Accent Plant Smorgasbord!
It’s been a busy month! And it’s nice to come back from tilting at windmills and other kinds of fun to see what’s been going on while away. I always look forward to see what’s blooming on the accent bench, and what’s getting ready to bloom. They’re a cheerful bunch!
I’ve shared photos of accent plants in the past when they begin to get showy, so it’s nothing new that I’m waxing rhapsodic at this time of year. This time I’ve also included a few paragraphs about their care, and some observations on the aesthetic horizons of these special plantings that my teacher Shinji Suzuki was so very fond of.
I’ve not yet fertilized any of these rascals this year, just watered. In early July I will fertilize. Most accent plants like a lot of water, even the succulents pictured here don’t mind it. But then they are from the wet West Coast, so they grow mold like the rest of us. Also I don’t repot them very frequently. Most accent plants can go 7-10 years between repottings. They get tighter growth and bloom better, and begin to mound up and crawl over the sides of the pot so it looks like one unit. Then things get really JUICY… which is a technical term that true accent plant fanatics use. You might begin using it too, but it requires long term exposure to juicy plants or a very severe knock on the head, either will do.
I think we all have a tendency to ‘compose’ an accent planting, which I think really kills it aesthetically. It’s so easy to pot up a few plants together and have it look like it was designed. It should feel organically WILD. Try to keep it simple, 1-3 kinds of plants only. Also, try to have things that bloom at different times so it doesn’t get too complex at any one blooming month. Many of the accents pictured here were dug up in the dormant season before I saw what was there, which is one way to avoid the impulse to compose. That’s also a way to make use of the art world idea of a ‘found object’. Also, consider keeping the volunteer plant when it arrives, which might be a random seed that blows in from elsewhere. This will assist us in creating an improvisational feeling. Then, once you’ve got it all, let it grow and get lopsided all by itself, and make slight adjustments only with a scissors. Good accents take at least five years of growth to look established and convincingly wild, lumpy, and playful. And they just get better with time!
The last photo is of an accent less than 3″/7 cm high. The tallest in this gallery was 20″/50 cm. My teacher in Japan had many that were in the 24″-36″/60-90 cm range, like a pot of tall reeds or cattails. These were not used as a companion piece to a bonsai but were displayed by themselves in a separate tokonoma. Very large ‘accent’ plants are not really accents, but are appreciated for their own qualities independent of the subordinate role usually reserved for smaller accents in bonsai display.
The thing I love about accents is, they are fringe. Accent plants are for really fanatical bonsai nutballs and wingnuts. You’ll know if you’re also a nut if you spend more time admiring your accents than the deeply valuable old bonsai that impress first-time visitors. If you’re such a nut, you’re probably also more interested in process than economics, in beauty than making sure the balance sheet of labor to price works out positively. It won’t. Accent plants are pretty worthless by most value metrics in our daily lives. Pure and untethered to pennies, we won’t get overly precious with them and can enjoy them just as they are: A beauty as rambunctious and free as the wind.