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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Almost 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.
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.