The word bonsai is Chinese for “trees in trays”, which makes it rather strange that the art of bonsai is primarily associated with Japan. But this is purely because it is the Japanese who initially perfected the art of deliberately dwarfing trees.
The principal idea of bonsai is to grow a tree on a tiny scale so that it eventually looks just like the tree that would grow in nature… to its full size. In other words, it should be a perfect miniature of what you would find in your garden or a forest.
Unlike growing trees for shade or even as a source of material for construction or furniture-making, trees grown on this scale are purely decorative… a little living ornament. And it is a long-term craft since it takes many years for trees to get to dwarf-sized maturity.
Origins of the Art of Bonsai
The art of bonsai dates back thousands of years, and there are believed to be living bonsai trees that are as old as 500 years.
One of the earliest bonsai trees on record in Japan dates to the years between 603 and 839 when several Japanese diplomatic missions went to China. Japan’s Shosoin, a veritable treasure house dating to the 8th century, has an amazing example of this kind of art, although the trees are sculpted rather than living.
The Best Trees for Bonsai
Generally, it is accepted that the most suitable trees for bonsai are oaks, maples, crab apple, and plum trees, as well as acacias, some of the Ficus species, scholars and wild olives. Some evergreens are also popular, including azaleas, cotoneasters, and pyracanthas. Conifers also make excellent subjects.
Here Are Some Tips to Get You Started
The best way to start a bonsai is to grow it from seed. Alternatively, you can transplant very found seedlings that have self sowed themselves in the garden.
It will usually take about two years for the seedlings to reach a height of about 30-40 mm (1-1.5 ins). At this stage (during spring) they can be potted into a container filled with about 80-100 mm (3-4 ins) of compost. Keep the plant outdoors in a sheltered, shady environment.
The following autumn, you need to transplant the tree into a bed of good soil or repot them in about 130-150 cm (5-6 ins) of compost. The pot or pots should be kept in a sheltered place outs doors, and the pros often bury the pots (up to the rim) in peat.
At this stage, you can also start to train the stem. Use wire to bend the stem (which is in effect the young trunk) and achieve a gnarled, aged appearance – but be careful not to damage the tree.
A good rule of thumb is to wait until the stem is about 10 mm (less than half an inch) in diameter, prune the stem – by cutting it about 100-150 mm (4-5 ins) from the base. It sounds harsh, but it has to be done. It won’t take long for side-shoots to start appearing.
Towards autumn, when the tree has stopped growing, you will need to prune its roots heavily. Only leave the fibrous roots. Then transplant the tree into smaller pots that are just big enough to take whatever roots remain. If you look at the containers that bonsai grow in, you will realize just how little root should remain!