accent plant — care and cultivation

An dwarf variety of 'Mare's Tail' equisitum belonging to Dan Barton in one of his novelty accent pots.


Mark & Ritta Cooper collection
Robin Jehan doing what he most loves — potting up accent plants


Welcome to the MBA website, so where do we begin in the care of our accents?

Let’s start with some basics. Let me state right away by saying that I live in the Channel Islands, so I never suffer from hard frosts, and am able to leave most of my accents out in the garden all winter without any frost damage. However there are some tender species which I do protect, more about these later. I have over four hundred accents growing in Esoteric Pots in my garden, and all the following information has been gleaned from experience over the last twenty years.


 When making up a suitable compost to grow accents the first question you must ask yourself is how often can I water them. Obviously if you can only water them once every two days, your compost will have to be twice as water retentive as it would be if you watered every day. Never make your compost too water retentive as you will have no end of problems with liverwort growing on the pots surface. Actually this is no bad thing, as if it does grow you instantly know that your compost is either too wet or that you are over watering your accents or that your pot’s drainage is not functioning properly. So just adjust your compost slightly and try again.

Also remember that in winter it can rain for days on end, making ideal conditions for liverwort to grow. How come liverwort seems to grow all year round?! Another reason to make your compost free draining. I water my accents every day and the basic soil mix I use for medium depth pots is as follows. All my ingredients are sieved first through the large mesh and then through the fine meshes. Sieves are available as a set of three from most bonsai nurseries and B&Q in the UK. There is no place in my soil mixture for any ‘fines’ that pass through the smallest sieve as this causes compaction of the soil.

Compost components:

3 parts akadama

3 parts pumice, kyodama or cat litter

3 parts propagating bark, this does not need to be sieved

2 parts grit.

I also add some trace elements, bone meal and some slow release fertilizer commonly known as osmacote in the UK, this also can contain trace elements and extra magnesium. Mix thoroughly. To this basic mix you can add extra components for the benefit of some plants. There is no peat or equivalent in this mix as I find there is no need for it for mostplants. Hostas are one exception, so add two parts of peat to this basic mix. Very shallow pots do not drain well at all, and I tend to use a slightly larger grain of soil for these pots. Deeper pots will drain much better and I will add a slightly smaller soil in the bottom of these pots to retain more water, but still use the larger soil in the top of the pot for better drainage at the surface. For bog plants that require a lot of water I still use the same soil, but I line the bottom of the pot with a piece of polythene or foil so that it will block the drainage hole/holes, this way you will have water replacing all the air in this open mix.

Potting up — the best/only time to pot up accents is in the growing season. This can stretch fromFebruary to September. After this the plant is not likely to grow new roots to establishitself in the pot before the onset of winter. After being potted up, you must give them very good aftercare, no matter what month you are in. More accents are lost throughpoor aftercare, than any other cause. When you buy plants from garden centers these days, they will most probably come in 100% peat, as this is the cheapest and easiest soil for mass production. It is very difficult to keep anything alive for long in the soil you buy these plants in, as they are only designed to look their best for six months, that’s all! So we have to remove all the soil, this is done first by raking out the root ball, but don’t go too far, then, by washing off the rest of the soil either by hose or just dunking the root ball up and down in a bucket of water. Choose a suitable pot, which you would think would be an easy thing to do, but there are certain things you must take into consideration.

Colour — does the colour of the pot, enhance the colour of the plant? Or if you are potting up an accent to display with a certain tree you do not want to clash with the main tree or the colour of its pot. It must complement the main display tree/ pot.

Aesthetics — not often considered, but is always especially nice if the plant and the pot are aesthetically pleasing to the eye. For example a tall plant, (never mind if it is a grass or just a single flower) will look good in a shallow pot, whereas a cascading plant will look best in a taller pot. I leave it to others to explain more about aesthetics.

Horticulture — has to be balanced against the aesthetic: take flowering bulbs for example, aesthetically a nice tall flower will look good in a shallow pot, but bulbs are far better growing in a medium depth pot, even in some cases a deep pot. So a decision has to be made, and I would always come down on the side of the horticultural requisites, rather than the aesthetics as I like the plant to live for a long time. So having chosen your pot, the actual potting up is the easiest task of all. Simply put some of the previously prepared soil in the bottom of the pot, hold the plant in the chosen position in the pot and fill the pot with more soil, not forgetting to work it in well with a chopstick around the roots. Top up with further soil if required. You can top dress the pot either with a nice grit or moss, or just wait for algae and moss to grow naturally on the soil surface. Next, water the Accent well, either by dunking or using a fine rose watering can.

 Aftercare — is the most important part of the potting process, this is when the plant is most vulnerable because of the damage you have done to the roots. It is best to keep the Accent in 100% shade for at least a week, perhaps more in early spring if is still on the cool side. Also, it makes sense  if you can put your Accent in something like a plant propagator for the first week, this will both keep the humidity up, and reduce  moisture transpiring from the plant. If you do not own a propagator, simply

cut a large plastic drinks bottle to suit and put it over the plant with the bottle neck up, and you can leave the top on for a day or two , then take it off. Do not leave it on for too long as this may encourage mildew/disease. In the growing season proper, the Accent should have recovered well and be able to be moved to its display position in the garden after two weeks.

Watering — I have mentioned previously that I water daily, and make my compost to suit. Even so, with newly potted plants and the very open soil, you will need to keep a close eye on your accents as they will dry very easily for the first month or two. After that the roots will have filled a lot of the air spaces in the pot and your compost will then be more water retentive.

Feeding —although I recommend the use of a slow release fertilizer in the soil mix, it always good to have a liquid feeding regime as well. You will certainly need to feed your accents in the second and subsequent years as the slow release fertilizer normally releases over a period of six months, so another method of feeding is essential after this initial period.

There are many different liquid feeds on the market, with many different formulae. It is just a case of using one which suits your plants, whether they are flowering or foliage they will have different needs. I would give my accents a liquid feed once a fortnight at half the recommended strength. This will keep them growing well for the whole season.

There are different solid fertilizers which you can top dress the pots with, but these can leave black marks on any moss and even encourage slime moulds. If you are growing your accents for more than one year in the same pot, a simple way to ensure they have food through out the year is to make two or three small holes in the soil with a chop

stick and fill the holes with the same slow release fertilizer. Osmacote that I recommended you use in the original soil mix, — cover the holes either with a piece of moss or few grains of academe. This way you will have feed for another six months with no unsightly marks on the soil surface. Don’t be tempted to put too much as you do not want over verdant accent plants!

Over wintering — of herbaceous plants is easy. During the year collect a few polystyrene boxes, these are available from many different sources these days, and they come in different thicknesses. The best ones I have found come from pharmacies, as some medications that have to be refrigerated are shipped around the country in these polystyrene boxes, and these have a wall

thickness of over two inches. Simply collect up your accent pots and stack them carefully into a box using bubble wrap or similar between layers and in between pots. Simple!

These boxes can be put in the garage, shed or basement for the winter. Keep a good check on these accents as they may start into growth earlier than you may think in the spring.

©  Robin Jehan

One of Robin's charming Accents

There will be very many more examples in the Exhibition on 27th May 2012


2 responses

17 06 2013
Mike Jones

This has been such a helpful article. Thank you.


18 06 2013
Still On Accents. | Bonsai-Passion

[…] I pop the image on I wanted to be certain to share this link HERE; which is from Magical Bonsai Accents and written by Robin Jehan. It really is a great read, and I […]

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