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Kokedamas: Trendy but Hard to Keep Alive

20171021A La Florida studio, WC
Kokedamas used as a “string garden.” Source: La Florida studio, Wikimedia Commons

You have certainly seen them: small houseplants growing in a moss-covered ball. They’re very trendy and often sit on decorative trays or plates on a table or shelf in a living or waiting room. It’s even more stylish to hang them from the ceiling like little green planets. Then you can talk about your “string garden.” You’ll find kokedamas in garden centers and florist shops and there are even specialty shops in big cities that sell them and other fashionable plant items like mini-terrariums and air plants.

To see one is to want one! But will you be able to keep yours alive?

These odd plants are kokedamas, a Japanese term that translates as “ball of moss.” The seller will probably tell you that this is a thousand-year-old Japanese tradition and that sometimes they are called “poor man’s bonsais.” Of course, that’s all hype. They are, in fact, only vaguely inspired by bonsai and kokedama is far from ancient. It only popped up in Japan in the 1990s!

Pretty but Capricious

20171021H Seyriu-en, Wikimedia Commons.jpg
Asparagus fern (Asparagus setaceus) grown as a kokedama. This species will quickly outgrow its ball of moss. Source: Seyriu-en, Wikimedia Commons

The seller will also likely tell you that kokedamas are easy to maintain, but that’s about as close to a blatant lie as you get in the gardening world. They are, in fact, very persnickety indeed. Some are easier than others, though, and depending on the conditions you can offer and the type of plant, you can keep them going for several months, perhaps even a year or so.

And no, despite sellers’ claims, you cannot place a kokedama “almost anywhere,” at least not if you want it to survive. (Some kokedamas actually look quite nice when dead!) It’s unfortunate that salespeople aren’t more straightforward about the complications, as more people would succeed with them if they were given appropriate advice.

It appalls me that so many apparently serious publications, like lifestyle magazines and even gardening Web sites, have jumped on the kokedama bandwagon and promote them as just the easiest things to grow. It’s a like the Emperor’s New Clothes all over again. Easy they are not. Let me lay it on the line: they are difficult to grow well and generally short-lived. Serious kokedama growers redo theirs regularly, moving the poor plants to pots for a few months so they can recuperate.

How to Choose a Kokedama

Theoretically, you can make a kokedama out of any small plant. There are even outdoor kokedamas (usually temporary) that use mini-hostas! Obviously, the choice of the plant will not only influence the future maintenance of the kokedama, but also where you can put it.

20171021B La Florida studio,
X Gasterworthia, a hybrid between a Haworthia and a Gastera, makes an excellent and, for once, easy kokedama, as it is highly tolerant of abuse. Source: La Florida studio, Wikimedia Commons

It’s always best to start with a kokedama made from a plant that is fairly easy to grow, especially one that can tolerate dry air, such as a succulent or a philodendron or pothos, because dry air is the main enemy of kokedamas. Unless you live in a humid greenhouse, avoid kokedamas made from plants that can’t stand dry air, such as nerve plants (Fittonia), maidenhair ferns (Adiantum) and baby’s tears (Soleirolia soleirolli): they’ll be short-lived indeed! Nor should you choose a bonsaied conifer for your first experience: leave such demanding kokedamas to people who have a lot of experience.

Also, prefer a plant that is naturally small, so the kokedama will last longer. Kokedama asparagus ferns, for example, are cute as all heck when young, but quickly outgrow their tiny container.

Epipytic plants, like smaller bromeliads, Christmas cacti and rabbit’s foot ferns, are among the longest-lived kokedamas. Indeed, they can live on for years when grown on a moss ball, as the conditions are similar to those they experience in the wild. Smaller succulents too make long-lived specimens.

Remember too that the future location of the kokedama is primordial: mull that over before you buy. Succulents are the best choices for very sunny sites, while shade tolerant houseplants like philodendrons, pothos and spathiphyllums are best for spots with little natural light.

