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Bonsai Security

A friend returned from Tokyo recently and recounted his amazement at the freedom from crime that the population (including bonsai artists) enjoy in Japan. He was able to walk along narrow alleys behind and between houses and observe many hundreds of bonsai with no fences or security measures to spoil the view. Unfortunately we cannot employ the same trusting methods here in the UK.

Thefts from gardens have become an increasing problem over recent years. Determined thieves have been known to lift all the conifers planted on front gardens down an entire street! The attraction of Bonsai, which are ready potted for easy transport and commonly thought to be all of great value, can place collections in jeopardy. Even well known, ancient, specimen trees that are readily identified and unlikely to be saleable have been stolen.

Despite the above, don't allow paranoia to spoil your enjoyment but take a few simple precautions, to minimise the chances of theft and so that if you are unlucky, there is a chance that all will not be lost.

Depending upon the amount that you worry, your location and finances, one or more of the following could be employed:-

  • Don't "advertise" the fact that there are bonsai about. Simple things like "I Love Bonsai" stickers on car windows, Bonsai club posters with addresses on them, or bonsai accoutrements plainly visible from a main road, can act like thief magnets.
  • If you are ever "lucky" enough to attract the interest of the press make absolutely certain (get it in writing if possible) that they are not going to print your address along with the photo of you with your prize winning tree/garden etc. This has happened to two colleagues in recent months without their permission.
  • Site your collection carefully. A part of the garden that is not overlooked from a main road is sensible. Keeping the collection in plain view from the house, helps deter thieves and increases your daily enjoyment.
  • Give some thought to the boundaries of your property. Who can see in and how easy would it be for a potential thief to enter and exit? Replace any broken fences, giving due thought to whether they will be climbable or easily broken. Make certain that hedges are sturdy enough to prevent a determined assault (flimsy hedges like privet could have posts and wires placed through the centre to stop it being parted and walked through).
  • Many of the thorny shrubs used for security can also be used as sources of bonsai material.
  • Hawthorn

    1 Hawthorn a flowering deciduous thorny shrub


    2 Variegated Holly


    3 Pyracantha - Firethorn is a tough thorny shrub with flowers and berries

    Rambling Rose

    4 Rambling or Climbing Rose


    5 Berberis - Dense shrub with prickly leaves and thorns

  • Dense thorny hedges or shrub barriers are very effective once established. Berberis, Hawthorn, Sloe, Pyracantha or Gooseberry could be used and also double as a potential source for bonsai air layers and cuttings in future. Rambling roses or any other thorny plant massed against a wall or fence make it much less inviting to the potential burglar. Low walls or fences could have a trellis fixed over them to make them suitable for growing a higher barrier of climbing/thorny plants. This gives more privacy from neighbouring gardens and helps prevent anyone simply vaulting the wall.
  • Make certain that any paths around the house to the area where your trees are sited are closed off by a high, secure, lockable gate. It is a nuisance, but try to keep it locked at all times when it is not in use.

Lock The Gate!









  • Be aware of who is about when you transport your trees onto or off your premises. If there are strangers around, be cautious about carrying your specimen trees openly. It would be more sensible to place them in a large, strong cardboard box or similar.This procedure will also serve to protect fine twigs and branches from damage in transit. Alternatively just move your trees when you are less likely to be watched.
  • Maintain a photographic record of each of your trees in all seasons. This should be done anyway as it increases the pleasure and value of a collection if good records are kept. Keep the photographs updated if you alter the styling of a tree, or every five years or so as it matures. In the event of a theft, the photo's would be useful to show the police what is missing, assist in any insurance claim, and prove ownership of the trees if they are recovered.
  • Mark the inside or underneath of all containers with your zip or post code and house number in indelible pen or similar. Alternatively use a grinder in a power tool to carefully engrave it. If you ever commission a pot, ask for your post code and house number to be moulded or stamped on the base. See also BonTag below.

