I recently attended a workshop on how to make kokedamas: a plant grown in a moss ball. This is the first time I have experimented with this ultramodern Japanese technique and I thought it would be interesting to explain what I learned.
The workshop was given by a local plant shop, Folia Design, by one of their employees, Dominique Shields, and a student from the horticulture program at a local high school, Alexandrine Lemieux. It was snowing pretty heavily that evening and only three of the eight students showed up. A table had been set up in the back of the shop and all the ingredients were ready for us: plants, moss, clay, potting soil, etc. The goal of the workshop was for each student to produce their own kokedama.
We had a choice of plants: bird’s nest snake plants (Sansevieria trifasciata ‘Hanhi’), pothos (Epipremnum aureum) and various ferns. I chose an elkhorn fern (Platycerium bifurcatum), a species that is more drought-resistant than most ferns and is also a natural epiphyte. I thought that was important, because I estimate that kokedamas, where the roots of plants are much more exposed to ambient air on all sides than are potted plants, were basically living in a modified epiphytic environment.
Plus, I am curious to see if the sterile fronds (shield-shaped ones at the base of the plant) of this rather original fern will eventually surround the moss ball over time.
The plants we were offered were larger than I would have thought, in 6 inch (15 cm) pots, and as a result our kokedamas are larger those I had seen so far in plant stores. All the better, because with a larger moss ball and therefore more material to hold moisture, that ought to result in plants less dependent on frequent watering.
The How To
I was offered rubber gloves to work with, but chose not to wear them. Not only do I enjoy physical contact with soil, but I’m not afraid of getting dirty.
The first step was to remove the plant from its pot and pull off as much potting mix as possible. I was able to reduce the root ball of my plant by about two thirds.
Next, we compressed the root ball a bit with our hands to give it a somewhat globular shape. Dominique insisted that it wasn’t necessary to form at perfect ball at this point: that would come later. She was right!
Now, it was time to form a clay shell around the roots. The clay had been premixed and was composed of equal parts potter’s clay, commercial potting soil and shredded peat and carefully moistened. The idea was to roll out a fairly thick layer of the clay blend: as if we were preparing a pie crust, but about twice as thick. The trick was then to pull the sheet of clay up around the root ball, assembling the sections by smoothing them in order to completely cover the root ball except for just around the plant on top. That’s easier said than done! The clay tended to crack and fell off if you didn’t hold it in place.
No doubt if you were producing kokedamas on an industrial scale, you could experiment to find exactly the right blend and mix in just enough water so the resulting paste holds together well while remaining malleable. Ours wasn’t quite at that point. But at least I now had a more or less round shell that remained intact … as long as I kept two hands wrapped around it.
The next step was to cover the clay with a layer of sphagnum moss. At this point, an extra pair of hands would have certainly been useful, but … we managed. The moss we used had been pre-moistened earlier in the day and was in the form of sheets of various sizes. I managed to put together a complete covering by fitting various pieces together and holding them in place with my hands. Even so, sections still fell off, sometimes along with the clay underneath, the minute I pulled my hands away.
We used green floral wire for the next step, but our instructor explained we could use fishing line, copper wire, raffia and various other lines. Or floral wire in other colors than green. I found floral wire to be an excellent choice: easy to bend and shape, but very strong and also very discreet. You can barely see it on finished kokedamas.
The wire needed to be wrapped quite tightly around the moss ball, running it over and over and in all directions. This holds the moss sheets and clay tightly to the root ball. Now, thanks to the flexibility of the wire (I’m sure fishing line wouldn’t be as good), it was easily to mold the moss into a true ball that really did hold together. In fact, it held so well I suspect you could form cube with this technique if you wanted to: the wire-wrapped moss and clay ball is that malleable!
We could have stopped there. That would have given a sphagnum moss kokedama, brown in color. But we could also add the finishing touch: surrounding the ball with green moss, like most professional kokedamas. To that end, we used floral moss, a so-called “preserved moss” (it has been soaked in glycerine to keep it malleable). This is not live moss and indeed, live moss probably wouldn’t live very long under home conditions.
Preserved moss comes in thin sheets that can be applied, shaped and assembled to completely surround the ball. Again, it was necessary to apply an abundance of the florist wire, wrapping it in all directions and pulling tight to hold it all together.
And there you go: I now had my own kokedama!
Making a kokedama is one thing. Keeping it alive is quite another. You need just the right environment. I find a lot of budding kokedama owners tend to see their kokedamas as decorations and forget they are plants that have needs. I’m quite the opposite: I tend to think of meeting plant needs first, with decoration only a very secondary thought. However, I figure I’ve found an interesting combination … and one that meets with my wife’s approval (not always the case!).
My kokedama therefore sits on the dining room table on a small glass cake stand (my wife’s choice) that serves as a saucer. I water it by filling the plate with water and letting it soak for 15 to 20 minutes, then discarding any excess water.
No, I will not be watering it by spraying the ball with water, even though many kokedamas websites recommend that method. It would simply be too difficult to thoroughly moisten the moss ball that way. And how could you tell the water was penetrating deeply, which is what is needed? Plus the spray would tend to damage nearby surfaces, not mention stain the leaves of the plant. My experience is that spraying plants as a means of watering them works much better in theory than in practice.
My dining room is just off my solarium plant room, so although my kokedama is quite some distance from the nearest window, it still receives a few hours of direct sunlight per day. I calculate that this is the equivalent of moderate light. Enough, I hope, to keep my elkhorn fern thriving, as it does like more light than most ferns. If I see it’s not doing well, I’ll move it to a sunnier spot.
Otherwise, the plant will receive a normal indoor temperatures and reasonable humidity, being so close to the plant room. It will need little fertilizer, probably none at all the first year, as epiphytic plants don’t need much in the way of minerals.
Eventually, I intend to suspend my kokedama from the ceiling in the plant room and if I do so, the plan is to water it by soaking it in a bucket of water like I do the air plants (Tillandsia spp.) already hanging there.
So, that’s my first kokedama. What about yours?
To learn more about kokedamas, read Kokedamas: Trendy, But Hard to Keep Alive.