humble moss ball to high art.
Kokedama has been around for hundreds of years and began as an inexpensive substitute for the bonsai. It was given the moniker poor man’s bonsai thanks to its simple, inexpensive requirements and technique; anyone and everyone could make a Kokedama dirtball!
These lovely moss balls are understated simplicity and that’s what makes them so endearing. It’s floral arranging free from the boundaries of a pot!
Here’s what I’ll cover in this post:
Generally any small sized plant will work in your Kokedama. It’s a good rule to pick plants for their shape so your arrangement will look pleasing. Trailing vines such as ivy, ferns or vinca lend nice lines. Above are just some of the plants I’ve used in kokedama: ivy and ferns for interesting lines and double flowering Campanula and African violets for color.
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If you plan to use live moss from your garden, remember that it will not be too pleased with bright sun, so do select plants that enjoy the same degree of light. In the first photo you’ll see I’ve used the moss I’ve grown in my yard (learn more about growing your own moss). It gives the moss ball a lush emerald velveteen coat. Whatever you do, DO NOT harvest moss unless you have permission.
Don’t have your own moss? Don’t despair, you can purchase live sheet moss online. You can also check out Moss Acres for their excellent selection.
Another easy solution is to use inexpensive Preserved Sheet Moss, just mist it thoroughly before using to freshen it up. I’ve found that dried sheet moss works beautifully and this can take more sun than my fresh moss.
While there are no rules for Kokedama design, it’s good to have a basic understanding of the art of Japanese flower arranging, Ikebana. This is an imbedded part of Japanese culture and is the basis of their flower art design.
In Japanese flower arranging the shapes the line of the branches create and the empty spaces around those shapes are just as important as the blooms.
Instead of a vase bursting and spilling over with blooms, as we so love in the West, Ikebana highlights a single bloom, or perhaps three, but never an even number. Symmetrical designs are considered bad form since they don’t allow for the flow of energy around the arrangement and leave the designs stagnant.
Here’s what you should remember about Kokedama design:
- Go for an asymmetric look
- stick with odd numbers if possible
- pay attention to curving lines and you should have a pleasing and harmonious composition.
**Please read through all the direction before you start
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I can’t stress enough how important it is to get the dirt ball just right. Too many beautiful plant designs suffer swift death if care is not taken with the dirt ball. The composition of the soil needs to be very clay-like to hold the ball form, yet porous enough to not suffocate the plant. A good mix, I’ve found is approximately 30-40% top soil and 60-70% potting mix. I have also found good success with 30% top soil, 60% potting mix and 10% sphagnum moss to help hold in the moisture. (I learned this tip from the Columbia, South Carolina Riverbank Botanical Gardens. I have a post on their interesting Kokedama string garden if you want to see.)
Now these percentages are just rough estimates, you’ll have to play around with your mixture.
Step One: Add top soil, potting mix and sphagnum moss (if desired).
Step Two: Mix all materials extremely well, leave no large clods.
Step Three: Add a small amount of water, mix well.
Step Four: Form your desired shape ball
Note - in this photo you can see a bit of sphagnum moss sticking out of the ball. This will not interfere with the final look .
Step Five: Do the drop test
After you’ve formed the ball, set it down. If it doesn’t maintain its shape, you have too much water. Add more soil. If it does hold its shape, drop it into your dirt bucket. If it still keeps its shape, you’ve got your dirt ball. If it breaks (as in photo), you’ll need to add more water. Keep experimenting with your dirt ball until you have it just right!
Step Six: Use both thumbs to make a hole in your dirt ball. Since you’ve made the perfect dirt ball (not too dry and not too wet) you won’t break it when you do this.
With utmost care, remove your plants from their pots and brush as much dirt as you can from the roots. You can also gently soak them in room-temperature water to remove the dirt. Be careful not to traumatize the plant by handling it too much. For the trailing vines I often separate the plant and use only a few pieces – remember, keep the root system small so it will fit comfortably in the dirt ball.
I like holding the arrangement in my hand and experimenting with the shape of the lines before inserting the roots into the ball. If you have sphagnum moss on hand, wrap the roots with a small bit of wet moss to keep moisture close to the roots. Gently place the roots into the dirt ball.
If you use dried sheet moss, spread it out on a table and spray with water. Allow it to sit for about half an hour. It will plump up and turn greener. **Do this step before you start on the dirt ball.
Add your moss to the dirt ball, being careful to allow room at the top for the plants to breathe.
Tie your moss ball with string or fishing line and leave it on for a day to give the moss time to stick ( you can also leave the string if you want to hang it).
Here’s a tip I’ve learned: If you plan to keep your moss ball on a stand, you can wrap fishing line around the ball and leave it. This will assure your preserved sheet moss will withstand watering in the future. Simply make tiny U shaped clips out of floral wire and anchor the ends of your tied line into the moss ball.
The beauty of your kokedama is that it’s a complete package: snazzy arrangement and container all in one. Hanging your garden art is a great way to display your work. I love the way they pivot to give you a 360° view. You can also place it on a stand, very shallow container or plate. Presentation is extremely important in Ikebana, the container is considered just as important as the florals, so choose your container wisely. Whatever you do, do not conceal the lovely round shape of your ball!
Now that you’ve made your lovely work of garden art, keep it healthy by following these care instructions. Water as needed by inserting your moss ball in a container of room temperature water. Water line should reach the top of the moss ball but not your plant crown. Allow to soak for 10 minutes. Remove from water and set in an area where it can drain. Become familiar of your Kokedama weight when dry and you will have a better gauge as to when to water. Every plant has different watering needs, so keep an eye on yours until you get familiar with it.
I hope you’ll try your own ‘poor man’s bonsai’. Let me know how it goes and send me a photo and I’ll post it here!
Below are a few items you may need -