Finally, fall and winter, when even houseplants grown in pots have difficulty adapting to home conditions, are not good seasons for buying fragile kokedamas. It’s better to buy one in spring or summer, when indoor conditions are more plant-friendly and when the plant will have time to acclimatize to its new home.

Keeping Kokedamas Alive

The maintenance of kokedama is very different from that of a classic houseplant, because, exposed to the air on all sides, especially when it is hanging, it dries both quickly and through and through. In addition, kokedama plants grow over time and their watering needs increase. Eventually, you’ll need to think about either pruning them or starting again using a younger plant: few plants can live forever in a small ball of moss.

Watering

20171021C Gerberly Hideg, Flickr
Water kokedamas by plunging them into water. Source: Gerberly Hideg, Flickr

The main element in kokedama maintenance is watering. While some salespeople recommend just spraying the moss ball with water on a regular basis, it’s very difficult to properly humidify all the roots that way … and if you pour water on the moss ball with a watering can, more will end up on the floor than in the plant’s very limited soil space! Soaking the moss ball in a container of tepid water is a much better method. Leave it to soak for five to fifteen minutes, then remove the kokedama from its bath, lightly squeeze the moss to get excess water out and then place in a colander and let it drip for half an hour or so before putting it back in its place.

Quite a bit more complicated than regular watering, wouldn’t you agree?

Water when the ball is dry to touch or the moss turns paler. Watering frequencies vary greatly depending on the size of the ball, the size of plant, its exposure, the ambient humidity and the season, among other factors. The same kokedama that only needed a weekly watering during the summer may need two waterings a week in winter when the air is very dry, and even three waterings a week when the plant grows in size.

Succulents, which better tolerate dry conditions than most other plants, are often the best choices for beginners, sometimes needing watering only once every two or even three weeks.

Light

20171021D UserMattes, WC
Right beside an east window: an ideal spot for many kokedamas. Source: User:Mattes, Wikimedia Commons

Most kokedamas tolerate average indoor lighting: bright light for much of the day, if possible, and even short periods of direct sun. They’ll grow well back from a window in the summer … but will prefer much more light during the dark days of winter. And by light, I mean light: if you keep the blinds closed all day, even the sunniest windowsill will be of little use in keeping them alive!

Succulent kokedamas usually need the most light, including several hours of full sun each day, although there are a few lower light succulents, like haworthias and gasterias, that do well in moderate light.

Pruning

If you intend to keep your kokedamas going for any length to time, you’ll find most will eventually need to be pruned, cutting them back by half from time to time. If the plant can’t be pruned (palms for example), you’ll have to remove it and replace it with something else when it gets too big.

Fertilizer

What about fertilizer? Remember that you’ll want the plant to remain small, both for the kokedama’s appearance and so it can be kept going as long as possible, so go easy on the fertilizer. In most cases, all you need to do is plunge the plant once or twice a year—always in spring or summer—into water to which you’ve added a pinch or two of soluble organic fertilizer.

High Atmospheric Humidity: the Key to Success

Good air humidity is vital for success with kokedamas (succulents being the main exception—they have no trouble with dry air) and this is a problem in many homes.

With the arrival of fall, outdoor temperatures drop and heating systems kick in, causing the ambient humidity to fall drastically. It’s not uncommon to see the atmospheric humidity, which was 60% or more all summer, drop to a desertlike 20% or less as soon as the heating starts working. And that can be fatal to many plants, especially those with thin leaves.

20171021F Walmart
Humidity tray: pour water among the gravel which will then evaporate and humidify the air, but don’t let the kokedama soak in water. Source: Walmart

That’s why it’s always wise to run a humidifier in any room where you keep a kokedama. Aim for an ambient humidity of at least 50%. (Remember that kind of humidity is excellent for human health too!) Or place your kokedama on or above a humidity tray.

