The Art of Bonsai

When I was young, I had always thought that Bonsai was a certain type of tree that, through genetics, remained small while still resembling a larger mature tree. As I progressed through life, I learned more and more about what bonsai is and what it takes to create it. And I have grown more interested and fascinated by the art form with the passing of every year. The word bonsai is a Japanese expression that literally translates to “tray planting.” The name may seem mundane, but the true beauty and joy behind the idea of bonsai is found in trying and attempting to perfect the craft. Bonsai is the art of growing certain trees and shrubs, of many varieties, in small, shallow containers. It is through careful and precise training and pruning, that the plant is slowly shaped and manipulated to give the appearance of an older, mature tree. The tree takes on a shape that is more in tune with how a tree would look growing out in nature. Training a growing tree or shrub into a desired shape over several years takes a calm patience, with every aspect being well thought out and every action precise and deliberate.

Several species of plants are suitable for growing in the bonsai fashion, including citrus trees, jade plants, many fig trees, some pine trees, juniper trees and even culinary herbs such as rosemary and basil, just to name a few. The plants can be obtained in several ways. Most can be started from seed or cloned by rooting cuttings from a growing plant (not the easiest routes). Experienced bonsai growers will often buy young plants from a nursery grower. These trees or shrubs will still have their young natural look, allowing the grower to take complete creative control over the subject and to train or prune it however they feel fit. However, for the beginner bonsai enthusiast, it may be easiest to purchase a “pre-started” plant from a reputable bonsai purveyor. These plants are usually moderately trained or trimmed and may come in a bonsai style pot, often adorned with rocks or little Japanese figurines that add to the overall aesthetic value of the bonsai tree. Pre-started bonsai plants are a great way to begin learning bonsai. Although the plants are already pruned and slightly trained, the grower can still create any unique shape desired as it grows. And the fact that the plant has already been introduced to its future bonsai destiny helps to serve as an excellent starting point for any aspiring bonsai grower.

After choosing which plant to grow as bonsai, the next step to take as a grower is to decide which training style the plant will be grown in. Bonsai growers incorporate a wide array of widely recognized shaping and training styles. One popular style is the upright style, where the trunk is the main focal point with branches growing out from the left and right sides, usually alternating and the cascade style. This is a style in which the grower carefully shapes the tree so that it cascades out of the pot and gently down towards the ground. There are several styles to choose from, each with their own unique qualities, and a grower will surely benefit from properly researching which styles work well for the particular type of plant being grown.

Another important aspect of bonsai is choosing the proper container to grow in. In keeping with true bonsai tradition, the container should be relatively wide and shallow in relation to the plant. This gives the plant the appearance of growing in a natural setting and also allows the grower to position the roots in a way that is expressive and visually appealing. Think about the roots of a mature tree in nature. They are often exposed near the trunk due to soil erosion. This gives natural growing trees a unique appearance, which is something bonsai growers strive to achieve. The container should be big enough to allow adequate root growth and, as the tree grows, should be replaced with a larger one when needed. The shape and design of a container can really add to the overall feel and look of a bonsai plant, so the choice of container should not be taken lightly.

Plants grown as bonsai can tolerate many different types of growing mediums, so it is important to research the ideal soil type for the particular plant being grown. Some potting mix companies carry a general-purpose bonsai mix as part of their line. I have tried a couple and have been happy with the results thus far. If the grower decides to create a custom mix there are a few aspects to keep in mind. The mix, in most cases, should have fairly good water holding capacities. Organic materials like coco-coir and compost can assist in creating a mix that retains water and nutrients so they can be available to the plant when needed. However, a mix that holds water too well can lead to a root zone that is over saturated with water and lacking in oxygen, resulting in poor root growth and possible plant death. This is why it is important to have proper drainage working in harmony with ample water retention. Adding inert ingredients such as fired clay particles, perlite, course sand or small lava rock can help the custom mix achieve proper drainage capabilities. As a general rule, bonsai plants should be repotted or have their soils changed and roots trimmed every two years for optimal growth.

When it comes to watering and fertilizing bonsai, it is once again of high importance to research the individual water and fertilizer requirements of the type of plant being grown, as the needs can vary drastically from plant to plant. Like most container plantings, it is best to use an alternative to tap water for regular watering. Purified water, such as RO (reverse osmosis) water, is a great choice; but rainwater, if available, is perhaps the best. Bonsai can be fertilized organically, but it is important to remember that it will take time for organic materials to breakdown before the nutrients are available. So, it may be wise to inoculate with microorganisms in advance to help speed up the process. Inorganics or synthetic fertilizer should be used at half strength since the containers in bonsai are so small and residual mineral salts can tend to accumulate. Granular, slow-release fertilizers are also an effective choice, but the grower needs to be careful to not use to high of a dosage.

Proper “training” of the skeletal structure, where the overall bonsai shape begins, is manipulated with the use of wires into desired positions. When using wire for branch training, first start by wrapping the wire around and up the trunk like a snake. Start below the desired branch to be trained and lead the wire onto or around the branch. Once the branch is wrapped in wire it can then be bent into a position where it will stay. After some time, the bark on the branch will grow woodier and the wire can be removed with the branch remaining in the intended position. The rest of the shape of the bonsai tree is created through precise pruning of the smaller branches. During the growing season, smaller branches can be trimmed with pruning scissors or, with softer, newer growth, even the grower’s finger nails. It is usually recommended to trim the branch and not the leaves. Careful, dedicated pruning will help develop and refine the shape of the bonsai tree.

Most bonsai plants can be grown both indoors and outdoors, given the time of year as well as the type of plant. Often, when growing indoors, a sunny window will be sufficient for light requirements. But, at times, a fluorescent T5 light may be needed, unless the bonsai variety is one that is flowering/fruiting. For these, a different spectrum bulb may be necessary, such as an HPS (high pressure sodium) light. When growing bonsai indoors, the grower should do their best to mimic and recreate the natural environment that the plant is acclimated to. Doing so will help the plant achieve optimal growth.

Creating bonsai is much different from growing an average run of the mill houseplant. It takes patience, dedication, foresight, creativity and care. However, this should never scare anyone away from trying it. As the years go by and the plant takes shape, the grower will find that the rewarding feeling that comes with it is more than worth the effort put in.

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