6 Essential Tips for Keeping Your Kokedama Alive
Discover everything you need to know about making and caring for your Japanese-inspired kokedama moss garden.
The Japanese word kokedama translates to English as "moss ball," and such simplicity is the very essence of this elegant garden art form. An accompaniment to the practice of bonsai, kokedama is a type of kusamono—an ornamental planting meant to be displayed on its own, not to be confused with shitakusa, which is a planting meant to be viewed as a direct complement to a bonsai.
Essentially, it is a ball of mud covered in moss and planted with a single or multiple specimens. Kokedama is either suspended from string, mounted to a piece of driftwood or bark, or set in a shallow dish. Traditionally, this ancient practice relies upon foraging wild materials like grasses and live moss to evoke a sense of season and environment. But it is easy for the typical home gardener to cut corners and replicate the aesthetic without trekking into the wilderness. Unless that's your thing, and in that case, forage away (ethically)!
A collection of more than one hanging kokedama has come to be known as a Japanese string garden. These space-efficient, whimsical hanging gardens are easy to create and care for, and they make a stunning living art piece for your home.
What you'll need to make a kokedama-inspired garden:
- A few small houseplants (or foraged wild plants) of your choice
- Akadama (bonsai potting soil)
- Peat moss
- Decorative, dried sheet moss (or pieces of living moss, if you're trying to be traditional)
- A small square of weed barrier cloth for each plant (big enough to surround the finished mud ball) (skip this step if you're trying to build a very traditional kokedama)
- Thin cotton twine
- Nylon twine, if you want to give it a pop of color; jute or packing twine, if you're trying for a more traditional aesthetic
As with most garden projects, there are certain key steps to follow to ensure that your kokedama not only survives, but also thrives.
1. Start with the Right Soil
The most pivotal element of kokedama is its ball of soil: form and function all rolled into one little sphere of mud. The trick to this is using the right combination—a 7:3 ratio of peat soil and akadama or bonsai soil (available at most garden centers). After thoroughly mixing these two materials, slowly add water and create a paste-like mud, which can then be shaped into a ball. If you have the right combination of soil and moisture, it will retain its shape, almost like clay.
2. Pick the Right Plant
The average home gardener is going to have the best success with houseplants and shade-tolerant plants for their kokedama. Start with small, healthy plants. Some to try:
- shade-tolerant grasses
- african violet
- staghorn fern
- asparagus fern
- polka dot plant
Just before beginning your kokedama project, gently remove excess dirt from the plant's root bundle by loosening with your fingers.
3. Soak Your Moss
Fully submerge your dried sheet moss in water, then wring it out so that it is nice and damp. Even if you're using live moss, it is a good idea to soak it. Use a small section of wet moss to snugly wrap the plant's exposed roots. Wrap gently with cotton twine to affix; this will eventually biodegrade. Set the rest of your damp moss aside.
4. Cheat the System
Next, carefully create a well in the top of your mud ball to accommodate the moss-wrapped root bundle of the plant. If you struggle to keep your ball together, or find that you need more dirt, you might want to cut a small square of weed barrier cloth and use it to create a sack to hold the entire ball together. It's not the traditional way of creating kokedama, but it makes things simpler and tidier. Bind the sack with a bit of twine at the base of the plant, then carefully trim off the loose ends of the weed barrier.
5. Wrap It Up
Select large segments of your damp sheet moss and press them around the ball of your plant, fully covering the dirt and/or weed cloth. Start by wrapping nylon twine around the moss ball once, and tie a knot to secure. Then continue to wrap the twine in a crisscross manner all around the ball until the moss is secured. Secure the end with a knot. Set your kokedama just like this on a display tray, or if you'd like to hang it, tie three to four lengths of twine to it and hang in a spot with appropriate exposure for the plant you chose.
6. Soak It
Be sure to keep your kokedama well hydrated by misting daily, especially if you used live moss, which needs to be kept damp. Every so often, take down your kokedama and give it a good soak in a sink full of water, allowing it to drain before hanging.
Just as with any potted plant, eventually you will need to upsize the moss ball to accommodate the plant's growing roots.