Outside a tiny shop on the way to one of Kyoto’s most famous temple gardens, I saw a tiny tree. A bonsai pine, perhaps 20cm high, sat on a pretty ceramic saucer, its root ball wrapped in moss. It was perfect.
Kokedama is a form of bonsai. It does away with the pot and instead wraps the roots of the plant in soil and moss, the whole thing tied together with nylon fishing wire or waxed cotton string, so the roots resemble a ball. It has become hipster heaven, thanks in no small measure to Instagram. The moment may be passing, but I still see them in trendy coffee shops. Often, these are slightly tortured versions, with the moss clearly dead. But then, kokedama does not make for easy house plants, because the moss needs to be dripping wet all day and, without a pot to hold in the moisture, the roots tend to dry out.
Over the fence of that Kyoto shop, I could see the nursery area where these perfect pines were made, so I thought I should ask the owner what the secret was. First, she said her meticulously rounded root balls were down to years of practice moulding sushi rice, and Kyoto soil is perfect for such things. I had a good poke about in the bag of soil, smelled it, rolled it around a bit, and I can say this: it’s standard forest-floor soil. In short, its largest component was well-rotted leaf mould. Which makes a lot of sense: leaf mould is very absorbent, liked by moss, mouldable and light. It’s not legal to collect leaf mould from the woods, so you’ll have to make your own, but there are still enough fallen leaves kicking about to do that. Fill a bin bag with leaves, tie it up, punch some holes all over it and wait for them to rot. Either that, or beg some off a seasoned gardener, who will likely have a hidden stash.
Next, you need the right moss. Pet shops often have moss for terrariums and the like; however, we’re a lovely damp country, so any shaded corner should provide plenty of moss-harvesting opportunities. You need pleurocarpous mosses – the big, bushy, gold-green, mat-forming sort – rather than acrocarpous mosses, which are cushion forming. Common feather moss grows in damp grass, logs and around the base of trees, and springy turf-moss is the stuff you find in damp lawns. Both are ideal, and I’m sure any owner of a shaded lawn will happily let you rake their lawn to harvest some for yourself.
Finally, the shop owner said she couldn’t make her miniature pines fast enough: the minute she put one out, it sold. When I asked why they were so popular, she laughed and said, “Kawaii”, referring to the Japanese culture of cuteness. And that they certainly are.
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