Coin Toss Forest Design Exercise

If you’re seeking something bonsai-ish to do while socked in by a snow storm, this might be it.

I’d heard of this exercise years ago but had never tried it. While it wasn’t snowing out (it was raining), I did think this was the best thing I could do with my afternoon: take a handful of coins and toss them repeatedly on my kitchen countertop.

I think the rogue ant thought a localized earthquake was going on, and several escapee pennies made it into the sink before being rounded up, but otherwise it was a normal day in my kitchen.

The following are before and after photos of these kitchen experiments, intended to whet the whistle for forest design. You might not be led to actually compose anything that you came up with. But…

…but. There is a curious fun in taking something random, and then toying with it until it isn’t any more. Also, as this is reductive, there’s something there to begin with. We aren’t starting from a blank slate. And that builds courage.

To summarize, what we’re doing here is tossing coins, imagining them as trunks at ground level, then taking some out until we see, magically, a forest appear. Arboreal-coinage alchemy. (Used to be a thing in Medieval times.)



This was abysmal. My first attempt, static, with no flow. I was warming up…



A bit better. There’s structure there. Emphasis on one side of the design.



More air in the design.



This one was fun. Sort of an archipelago of coins. Or trunks.



If anyone is counting, you’ll likely catch me out. I wasn’t counting. There’s probably some even ones here. The top things I was paying attention to were: 1. relationship of the large trunks with the smaller ones, 2. preventing too many things in a line, 3. trying to keep the large coins near the front of the design (the bottom of the photo) for perspective, and 4. enabling spacial / asymmetrical harmony.

I’ve a client that I’ll be making a forest for soon, and now I’ve given him an image of me “working” over my sink like a shadowy Rasputin, late at night, poofs of smoke for dramatic effect, coins rolling everywhere…


  1. crataegus says:

    Sorry for the formatting if you read these blogs by phone. Not sure why WordPress is doing this, looks ok on my iPad. Will try to correct for the future!

  2. peterclimb says:

    Brilliant as always, Michael-San!

  3. Michael! This is such a playful and intelligent way to exercise design ideas. It reminds me of printmaking where I rely on the ink and water to create a pattern while I manipulate the image and content. And like you, once the print is pulled (the coins are spilled) I go back and correct the spontaneous (pick and choose what to leave lay). I love that permission to rejigger the random to a better irregular. Thanks for this inspiring musing.
    **In purist printmaking circles redrawing on a print is heresy!
    (Oops… THAT’S RIGHT! You know all about that…)

    • crataegus says:

      Ha! Thanks Andy—- though I should reiterate this isn’t my idea, I have heard others try it. But I hadn’t, and found it a lot more fun and possibly useful than I’d thought.

      Somehow I suspect I’d be a redrawer…

  4. Ayla Baha says:

    Thank you for sharing such a fun idea Mr. Hagedorn! Definitely will be trying this. We don’t have to worry about the main tree (largest) being in the front or back of the forest, then?

  5. Dave Hodgetts says:

    Cool idea, and anything that gets us thinking more about what we’re doing is good in my opinion.

    PS: Also one of the reasons I love “Bonsai Heresy”

  6. Mats Hagstrom says:

    Perhaps an extended bingo board could work as well. With that there would be no human bias towards throwing coins towards any one area.

    In the end the human hand has many times made things both better and worse. So many times in my life I have seen atrocious buildings completely lacking in architectural style built next to beautiful classic century older buildings. I always wonder what the people building a modern building we’re thinking while building and looking at the beauty next door built years earlier.

    One idea for getting forest layouts would be aerial views of groups of trees that look beautiful from a ground perspective. Perhaps a project for avid hikers with a drone?

    David DeGroot covers the subject fairly well in one of his chapters.

    Time evolves compositions as well.

    As a beginner I hear different perspectives regarding the timing of a composition of bonsai forest. Some encourage substantial development of the trees before creating the composition while others seem to prefer the ability to put trees together while quite young.

    Starting with a vision, concept or purpose seems fundamental bonsai work.

    Thank you for your story and insight.

    Mats Hagstrom

    • crataegus says:

      Hi Mats, thanks for the comment! Both kinds of timing can work. Old trees and young. Different parameters for each, but you’ve put your finger on it. It’s a preference. Because of the often greatly limited root systems of each tree in a forest planting, there’s a greater chance of tree loss than in a normal potting when trying to fit old trees into a forest. Not a concern for setting up a tray and planting seeds, cuttings, or small saplings to start a forest. Both, to my perspective, are fun and challenging.

  7. Ray says:

    Interesting endeavour Michael . This looks like it will work.

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