Level That Bench!

Bonsai is about details. From creation to showing, every act in bonsai is about applying technique carefully and deliberately.

And we can get rather distracted by the end zone details, focusing on the local show, getting the right pot, the best stand. Just the right accent. And you could not be faulted, those are essential points in the details of bonsai.

I’ve walked into bonsai yards where someone is so focused on those final touches as to miss one of the main horticultural ones. Being sure the bonsai bench is level is a critical one. This is not about aesthetics. It’s about water penetration.

If a bench is just a few degrees off from level, you can see it pretty easily. What happens then, when a bonsai is watered on that bench, is that the water quickly levels to one side of the pot, and there it soaks in. The other side gets a veneer of water that quickly dries. Over time, guess what happens? We have root death on the side where no water is penetrating. Then a week of rain happens, and that root death turns into root rot. Then you have the situation where you’re prepping your trees for the big show of the year and two of your main branches die, and you’re wondering what insect is eating your bonsai. Well, the unleveled bench did the ‘eating’.

This is just a Halloweeny example of what can happen when so simple a detail as leveling the bench is missed.

Buy a level. Even better, use it.



  1. Mert says:

    Nearly all of us have smart phones. I use an iPhone, there is a level application within the compass aplication. It is useful…

    • Carol says:

      I’ve tried using iPhone levels in the past, but they don’t seem to have the accuracy of a long, carpenter’s level with bubbles that cover all directions at once!

  2. Speaking of exhibits/shows, have you been a judge? I exhibited a kotobuki JBP last weekend and was faulted for details like too frail a stand and color of aluminum wire (instead of copper). I did have excellent tree health, however, and uniform needle size, which can be hard to do. Shouldn’t things like difficulty of the tree be weighted more than presentation details which can be solved with a check to a vendor (vs. years of care/thought/effort)? Thanks.

    • crataegus says:

      Yes, I have frequently been a judge in a bonsai show. You make a fair point, one to be balanced with many other factors. There are some trees, such as shishigashira Japanese Maple, that do not ramify very well. So comparing them with a strict rule to another maple that ramifies easily is not making a fair comparison. Still, all variables have to be considered by judges, and this is only one of them.

  3. Germán ARTAGAVEYTIA says:

    Thanks for pointing such big+blind spot on general doings! good to have advises like this that helps us all clear the trouble-shooting check-list when it goes wrong on a “little fellow” on the bench.

  4. Luzia Bernstein says:

    Thank you,Mike. My benches are not leveled and I now think that what happened to my white pine.

  5. Brad says:

    Yet we often see trees propped at a slight angle with a shim to help drainage. Is the difference that when people prop up the pots they ensure that a drainage hole is at the lowest point?

    Thanks for all the great insights.

    • crataegus says:

      Yes, excellent point. During periods of heavy rain, it is a common practice to raise one side of the pot to let water drain more easily. Be sure though that it is a pot that has the drainage hole close to the end of the pot, or a large pocket of rotted roots could result. It is a good practice however, if not left long in that position.

  6. bravoromeo1 says:

    Fair point, but if you aren’t rotating your trees occasionally you are probably causing bigger problems? Rotating say weekly would limit the effects of a skew bench?

    My benches are level, but I did not appreciate the value add I achieved through the additional effort it required!

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