This article was written by Dan Kosta, a horticulturist at Vern Goers Greenhouse, and award-winning Bonsai enthusiast.
What if you could bring the beauty of the high mountains to your backyard? Or would you prefer the power of a windswept seashore? Perhaps you would want the majesty of an ancient, weathered pine as a garden focal point or to bring the serenity of a tropical rainforest right into your home. Any of these can be possible through the art of bonsai.
Bonsai (pronounced bone-si) is a practice that has its roots in ancient China. It is known to have existed there, in a simpler form, as early as 220BC. It was eventually brought to Japan where it was further refined until it became the art form we know today. It was during the 20th century that bonsai was taken from the Orient to other arts of the world and now it is practiced in every country on Earth.
Many Americans were first introduced to bonsai through the movie “The Karate Kid” which featured the old man, Mr. Miyagi, working on his bonsai trees as well as teaching martial arts. In traditional Japan it is quite common for someone to practice a selection of the traditional arts rather than to focus on only one. This is often true of many Western practitioners as well.
Visitors to bonsai shows often remark not only on the beauty of the bonsai they see on display but also on a sense of serenity and calm that the trees seem to bring forth. It is something that many people find inherent in the trees. This sense of peace was one of the attributes that attracted the samurai to take up the practice. It is also something that still attracts the modern day hobbyists to take up the practice of bonsai. This low tech practice can be a sort of antidote to the craziness of our harried, high tech world.
Growing bonsai is often thought of as being shrouded in some sort of Oriental mystery. Strange practices such as highly restricting watering, lack of nutrients, or even the removal of the roots are said to be the reasons for why the trees stay small. This is actually far from the truth. Many of the techniques involved in growing bonsai trees are ordinary garden practices. You do not need to study under a Japanese sensei (master teacher) in order to learn the practice. It is a pastime that can easily be learned by anyone who has a working knowledge of regular gardening. Also there are now many resources such as clubs, books, magazines, and classes that can help the novice to learn the basics quickly.
Like any living plant bonsai have certain requirements The three most important are water, light, and minerals. Proper watering is crucial to the success of any plant. Mistakes in watering are known to kill more potted and garden plants than any other factor. Since the trees are grown in relatively small containers, and in well-drained soil, the trees can need to be watered frequently, sometimes daily. The bonsai grower needs to check the soil on a regular basis. If the soil is found to be dry the tree should be given a thorough watering. When the trees are outdoors in the summer they will likely need daily watering.
Proper light is often not a problem outdoors. Simply place the trees in a sunny location and they will be fine. Tropicals that are kept indoors should be kept close to a sunny window. Usually within two feet of the window is considered optimum. A position in the middle of the room, against a wall, or under a skylight in the ceiling will not provide adequate light.
The trees should be fertilized whenever they are in active growth. This is generally the spring and summer months. Do not exceed the amount recommended on the package. Personally I prefer to use the fertilizer at one-half strength and apply it every two weeks, rather than full strength once a month.
Placing the tree in the proper location is also important. If your tree is a type that is hardy as a landscape plant, such as a pine, maple, juniper, etc., it is what is called an outdoor bonsai. This means the tree must be kept outdoors year-round, including the winter months. Such a tree can be brought indoors for a couple of days every month or so during the spring and summer but must otherwise be kept outside. These are the traditional types of bonsai. Tropical trees such as ficus, schefflera, podocarpus, and Fukien tea can be grown indoors year-round or kept indoors in winter and outdoors in summer. This is a relatively new type of bonsai, begun in the early 1950’s, and is still not fully accepted by some bonsai masters.
Most bonsai are man-made creations. The trees do not take on the shapes that you see on their own nor do they maintain those shapes without human intervention. They will need occasional pinching back or pruning to maintain the size and shape that you desire for them. This regular trimming is the actual reason why the trees stay small. Branches are often trained into position by the use of wiring, that is winding copper or aluminum wire around the branches and bending them to shape.
The question of age is often brought up. The actual, or chronological, age of the tree is not important unless the tree is truly old. It is the visual illusion of age, the bonsai age, that is the most important. Thus a bonsai may appear to be 25, 50, or even 100 years old when in reality it is only 5, 10, or 20 years old. This illusion is created by the shaping of the tree into form that appears like an ancient tree. Simply placing a woody plant into a bonsai pot does not make it into a bonsai.
Bonsai are always grown in pots, specifically chosen to highlight the tree. Bonsai are never grown in the ground as landscape materials. The word bonsai loosely translates as “a tree in a tray (pot)” The pots restrict the root growth to some degree and also aid in keeping the trees from growing large.
Bonsai is a very worthwhile, interesting, and relaxing hobby that should be tried by any gardener or plant person who wishes to bring the beauty of nature up close in their own backyard or home.
Want to learn more about Bonsai? Come hear Dan speak for free at Vern Goers Greenhouse on Saturday, September 8 at 10:00 am or 1:00 pm. Please call 630-323-1085 to reserve your spot!