Bonsai, gardening on a miniature scale, is a wonderful alternative if you have limited space. Bonsai, literally meaning Bon (tray) Sai (plant) was begun around the third century B.C. by the Chinese. Later adopted and developed into an art form by the Japanese. Pronounced Bahn Sy’ it is a way to grow many different kinds of plants indoors or out all in containers. America discovered this gardening delight approximately 50 years ago.
Bonsai plants may be cultivated using many different species. Evergreens such as ficus, natal plum, or flowering types as azaleas, apricot, plum, and pomegranate, or outdoor species of conifers, spruce or pine trees
are all suitable for growing in containers, pruning, and the art of wiring the plant to change its appearance.
The basics of how to grow your own Bonsai are relatively simple. Choosing the plant is the most important. Consider if it is going to be outdoors or indoors, the amount of light available and the temperature or humidity of the locale its place in.
For outdoors you would want to use the more hardy plant materials as the conifers. Pine and spruce are the most common. Indoors you can choose the more tropical plants, as the ficus and natal plum. For the flowering species or deciduous plants a mixture of both indoor and outdoors at the time of seasons is a good choice, as you can alternate by taking them inside during the winter months and when all danger of frost is removed, they can go outdoors for sunlight and fresh air.
The Bonsai as an art form are classified according to their age, size, shape, and how many trunks they have. But for the common enthusiast the look you want to nurture is a venerable old tree or shrub with a gnarled and knotty trunk from a relatively young Bonsai plant. There are several methods to choose in which to achieve the look of a hundred year old tree.
This is also where the creativity of the gardener comes in to play and makes each Bonsai unique. Before planting in typical garden soil in a container that can be deep or shallow, depending on the look you want, take the young plant and gently spread out and look at its roots. They should be healthy and have lots of small tendrils, even if the plant is young. You may trim the excess length off and round out the root-ball.
Place the plant in the container placing soil around until roots are well covered. You may plant other types of short plant material around the base of the tree or shrub. Moss is popular and will help make the planting look aged. In addition, the moss helps to retain moisture for the Bonsai. You don’t need to do anything else special to the plant at this stage. Water and spritz lightly to keep the moss damp. There is no need to fertilize the young plant for the first six months. Usually, the packaged soil comes with enough nutrients and the plant will have no need for extra.
After the first six months, you can begin to manipulate the plant itself toward the look you want. You can buy special Bonsai wire for this purpose or simply use the paper coated wire ties that come in plastic trash bags. I take several of these and wrap them around the ends of each other and make the length I want for my tree. Then take the wire and wrapping it gently around its limbs and or trunk you can bend it and set it with the wire in a stable position. Once you have the limbs and trunk wired, you usually leave the wires on between 3 to 6 months.
After this time, you can remove the wires and begin again with additional manipulations and re-wire it. Also, it’s a good idea to re-plant it into a new pot with new soil. This way you can inspect the roots again, and clip the roots back, thereby stunting the growth even more. Remember you are trying to create the illusion of a life-sized tree only in miniature. By clipping the roots back and wiring the limbs, and keeping it in containers helps to keep the Bonsai small. You also want to pinch off any new shoots if the plant you choose is a conifer.
Ficus, and tropical type plants do well and grow smaller leaves if you pinch off at regular intervals their leaves. Deciduous and flowering plants you need to take special care with in doing this, as they set their buds early and you don’t want to disrupt that process by pinching off at the wrong time. These make the most beautiful Bonsai, as they flower and grow fruit just as their larger counterparts do, although they may take a bit more time and nurturing.
You can expose the top of the roots and leave them to grow in this manner and even rake through them to divide and separate them in order to show them off to their best advantage. I like doing this, and it is fun watching the roots take on characteristics of very old trees where the top soil has eroded over time, and exposed their knotty and sinewy roots. You may have to use a stake at first to anchor the trunk of your Bonsai if the container it’s in is very shallow.
I have one that is simply planted in a large terra cotta saucer, with the top root system exposed, but for the first six months I had to use a small wooden stake, simply a thick twig to anchor the plant to or it would have toppled out of the dish. Now it is rooted in the soil and has no need for additional support. It’s a ficus, and with its bare roots exposed and the position of the limbs it has taken, after only two years it is looking very venerable indeed.
A fun tip if you decide to try the art of Bonsai, is to take a picture of your plant just after planting, and after its first year take another photo. When you compare the two pictures you will be amazed at the difference.