Evergreen and berry-producing, hollies make interesting bonsai subjects. This article walks through the initial pruning and potting of a small, nursery-bought Japanese holly. It details the styling decisions made in the process of transforming the holly into a bonsai in training and offers a critique of the project’s outcome.
Late last summer, I came across this little Japanese holly plant at a local mass market garden center. It came in a 2.5-quart nursery container – a great size for the beginnings of a small bonsai. Plus, it was on sale at 30% off for a cost, with tax, of only $6.70.
It was a bargain I couldn’t pass up, so I bought the holly. It remained outside throughout the fall and winter. Now that the first hints of spring have arrived, I’m ready to perform the initial pruning and potting to begin its training as a bonsai.
Japanese holly, Ilex crenata, is an evergreen shrub native to Japan, Korea, China and eastern Russia. This cultivar, ‘Soft Touch’ is notable for its soft spineless leaves and its diminutive growth patterns. Japanese holly generally grows in a dense, rounded form, with a mature height and width of 5-10 feet. ‘Soft Touch’, however, grows to only around 3 feet.
Japanese holly blooms in late spring with small white flowers. Female plants, if pollinated by a nearby male plant when blooming, will produce small black fruits in the fall.
Ilex crenata is used in landscapes for hedges, borders and foundation plantings. It also makes an excellent bonsai subject.
Picking the Front View for this Japanese Holly Bonsai
When preparing to prune a plant to begin its initial training as a bonsai, the first task is to study the plant to decide on a style and a “front” view that will display the tree in the most interesting way.
This particular specimen has two main trunks arising from a short base and angled away from each other. A bit of digging at the base revealed this plant also has several larger roots near the junction of the trunks that curve up and out.
I first made the easy decision to incorporate those large, interesting roots into the front view. I also decided to give them some above-ground exposure. The gnarly roots help provide the illusion of age that is important for a bonsai. With that decided, I moved on to figuring out the best style.
Which style for this bonsai?
In this particular plant, the growth arising from the trunk on the left is nicely filled out and rounded. The growth arising from the trunk on the right isn’t growing quite as attractively.
I saw two natural styling options for this little holly. Option 1 was to keep the twin trunks and give the right side a chance to fill out. Option 2 was to remove the sparser right fork of the tree, place the tree differently in the pot, and go for either a one-trunked informal upright or slanting style bonsai.
I settled on moving forward with the Sokan, or double-trunked, bonsai style. While the right fork of the tree is a bit scraggly for now, I think it will eventually fill out and can then be trimmed to a better shape. If that doesn’t happen the way I expect, I can always remove that side of the tree altogether down the road. It’s not unusual for bonsai hobbyists to make radical style changes to their material if they see a way to improve a tree or make it more interesting.
With that decision settled, I did a bit of initial top pruning. I then opted to pot the tree before proceeding with the final shaping. While there is no hard and fast rule on the order to do the work, potting often comes after the tree has been styled. I felt it would be easier to shape this bonsai after potting it in the desired position with the roots exposed.
Potting the Japanese Holly Bonsai
To house the holly, I selected a deep-blue glazed pot from my collection. Note how the pretty blue color shows up well in the photo under direct sunlight. However, this pot looks darker – almost black – when viewed with the tree in it. The dark glazed pot is a good match for a flowering, fruit-bearing evergreen.
After combing the soil out of the roots, I proceed to trim the root ball. One rule of thumb is to trim only 1/3 of the root ball. Another is to trim the root ball proportionally no more than the proportion of top growth removed.
Once root trimming was complete, I worried that I got a bit overzealous and removed more roots than I should have taken. The good news is that I removed quite a bit of top growth as well. Since I’ve performed this work while the tree is still dormant, it will have a better chance of recovering from these major pruning operations.
Finishing the Japanese Holly Bonsai
After potting the holly, I performed the final pruning and shaping. At this point, I’ve opted not to wire the tree. I’ll let it grow a year or two and shape it with trimming before I look to wire it.
The final step is to thoroughly water the new bonsai. I normally use the immersion method, but opted for the overhead method for this plant.
I’m quite happy with how this Japanese holly bonsai turned out. However, I think it’s always helpful to critique your bonsai work and note what worked well versus what could be improved in the future. Let’s take a deeper look at this little Ilex crenata bonsai-work-in-progress.
What turned out well:
Interesting roots. I love the look of the gnarly roots exposed above the soil level. It gives the impression of an older tree that has experienced soil eroding from under established roots.
Double trunk. I like the pleasing angle of the double trunks. I wonder if this little Ilex actually started as two cuttings planted side by side that eventually grew together.
What could be improved:
Right fork of tree. I should have removed more branches from the right trunk, but I left them to provide some visual balance. The right side needs to fill in in several spots and it would have looked very scraggly if I had removed them right away.
The first branch on the right, along with the one on the left that juts out at an odd angle will eventually need to go. I’ll prune them once new top growth starts to form and fill in the bare spots.
Size of Leaves. After bringing the little holly home from the store last summer, it experienced a robust late-season growth spurt. Interestingly, the new leaves grew noticeably larger in size compared to the older leaves. In the final two photos, look closely at the right fork of the tree and you’ll be able to spot some of the smaller, older leaves. While this issue should rectify over time, for now, the right side looks somewhat unkempt.
Pot. This newly created bonsai presents quite respectably. However, as often happens when working with nursery stock, the root ball needs additional reductions over time in order to fit into an ideally proportioned pot.
Based on the tree’s current height (7”) and width (6.5”), the ideal width for a rectangular pot would be about 4.75”. This pot is 6.5″ wide, so we’ll look to relocate this tree to smaller pots as it develops a finer root structure. On the plus side, the current pot is no wider than the width of the tree, helping with visual balance for now.
The pot height of 2.5″, while taller than ideal for this tree, doesn’t look bad. Again, we will aim to reduce the height of succeeding pots as the bonsai is developed over time.
This article detailed the creation of a double-trunked Japanese holly bonsai from a very inexpensive nursery plant. During the styling process, we focused on exposing the interesting, gnarled roots of the plant and opted to keep both of the main trunks. Due to the bushy nature of the plant and the pleasing angle of the double trunks, we decided against wiring for now.