20171021E Clipart Library
Misting kokedamas doesn’t help much. Source: Clipart Library

Remember that misting the leaves with water, though often recommended by kokedamas salespeople as a method to increase atmospheric humidity, has almost no effect, as the water evaporates and is carried away in only a few minutes, yet the plant needs high humidity 24 hours a day. Of course, you could always add a misting system that lightly sprays your plants every 15 minutes or so, but is that what you really want for your living room?

Make Your Own Kokedama

20171021g Ipswich Art Gallery, vimeo.com
A kokedama workshop is an excellent place to start with kokedama. Source; Ipswich Art Gallery, vimeo.com

You’ll find kokedama workshops offered in many areas. Why not participate? That will allow you to make your first kokedama under the watchful eyes of a specialist.

However, making your own kokedama isn’t really all that difficult. Here are some tips on how to do it:

First, choose a small plant that you think would be adapted to your growing conditions and also assemble the materials: potting soil, clay, sheet moss, scissors, string or wire, etc.

To make the ball, mix one-third clay to two-thirds indoor potting soil. Moisten and knead to form a thick paste. Unpot the small plant and surround its roots the pasty soil, forming a ball. It’s not unlike preparing a meatball!

Apply dried or live sheet moss or sphagnum moss to the outside of the ball and hold it in place with some sort of twine, raffia or wire, wrapping it around and around in all directions. Some people like discrete earth colors for their twine; for others, the flashier, the better.

Fishing line is the preferred choice if you want to hang your kokedama from the ceiling. Since it seems almost invisible, it can give the impression of a plant floating on air.

A Word About Moss

20171021F Amazon.comAlmost all kokedamas are wrapped in “preserved” sheet moss. This is not live moss, nor will it spring back to life when watered like dried moss sometimes does. It’s usually tinted green to give the impression it’s alive and will generally hold this color for a long time. You can sometimes find live moss (try terrarium suppliers), but most live mosses are harvested from temperate forests and will not thrive indoors in dry, heated homes. At any rate, to keep live mosses happy, you’d need very moist soil, very humid air and cool to cold conditions, often in conflict with the needs of the plant you’re growing. That’s why preserved moss, finally, is probably the best choice.

Buyer Beware

As long as you’re buying a kokedama, at least make sure it’s a real plant! The popularity of this technique has generated a vast range of copies imported from the Orient, usually a ball of Styrofoam coated in fake moss into which a plastic plant is inserted. Some of these are extremely lifelike and you’ll have a hard time believing they’re just reproductions! Just ask the salesperson to point you to the live kokedamas rather than the fakes.


Kokedamas: they may be living works of art, but they aren’t really an ideal way to grow plants. They’re sort of the stiletto heels of the plant world: they look great, but there’s nothing practical about them. Feel free to use them for their ornamental value … but if you want healthy, long-lived houseplants, grow them in pots, not in clods of muddy earth surrounded by moss.20171021A La Florida studio, WC

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

40 comments on “Kokedamas: Trendy but Hard to Keep Alive

  1. Interesting. I’ve never seen one before, and wouldn’t consider it now because of its high maintenance.

  2. Pingback: My First Kokedama – Laidback Gardener

  3. I wondered about the longevity factor with kokedama and you have confirmed my suspicions. I was planning on doing this with a few of my houseplants but now I will just buy a few smaller, less precious plants to experiment with. Thanks for your blog! I read daily!

  4. hello. i have one that has almost one year and a half. it used to have pink flowers. my city, lima, is very humid, so it is surviving well. but… has no flowers any more and i was wondering if it is a good idea to bring it back to a pot… is that possible? i feel i want to give her more freedom or something like that… i would really appreciate your thoughts on these aspects of flowers and going to a pot version…

    • Obviously, growing in a round ball is a constraint, so if you “freed” your plant and put it in a pot, that might help it bloom again. I can’t guarantee that, though, as I don’t know what type of plant it is.

