Legend has it that ascetic Japanese scholars used to keep bonsai trees in their little rooms to be able to take breaks from their studies gazing at the tiny trees. Perhaps they imagined themselves hiking in the mountains breathing fresh air and inhaling the odor of fresh pine for a few moments away from their manuscripts. Have you ever considered a bonsai tree on your desk to help you steal a few moments for a miniature vacation out in the country? Or perhaps a little tree would just make a lovely ornament on your coffee table. Either way, it would be a unique addition to the room. Unlike plastic ornaments, no two natural products are ever identical (even twins).
Unlike your typical houseplant, bonsai trees are carefully tended to give the appearance of mature, but tiny trees. When you take on a bonsai tree you take on a whole new hobby, because the art of bonsai extends much further than merely watering the plant at regular intervals.
The original material for your tree can be taken from a full grown tree that already has the woody look of maturity. Small trees suitable for bonsai can sometimes be found in nature, although they are rare. For a beginner the simplest way to obtain your new bonsai tree is probably from a commercial outlet, which can easily be found online. The variety of species available is too wide for the scope of this article, but some of the most beautiful and aromatic include pine, cedar, yew, cypress, and juniper.
The best soil type to use, amount of optimal sunlight, and watering schedule will depend upon your species of bonsai tree. A good retailer will be able to advise you on basic care.
The art of bonsai includes not only miniaturization but shaping the tree into interesting configurations.There are basic traditional bonsai shapes, which need not hinder your artistic spirit unless you intend to enter your bonsai tree into a formal show, and are only listed here as general suggestions. The upright bonsai tree resembles a symmetrical umbrella, pointed at the top and evenly swelling downward. Pines lend themselves nicely to this shape. A variant of the upright is the informal upright, in which the trunk is allowed to take a detour and curve on the way up. The slanted style produces a beautiful windswept look. Junipers and cypress are especially beautiful in this shape.The cascade style is similar to the slanted, but the top of the tree is allowed to exceed the edges of the container, much as a tree might grow over a waterfall or mountain precipice. Most species are good for this style, with the exception of pines. Look at your own tree and imagine its unique possibilities and how you would like it to appear in its new home.
A bewildering array of tools exists for the master bonsai artist, but for the beginner, start out with a pair of shears, some aluminum or copper wire, and of course a pair of wire cutters. The container that holds a bonsai tree is a tray called a bon, which is usually black to avoid distracting the eye from the tree. During the life of the tree you will need to transplant it to larger bons as it slowly grows.
Pruning is important to creating and maintaining bonsai trees, because tree growth naturally takes place mostly at the top and branches, where you don’t want it. Examine your tree at its own level and decide which branches to remove. If you are going for the windswept or cascade look, decide which direction the tree should lean and remove branches from the opposite side. If you prefer the umbrella look, shape symmetrically. For a balanced look, remove large branches from the top. Use your shears to cut deciduous plants such as flowering fruit trees or azaleas. For conifers use your fingers to pinch branches, because shears will cause brown areas to develop. The best times for cutting are usually in the late fall or early spring before the growing season, but consult a more detailed manual for the best time for your bonsai tree’s species. After cutting large branches you can apply wound paste, available from your dealer, to help prevent infection and speed healing.Up to a third of the branches can be removed for styling when the tree is not growing. Minor pruning can be done to keep your bonsai tree’s basic shape and size throughout the summer growing season. Removing leaves of deciduous plants during the summer will force the plant to grow smaller leaves, helping to miniaturize its appearance.
Once you have only the limbs you want for your basic shape, the next step is to use weight to train limbs to grow more nearly horizontal. This is usually accomplished by wrapping aluminum or copper wires around them. Bonsai supply stores sell both kinds in the diameter and weight you will need. Gently wrap the wire around any branch you would like to see grow outward rather than upward. This can be applied to the trunk or the limbs, but be careful not to snap it or any of the limbs off. One esthetic technique is to choose two limbs close to each other, on slightly different levels, on either side of the trunk. Begin wrapping your wires around the outer edge of one limb, and continue wrapping around the trunk just in the area between the two limbs.Continue wrapping around the second limb. This will train the tree to grow in a more or less even horizontal line from one limb to the other, through the trunk. If something does accidentally snap off, do not despair. Step back and redesign another interesting shape.
The art of bonsai trees requires even more patience than most gardening, but in the end the results can be quite beautiful. To learn more, find material at your library or attend a bonsai show. The artists there are usually more than happy to find someone interested in their work. And if bonsai turns out not to be the craft for you, all is not lost. Your little tree can grace your yard as a big tree.
About a year after a major pruning job, it will be time to prune your bonsai tree’s roots. This will serve to keep the tree small and help keep it from becoming root bound. Water your tree the night before you prune. Lift your little tree gently and shear away the lowest third of the main root. Cut the side roots to give the root ball a round, compact shape. Do not cut off the fine hairs on the roots. They are important for absorbing water and nutrients.