People and Places

Meet the woman who practises an ancient form of gardening

Caroline Yelavic is getting her hands dirty with an ancient form of gardening

Originally from sunny Sao Paulo in Brazil, Caroline Yelavic was exposed to Japanese culture from a young age, despite being thousand of miles away from the land of the rising sun. “My godmother was a Buddhist and enjoyed the practice of ikebana and the peace it brought her. I remember seeing her art around her house and the joy she felt when we attended her exhibitions,” she says.

Now a Hibiscus Coast local, Caroline spends her time engaged in the art of kokedama. Kokedama, a Japanese style of potting plants in a ball of moss that forms a living planter using the plant’s roots, is a centuries-old practice that’s making a comeback after years of relative obscurity. “Personally, I’ve found the practice to be meditative. It’s a way for me to express myself creatively through a living medium I love and enjoy – soil and plants,” she says.

When Caroline’s not making new creations for her website you’ll find her selling her hand-crafted pot plants at markets across Auckland. “I want to keep experimenting with the art of kokedama. I’m constantly trying new wrap designs, colour combinations and plant varieties.”

How and when did you first learn about the art of kokedama?

I’ve always loved all things plant related and was interested in finding an ikebana course here in Auckland. Unfortunately, the classes I found were held during work hours, so I started searching for an alternative practice that would connect with nature and give me the same meditative feel my godmother spoke about. That’s when I stumbled upon kokedama. I watched YouTube videos, found books and just started researching the materials. After I wrapped my first plant, I haven’t been able to stop.

How did Koju Kokedama get started as a business and what was the vision?

My wonderful friend Nicky loved one of my creations and wanted one for herself. Then a friend of hers asked about it, so I made her one too. At that stage, I was experimenting wrapping all types of plant varieties I could get hold of. My husband suggested the idea of selling some of my creations at a market, which I thought was exciting and scary at the same time. I basically needed to sell some of my creations to service my increased plant purchasing as my propagating project wasn’t fast enough to keep up with me.

Why do you prefer kokedama over more traditional potting methods?

I like the simplicity and the integrity of the natural materials, soil, moss and twine. I found the concept of the kokedama to be clever – a self-contained vessel for a plant to grow that could also be displayed as a living sculpture.

How long does it take you to create a kokedama and what does the process look like?

Plant selection is key to the start of the process, and through a large amount of trial and error, I have a great selection of go-to plants that I know will last a long time in a kokedama and thrive. My time creating each kokedama varies depending on the size of the plant and the root system, some root systems are more challenging to be contained in the mud ball stage. The smallest diameter kokedamas can take less than an hour to make, but I do enjoy the challenge of wrapping larger moss balls. The wrapping of the mud ball and moss in the final twine wrap is my favourite part, and that’s where I experiment the most with patterns and colours. I like to use coloured twine to accent the plant variety on display.

What are some of your favourite plants to work with and why?

I am really into trailing plants at the moment such as Epipremnum species – N’Joy, Jade and Neon. My all-time favourite is still the jade plant – Crassula ovata. The jade plant has strong symbolism of friendship, prosperity and positive energy, which I love. This succulent is an easy-care plant that thrives with minimum effort while bringing positive energy and looking great in the kokedama.

It’s not a technique a lot of Kiwis know about. What do people tend to say to you when they encounter your stall or workshop?

A lot of people are intrigued by how the “moss ball” is made, and whether it is an actual pot you can remove and add another plant to it. Most Kiwis have not seen a kokedama before and find it to be
a lovely and clever gift.

What’s your advice to anyone wanting to start up their own business?

Just start. Bounce the ideas off friends and do your research. If it brings you joy, I say you are on the right track. I also have a very supportive husband who has been a driving force in me finding my confidence in sharing my work with others.

What’s been one of the highlights of your journey so far?

Seeing people enjoy my creations and discovering plant varieties that suit their style. I am a true believer that no one is a “plant killer” – it’s a term I often hear from people who avoid purchasing plants due to having killed the odd species. It’s a trial-and-error process, one where you need to find a variety that fits with your nurturing needs, your home and the aesthetic you are looking for.

What’s been an important lesson you’ve learnt?

Patience in the practice and finding joy in the process. Perseverance is vital in any business, constantly learning from your successes and mistakes, then pivoting to try something different. Kokedama is messy work and I love it.

How can people best care for their kokedama after buying or making one?

Knowing the plant species is key, as every plant has their particular needs. Overwatering is a common mistake some can encounter, so following the care instructions I provide with each kokedama is key. Like most living plants, light, air and water is key, along with a nice dose of liquid fertiliser during spring and summer months to keep them pumped up.

Do you have any exciting developments coming up?

The holiday season was a busy time of the year and I was kept busy with orders leading up to the holiday season. Discussions are in the pipeline for a major New Zealand-wide stockist and I would love to get underway an official atelier based at my home. I want it to be somewhere customers can visit and choose the plant they wish to have made into a kokedama, an official shop would be amazing. I’m also hoping
to have more opportunities in 2023 to offer kokedama classes throughout New Zealand. I was lucky enough to run a series of classes this year but would love to share the experience with more people in the future.

Words by: Caroline Moratti. Photography by: Kate Battersby.

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