      • I am sorry it took so Long to answer back. I lost track of your blog for uninteresting reasons… I moved my kokedama but it was too late. It died. Regards 😊

  5. For the past few years, I have been making planted Japanese Kokedama moss balls with live moss. Yes, they need to be watered often and need moist air. I live in south Louisiana and we have high humidity for most of the year. I keep most of my Kokedama moss balls outside or in a greenhouse. This is the first year that I am bringing some into the house for the winter and I will see how that goes. I now have some that are about three years old or so and they are doing pretty well so far as far as the plants go. The live moss is more likely to die if watering is not done often enough. It is easier to keep the moss alive on the balls that are larger or are sitting in a humidity tray with gravel and water. They can be a challenge but I guess I like the challenge of them. I am also trying out Bonsai which another challenge.

    Please watch this video on youtube, Comparing different planting pots, containers, and bags – YouTube — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mkWwNibrbDQ Or look up info about the benefits of air pruning or root pots. Thanks.

    • Wonderful comments! I can’t even imagine living in a climate where you could keep kokedamas outside in the winter!

      • I also have some kokedamas balls with live Spanish moss hanging down around them. I keep little moss gardens too – but they are easier to keep when they are in a glass container (a terrarium) with a cover or partial cover, but I also have some moss gardens just in pots.

  6. Geesh, very well written and super informative! Thank you for laying out the facts and truth about Kokedamas. As someone who likes to garden indoors and out, I’ve wasted my fair share of time and money attempting different projects and it’s nice to hear a voice from a real gardener giving factual advice rather than one just trying to sell an idea; saving the rest of us time, money and frustration.
    Although these are super cute, based on your advice I may just try sticking with a faux version for small ones (for decor) and maybe a larger real one on a humidity tray.
    Another thought – I met someone who had great success in growing and propagating air plants simply by hanging them in a bathroom where the humidity was improved from the showers. That may be a better location for these if looking to bring a little green into your bathroom or perhaps during the drier winter months.
    Thanks again for the low-down on these and have shared your article on Pinterest.

    • Thank you.

      Just one one: Air plants will love the humidity of a bathroom, of course, but need bright light and some sun too. Good light is often lacking in bathrooms!

  7. Thank you so much for this thorough explanation! I feel like I understand my plant so much more now. I am so frustrated with other blogs and magazines pretending these are easy to care for.

    I attended a workshop in December, as a friend wanted to go and I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I have struggled to keep my pothos alive ever since; the top half seems to thrive, while the bottom half wilts and withers away.

    I can’t believe that there are people advising that you should water your pothos kokedama once or twice a month! I water mine 1-2 times a week, due to the dry winter air. Hopefully as time goes on, it won’t be so temperamental. I’ll just have to cut it back to keep it in the moss.

    • Once you get the watering worked out (soaking), the plant’s root system will fill in and things will be easier… except for the dripping!

  8. Thanks for your thorough post. I was gifted a very pretty Kokedama with ivy, but it died. Is there a way I can replant without undoing the string and layers?

    • The easiest thing to do would be to root cuttings in the ball. It could be ivy again if you want. Punch a hole or two into the kokedama and slip in the cutting. Keep the kokedama moist during rooting, which can take a few weeks: it might be best to insert the entire kokedama under a clear plastic dome or inside a clear plastic bag as rooting is going on. When you see new growth, the cuttings will be rooted.

      I like your question and may well answer it with more details as a blog article in a few days!

  9. Alexandra Abraham

    I lost a kokedama Ivy because I made the mistake of watering it like a normal plant. I first became fascinated by Kokedama when my daughter Christmas-gifted me a Chinese elm kokedama Christmas 2016. It’s thriving outside, and I’m training it as a ‘cloud’ bonsai, and it’s been an incredible success. I’ve recently made a small cotoneaster kokedama, a Chamaedorea Elegans and a new ivy. So far, so good. all being watered as they should be, and thriving. But the Chinese Elm definitely needs re-doing now… it’s been exposed to all the seasonal elements of a British midlands climate., and it’s getting a little ‘tired’… Do you suggest re-doing it now, or simply adding some more wrap moss, and leaving it as it is…?

