Restyling a Historic Ponderosa (in a Metal Pot) –

Years ago a friend dropped off an old brake drum, an old rusted thing from a car, and said ‘Put something in that’. I was pretty amused and said I would, and yet it’s taken me a while to find something worthy of it. We finally did, this spring, and it was the first time I’ve ever put a tree in a metal container.

I’ve featured this Ponderosa here before. Collected way back in the 80’s, it made its way onto the cover of BCI magazine in 1992. The lower branch was getting weak and last fall we had a post about cutting that branch off, and rethinking the inclination and front.

This spring we put the pine in the brake drum. I worried that the metal container would heat up a lot, but, interestingly, it hasn’t (more about that in another post).

Fall has arrived and the tree is plenty strong enough for a restyle. While looking at the pine again an edgier front possibility arose, and we went with that…

The Ponderosa pine on the cover of BCI magazine in 1992

Fall of 2019. A lower branch was cut off, with some blocks helping us think about what a restyle might look like. The only problem with this perfectly serviceable front is that it looks like a bonsai should look, when it’s being polite.

August 2020. In spring the Ponderosa pine was repotted into a rusted brake drum, at this new angle, but we found a new front, too. The decisions here were not easy (are they ever), as we had to give up an interesting burl of wood at the base of this tree for the new tucked in look. What I liked was the more interesting line from this view. Bunjin is all about line, not base, or nebari, so we sacrificed that to get a far more active trunk line. No major bends were done, just a turn of the pot 90 degrees. There is nothing I did here that a future owner couldn’t undo, with a return to the original front, which is a nice one. But, the original front felt a bit…prosaic…to me, and I wanted something edgier. The unusual container choice and the unusual front have a touch of simpatico. It’s a little less bonsai-like and maybe a little more interesting. To me at any rate.

Long term effects of the metal are uncertain and this unusual container may become a ‘display’ pot for the pine and not a year-round growing pot. We’ll continue to monitor it, though, and will report back.

🤞Sign up for the blog!

We don’t spam! Read more in our privacy policy


  1. Allen A. Aigen says:

    I assume you drilled drainage holes. Did you protect the inside from further rusting?

    • crataegus says:

      It came with many holes! There were about 15 smaller holes around one very large hole. And we did two pines in metal pots this year, one we sealed the interior and one we didn’t. This one we didn’t and it’s the healthiest pine in the yard. But we do have a quick evacuation plan if that changes. But I think we may seal in the future anyhow, even with the health I suspect there will be a zone next to the pot wall where things don’t grow well, but, we like experimenting here, and I’m curious to see in a couple years what that looks like. Also, the response of mychorrizae. So far so good, tree is, not surprisingly, very green.

  2. Skipp Serrano says:

    Interesting. Is the drum the pot or did you line it with something else? I’d be afraid of the corroding metal somehow harming the tree.
    I do like the new presentation with the simplicity of the drum. The tree looks more relaxed.

    • crataegus says:

      Allen had a similar comment where replied at length; I admit concern myself. We are monitoring it. But, in this first year it’s the greenest pine in the yard. The future may be different though.

  3. John says:

    Interesting! I think you accomplished what you wanted….bit edgy and less bonsai-like. Working with you over the years I believe a decade ago you would have frowned on the current interpretation (focal point framed in trunk circle) and it’s interesting to see this new vision of work imho.

    • crataegus says:

      Yes you are right, I tend to avoid circles and was trained to do so. It may be the only tree I’ve designed this way, and yet it felt right in this situation. It is very naughty though.

  4. maciek416 says:

    I took a picture of this Ponderosa during my visit in early August, one of my favorites in the garden:

  5. Ray says:

    Good use of a brake drum has good drainage😎. Like the new look👍

  6. Crust says:

    The B-D pot is so much together with the tree than the previous froo-froo pots.

  7. Robert Macnair says:

    …way better!

  8. Don Erickson says:

    Great tree, the pot only adds to the uniqueness or this display!

  9. Rafał says:

    Are you surę that metal pot od goog for this tree? I think that metal pot od cold and its most Hood for pines witch need warm environment on roots. I honestly domy think this is a good solution to any tree.

    • crataegus says:

      It’s an experiment; I have another tree that we’re doing this with. Surprisingly, the metal seems to keep the root ball at a more even temperature—not too cool, not too hot—than the ceramic. I didn’t expect this. But the ceramic pots are much hotter than the metal, in the danger range, in the sun in the summer. I’m going to be monitoring this tree for sure, but at the moment it’s one of the healthiest pines in the yard. More to come! Will report. Thanks for the comment.

  10. Tony Tickle says:

    This is great, the perfect container and a great colour too!

  11. Tony Tickle says:

    Great solution, lovely colour too!

  12. Robin says:


    I love this look, and I’ve seen it before. Graham Potter from the UK did this earlier this year or last year and posted on his blog. I loved it then and I think you doing it will likely further help people think more outside of the box. Looks great.

  13. Finchwood says:

    Iron chellate is used by some horticulturists to green up a lawn. Seems like the iron container is doing a similar thing. Gidday from the land down under.

  14. Lars Larsson says:

    A bit dystopian. I like it. A lot.
    In my zone 3 area I’d likely be needing to bury some pieces over winter, so with this I wouldn’t be worried about a cracking pots. I can also see, as you are finding, that the added mass can smooth out temp swings. Maybe I’d line with some scavenged pool vinyl and screen. I was planning to tack some pots together using COR-TEN, weathering steel for this look…but now, maybe just hit a scrap yard, or my inlaws garage.

    • crataegus says:

      I think you’re right about smoothing out the temps. The metal is a good conductor. Now 18 months in with some high heat it’s still feeling cooler than the ceramic pots, and the tree is very healthy. We’re going to do some temperature tests in the soil so it’s not all guesswork, but it has been a surprise so far.

Leave a Reply