    Postcoding a pot using a Dremel









  • Install a system whereby the trees are inconspicuously fixed to the display bench. This can be achieved by arranging a strong wire loop through the drainage holes fixed, for example, by small padlocks, to a chain that passes beneath the slatted top. If correctly arranged this should be taught enough to prevent the wire being cut and should be unobtrusive. An added advantage is that it helps prevent strong winds from toppling containers and trees. If you don’t want to have to unlock your tree to rotate it (for its health - equal exposure to sunlight), include a swivel on the wire. To keep the trees in the containers they must also be secured by wires over the roots and through the drainage holes as newly potted specimens frequently are. This is a fussy arrangement but infinitely preferable to an unsightly steel cage!
  • Security LightInstall a security light that is activated by a motion sensor or PIR. If using the former, it is difficult to ensure that its sensitivity only picks up human movements and that its range covers the whole area that your trees are sited in. A light that is triggered by cats and trees moving in the wind is likely to cause annoyance to you and your neighbours. A passive infra-red detector is preferable as it should not suffer from these problems. Incidentally, exterior lights are also of great use to the owner for working later into the evening than daylight allows.
  • Install an alarm system. There are now a choice of modular alarm systems suitable for garden use. They are stocked by large DIY stores and some Garden Centres. As an example - the Beta-Thief2000 kit has a waterproof motion sensor, 2m cable, 114 decibel weatherproof siren, blue strobe light and a combination locked on/off switch.
  • A more complex system employs infra red beams which, when broken by an intruder, sound the alarm. This could activate a buzzer in your house, switch on a security camera and vcr, sound an alarm or floodlight your benches. A direct link to the police station may sound appealing but the time taken to attend the many call-outs means that often the thief is away before the scene is visited by a police patrol.
  • Have a CCTV (Closed Circuit TeleVision) system installed. The technology has fallen dramatically in price and many options are available. Monochrome (black and white) cameras are much more light sensitive than the more expensive colour cameras. They can even operate successfully in moonlight.
  • Cheap systems are generally intended for monitoring visitors to your front door but there’s nothing to stop you pointing the camera toward your trees instead. This would allow you to occasionally monitor the security of trees from your armchair live on the TV in the evening. Alternatively the video feed could be run to the AV/Aux or Camera input at the back of an old video recorder and the tapes recycled after trees have been visually checked.
  • More professional systems can employ passive infra-red sensors to trigger a bright light and a dedicated security VCR. These record 24 hours on one tape and every frame of video is time and date stamped. They cost a little more than a domestic VCR (£300-£400) but may suit the requirements of someone with a large or valuable collection. Additional dummy cameras can add to the deterrent effect. They are indistinguishable from the real one, make the system more obvious and give apparently greater coverage.
  • Anyone attempting a theft is likely to give up when their efforts result in a floodlight illuminating them, revealing security cameras and perhaps a loud siren announcing their unwanted presence to the household and neighbours.
  • Install a transponder tag such as a BonTag inside each of your valued trees. These marvels of miniaturisation contain a microprocessor circuit pre-programmed with a ten digit alpha-numeric code. It is contained in an inert 12mm long, 2mm wide, bioglass cylinder and may be interrogated by a remote reader to determine the identity of the tree's owner. They have an infinite lifespan and their unique encoding cannot be erased. Drilling holes in trees, for security measures, may appear a bit drastic but is more easily accomplished than it sounds. The hole should slope upwards slightly and can be filled afterward with an unobtrusive waterproof filler or the cambium allowed to grow over sealing the hole. Alternatively the transponder could be attached to the inside of the pot with araldite. Some pot manufacturers are now considering leaving spaces in the body of the pot which could receive a transponder and be covered over with car body filler. For this system to be of any use as a deterrent, it has to be advertised plainly, close to the trees. If the trees are recovered after a theft, the BonTag system proves ownership without question.
  • Keeping a dog with a loud bark may be a good deterrent to intruders but you must also consider the safety of your collection. Dogs can be a nuisance, at times, in the garden. A friend's dog knocked trees off display benches while chasing a cat. Bitches kill patches of lawn when they urinate on it. My German Shepherd is currently in training to stick to the paths and not trample all around the recently finished Japanese Garden. This is not an easy task! Even more difficult is persuading her that plants in pots are not toys. When left to her own devices she finds no greater joy than to demolish a recently potted cutting or tree, shaking all of the soil off and leaving it out in the sun to die.
  • Adequate insurance should be considered and all the options investigated. Not many household insurers will consider plants over a certain total value (approx. £500) to be within their policies. A specialist policy is almost always required when the plants are easily moved - planters, hanging baskets, bonsai etc. Most insurers are keen to hold onto your business though, so if you have taken what you consider to be adequate precautions, explain this to them and ask that they consider extending the policy to cover your plants. My broker has told me that is not unknown for them to do this up to a value of £1,000. For collections of greater value it would be sensible to seek out a specialist garden insurance company. Incidentally, most insurers don’t cover damage caused by pets. Damn!

Given adequate thought and preventative measures, you can minimise the risks. If you maintain a sensible level of awareness, you should be able to continue to enjoy your trees without the hassles of any unwanted attention.

All Text & Photographs © Kevin Bailey 1998 - 2008