    • Not much is said about how to deal with an aging kokedama. After all, it’s such a new technique! I suggest you’d best take it apart, trim back the roots and redo it, like one would with a bonsaI or any plant you need to keep in a pot far too tiny for it’s usual needs.

      • Alexandra Abraham

        Trial and error is what creates the expert. The more we do, the more we learn… Thanks for your input, that’s logical!

      • Alexandra Abraham

        UPDATE: I have “re-potted” my Chinese Elm! I also made others! Any way I could send you photos?! :o) (If you’re interested, that is… :o) )

      • Sure! You can send photos via email to horticom@horticom.ca.

  10. Pingback: Replanting a Kokedama – Laidback Gardener

  11. Alexandra Abraham

    Oops… Error message….?

    “The address “horticom@horticom.ca.” in the “To” field was not recognised. Please make sure that all addresses are properly formed.”

  12. Alexandra Abraham

    Found the error. Please delete above comments…

  13. Mehmet Gülsün

    Hello I bought my wife one of these kokodema’s but unfortunately the moss ball turned brown, I want to save it, is there any chance?

    • Whether the moss is green or brown changes nothing, really. It’s the plant growing in it you have to keep alive and you don’t mention it. Keep the ball fairly moist and it should survive.

  14. I’m sorry you have had difficulties keeping kokedamas alive. I have a collection of ferns that have never been happier. My oldest ones are 5 yrs old now and still going strong. Yes root pruning is a bit of a chore when you basically have to redo the ball but it’s worth it in my opinion. The open soil in both plastic and terracotta pots, unfortunately, attracted mold and fungus gnats for me. That problem was instantly solved with kokedama.

  15. Thanks for the article! I have a peace lily Kokedama that seems to be sprouting from the bottom and the natural fibre string that holds it together is starting to disintegrate. Would it be ok for me to unwrap the plant and pop it in a hanging pot?

  16. Thanks for your valuable input. Very
    down to earth. I’m from the Caribbean and live in Orlando,FL. On a 5th floor with a balcony facing north -East…ish. I have turned it
    into a little private “rain forest”. My thing
    is epiphytes(staghorns,and ferns),birds of paradise and others as I created my own
    private rain forest in my Puerto Rico house.
    It’s all gone,I’m starting again at 70,after my wife passed 27yrs.ago and the fun is still there.

  17. Narelle from Australia

    My Kale kokedama is doing very well and growing very fast. I want to remove it from the moss and plant it in the garden. It is so tightly bound in the moss ball, I’m not sure of the best way to release it. Do you have a suggestion?

    • Just pot it in soil, moss and all. The roots will grow out through the moss.

      Trying to remove it from a “pot” from which plants are not designed to be removed would probably kill it.

  18. Well said.

  19. Hi there and thank you for this article – very enlightening. My plant was doing very well but a large root has come through the moss, after reading the previous comment I think I will try planting the whole thing in soil and see what happens.

  20. Hello, just got my first kokedama with a flowering bromeliad & love it! One week ago let it soak in shallow container for 15 min. The moss inside is still damp but outside is dry. Should I wait until completely dry to do this procedure again?

    • That would partly depend on the type of bromeliad. Tillandsias (small and greyish) don’t have much of a root system, so you can soak when the outside is dry as they get their moisture from their leaves, not the soil. If it’s one with a smoother, shinier leaf, it probably does root thoroughly into the kokedama and if it is still moist inside, it won’t need water yet.

  21. I read your blog with amusement. I think they are decorative things tbh, perfect for short lived plants like mini orchids & as you say succulents. I’ve had success with asparagus Ferns. So as mentioned I’m treating this (I’m a florist) as a short lived decorative item.
    I don’t make clay balls, but simply take the plant, make it round and wrap in flat moss. Pining and “randomly” wrapping with twine.
    Four assorted plants together on a plate .. “plants on a plate”, an alternative to flowers, to enjoy while we work from home.

    I do find misting helps between watering, but I live in a cooler older English home!

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