Here at The Garden Shed Nursery we are seeing the art of kokedama making a big splash on the Sunshine Coast - both as a creative hobby and a way to dress up indoor and outdoor garden spaces.
We have a local supplier of hanging plants and a popular following for them here at the nursery, but we thought we'd have a look into the art itself and found this great piece by British writer Tovah Martin that we thought you might like:
"It (kokedama) started in Japan, and skipped over to the Netherlands before infiltrating the United States. Now it is popping up here, with a few examples at this year’s Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, by designer Maïa Sautelet. Basically, kokedama (translation “moss ball”) is the practice of removing a root system from its container, surrounding it in a mud cake, then wrapping the whole mess in moss before winding it in string. The original Japanese form of kokedama was then displayed on an altar-like platform.
But why stop there? Fedor Van der Valk of the Netherlands took it one step higher and suspended his bound botanicals from pulleys. Generally acknowledged as the king of contemporary kokedama, Van der Valk calls his creations string gardens, and they have caught everyone’s quirkier side.
Actually, Van der Valk just stumbled upon the idea while in the process of working on stop-motion videos for IJM Studio in Amsterdam.
“Stop-motion videos inspired me to make my own world and characters,” Van der Valk says. “String gardens are what came out of it. For the animations I had in mind to use ordinary garden and house plants that I could give a bonsai look,” he adds. “Unfortunately, I did not know about kokedama when I started. It would have saved me a lot of time and financial trouble.”
What Van der Valk does is more in sync with our era of novelty and instant gratification than a revival of an ancient Japanese skill. He wraps his plants in layers of live moss, seeds the moss ball with grass and clover to form a mini-meadow sphere, and then hangs the whole shebang from pulleys to dangle in the breeze.
Of course, there’s nothing new about hanging plants. One of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World was King Nebuchadnezzar II’s indulgence to his queen. The hanging gardens of Babylon that he purportedly built for her amusement in 600BC were definitely vertical, but all the trees were settled comfortably in baked brick slots. The swaying Boston fern fad that took the Victorians by storm was a further permutation, but the ferns were firmly rooted in hanging containers rather than parading around exposed in the buff. And ditto for the macramé swingers that danced through the disco age – their method of suspension had to do with crochet, but the roots were safely held in a container.
MASS MoCA, the contemporary art museum in Massachusetts, raised eyebrows with Natalie Jeremijenko’s 1999 outdoor courtyard exhibit of six live sugar maples hung upside down (the museum is now on its second set of trees after 10 years – the originals thrived so profusely that they outgrew the cylinders, became too heavy, and have now retired to a life growing nearby, right side up).
But again, in the MASS MoCA exhibition, the roots are encased in metal cylinders watered by a cistern that collects rain.
Similarly confined to outdoor use, plant pouches are currently in vogue for hanging vegetables (with a heavy emphasis on tomatoes) and flowering plants. They are typically made of durable plastic with pockets to receive the plants. Not so for kokedama. The most recent wrinkle of the trend sets roots free entirely.
The Modern Method
Though the plants are free from containment, they are not unbridled. Everyone seems to have developed a different method. For example, Utah-based Charlotte Catherine, who crafts her own high-end kokedama which she sells on the web, crochets pockets for her creations and then stuffs the receptacle with moss before planting it with cyclamen, orchids, anthurium and other plants, pairing it with display vessels to achieve a “masterpiece quality” display.
We can thank the internet for string gardens’ elevated heights of popularity. For example, Peter Smith of City Planter (cityplanter.com), a shop in Philadelphia that has helped to put kokedama on the US map, was surfing the web a year ago when he came across images that caught his eye. Blogs led him to videos from Japan. Before he knew it, he was seeking out sources for the clay-based akadama bonsai soil that serves as the glue to hold the root ball together. He worked with packaged dried sheet moss: “But it never looks really alive,” he says. So he began obtaining live-harvested sheet moss to achieve the natural look he strives for. By the time the Philadelphia Flower Show rolled round in March, he had a whole display of string gardens ready for his sales booth. He couldn’t keep up with the demand, so started a sign-up sheet for workshops.
Care and conditions
Kokedama isn’t exactly carefree. Depending on the weather and the type of plant used, plants will need watering twice a week or more (Van der Valk has found thirsty carnivorous pitcher plants do best with daily watering). Beyond watching for wilting, which is never the best way to discern if a plant needs water, Peter Smith suggests feeling the moss ball’s weight for telltale signs that water is needed. When his composition is thirsty, he submerges the sphere in a bucket of water for five to 10 minutes, and then hangs it where it can drip before bringing it back to its display position. And yes, shedding is an issue. “You won’t want to hang this over your shag carpet,” Smith says.
For his subjects, Van der Valk originally fiddled with annuals before finding they hang around only temporarily. Now he makes forays into trees, such as olives, pomegranates, pines, pears, apples and chestnuts. But tropical plants are probably the most successful: anthuriums, philodendrons, asparagus ferns, orchids, begonias, angel hair vines, coleus, staghorn ferns, echeverias and other succulents. Herbs, prostrate rosemary being a favourite, also perform well.
How to do it
Peter Smith found instructions on various YouTube sites when starting out with kokedama. From there, he fine-tuned those methods to suit his style and the available ingredients.
He starts by mixing two-thirds peat moss with a third akadama, a surface-mined mineral with the consistency of granular clay that drains rapidly, but also achieves the mud-cake composition needed to hold the roots together.
In a bucket, he mixes the peat and akadama together until the mixture is sopping wet. Then he takes his green victim, shakes off the original soil until the majority of the roots are exposed (an exception are plants that wilt easily, such as coleus and ferns – their roots and the original soil are left more intact).
Then he slaps an inch-deep layer of the soggy akadama/peat soil mixture onto the roots, creating a ball about the same volume as the original pot. He gives the ball a squeeze to release the dripping moisture and lays out a blanket of sheet moss to envelope the ball, gathering it around the stem. Then comes the waxed polyester or cotton cord (most practitioners seem to agree that fishing line doesn’t look right). He wraps the moss so it is secure, but not mummy-ish, and then he ties the string in. Finally, he creates a loop of cord of the desired length, and hangs the plant.
So - there you have a little insight into the art of kokedama.
If you'd like to find out more, or if you want to pick up the finished product in a variety of different herbs, ferns and edibles, just call in to the nursery in Palmwoods and we can help you out.