As a kid, I started my interest in gardening by playing in the mud, eagerly becoming completely immersed in the art of smearing mud on all exposed skin, grinding it into all of my clothes, and the occasional taste test. The plants came later, with my mother gently transitioning me from random mud splashes into some actual garden work, complete with planting, weeding, and harvesting.

I wasn’t nearly as “fully involved” the other day when I attended a workshop on the gentle Japanese art of Kokedama, which literally means “moss ball”. It is a form of bonsai for the house plant enthusiast. You basically repot a small house plant between two halves of a mud ball, surround it with moss, and wrap the ball in a number of wraps of string or fishing line. The result can either be hung on a string, or placed on a pot saucer, and placed in a suitable spot in your house.

I reverted to my childhood practices, with the teacher first asking us to blend a mix of 60% potting soil and 40% peat moss. Add water until everything was completely saturated, then fashion a large, grapefruit sized ball. This was trickier than it looked, with the need to add more water until the peat moss was fully saturated.

Then, unpot a small plant and gently remove all of the loose soil, and loosen the root ball. Break your muddy ball of dirt in half, “like cracking an egg” the teacher said. Gently plant the roots between the two halves, pushing the ball back together.

Your task is to then cover the entire ball with a thick layer of live sphagnum or other thickly matted moss that has been soaking in a tray. Once that is accomplished and everything is dripping wet, take a three to four foot length of twine, string, or fishing line, and tie one end around the base of the plant’s leaves, like you were adding a collar to the ball. Wrap the rest of the string over the rest of the ball, as if you were excessively wrapping a present, securing the moss around the ball and holding the ball together.

As you can imagine, this is a muddy, drippy project, perfect for the little boy in me, taking me back to those aimless days of playing in the mud. With a little patience, your plant ends up being secured under the twine, moss, and mud, with plenty of room to grow.

Part of this process seems to call upon a third and even a fourth hand, but if things fall apart, you can just reshape the mud and squish it all together with a little more finesse. Choosing gooey, sticky soil seems like the way to go. Your inner child will help with this.

The lady next to me, an accomplished knitter and gardener, made her ball look perfect, all neat and tidy. She put a long loop at the top, and said she was going to hang it from the ceiling in her living room. Not a straggle of moss was out of place on her kokedama, while my creation was looking more “organic”, an expression of my own kokedama methodology and childhood ways.

My first creation has found a home in a plant saucer on the sill of the living room window, with my wife generously commenting that it was quite lovely.

Care for these works of art is rather minimal, with an occasional misting of the moss, and a periodic soaking in the kitchen sink or a tub, so that the mud ball can return to its soggy origins.

There are a variety of plants that do well as kokedama specimens: pothos, philadendron, peace lily, spider plants, and ferns. My choice was a bird’s nest fern, and it seems to now be at home inside of the mud ball, moss, and randomized twine wrap. Plants with tender roots, such as begonias, are not on the recommended kokedama list.

My next exploration of this Japanese art form will hopefully be a little less “organic” with the strings more carefully wrapped. One could place the plant at a jaunty angle, or use a variety of colored twine. The possibilities seem endless.

Kokedama’s origins are in the Japanese bonsai discipline, based on the “nearai” school of bonsai, which emphasizes exposing the roots of the plants, so one can appreciate the structure. Kokedama became popular in the Edo period in Japan (1603-1867) and has regained popularity during the recent interest in houseplants. 

~ Submitted by Neal Lemery

2 Comments on “Kokedama

  1. This is so fun. And it turned out beautiful Neal, your wife is right!

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