Introduction to Bonsai

Bonsai – Japanese words Bon = tree; Sai = dish or tray – meaning- Tray Planting or Tree in a Pot

Bonsai often are thought of as ‘Japanese”, but history suggests Chinese actually started growing collected “odd”, shaped by nature, dwarfed trees in containers. Japanese monks later saw and brought the Art Form to Japan. Bonsai is now an Art Form practiced around the world, with some similar and some very different “styles” throughout.

Good horticultural practices are essential to grow these trees successfully in containers to live long healthy lives. One famous bonsai donated to the U.S. National Arboretum, in Washington D.C., by Japan, is documented to be over 600 years old, all those years cultivated as a Bonsai by many Artists and caretakers!

Some trees collected from around the world can start their Bonsai lives from 10’s to 100’s of years old. Examples of areas with good, naturally dwarfed and styled, contorted trees for collecting – Black Hills SD; Wyoming, CA, UT; the Alps in France and Spain; many mountains, rock out croppings or rugged areas. Or to start with young, untrained stock, you can use seeds or propagating from cuttings, or air layers or easily use common or rare nursery stock.

“Appearance of age” is more important than the actual age of the Specimen. Rare, popular and dwarf forms of stock are often used as Bonsai subjects. Setting the proportions by foliage and trunk size and container size and shape selection helps the composition look interesting, older and “balanced”. Keeping them alive is key. The art and continued styling and refinement is the artist’s choice. It is ongoing sculpting with a living, changing subject.

As stated, trees are found growing in cracks and mountains, and rough environments. We’ve all seen trees growing in cracks in sidewalk and even in asphalt parking lots, gutters, etc… They will try to survive in adverse conditions.

Much effort, experimentation and cost is often given to the soils for bonsai cultivation by enthusiasts of all levels. Soils mainly help to anchor and cover the roots and with proper water, feeding and care, they can be successfully grown in any number of soil or soil-less mixes utilizing any number of components. I suggest to use easily obtainable grits or sharp aggregates/rocks that you will be able to repeatedly get for years, mixed with some type of organic component(s). Ex: turkey grit or bark chips with peat, or coarse sand, crushed bricks, the list goes on and on. It’s basically like making your favorite soup – use what you like and can get and keep using the same recipe. Constantly changing your soil mix will not give you a “regular” part of your individualized care that you could use as a gauge of your success as time goes on. Plus if each container you use contains a different soil, many other variables will or may also change… i.e.- watering, fertilizing, determining health, etc. …

**The “Secret” to success in Bonsai is proper watering! **

Water when the soil becomes NEAR dry, “NEVER” bone dry and NEVER keep it continuously soggy wet. NEAR DRY is when the plant has been drinking the water or it is almost evaporated. The soil will look and feel drier and the pot will be lighter. Then just repeat this schedule FOREVER! There is NO set schedule, like every 2 or 3 days!! Just water when the soil is near dry again!

Common sense, attention and actual dedicated care of your containerized plants is needed for the long life essential to allow the artistic styling and lifelong refinement of your plants. *These techniques can be applied to your landscape trees and bushes and even houseplants.

“Spare the shears-Spoil the plant”?

Styling is the artist’s choosing but there are several known styles, i.e. Formal upright-straight trunk, Informal upright – curved trunk; Cascade-hanging down like on a mountain, Literati-abstract, and other styles. The shaping is done by cutting and pruning and or wiring into shape. Styling and the refinements are opportunities to eliminate uneven or overgrowth to allow air and light to reach interior areas to allow back budding and growth close to the trunk instead of just growth at the tips of branches. It is compartmentalizing, balancing energy, and shaping the foliage. Trimming of the roots utilizes the same trimming and shaping techniques used to create the trees foliage but you will be compartmentalizing and balancing the root system.

A famous Bonsai Artist said – take a bush or tree and remove everything that is not a bonsai and you will have a bonsai left. “Cut away what you don’t like and you will have to like what’s left”. And famous John Naka once told me – “live donkey better than dead doctor” – meaning keeping a live tree is better than killing a tree in hurried or bad attempts to style it or rush and pot it into a small Bonsai pot, etc…

There are ever increasing varieties of material for Bonsai. Choosing their growing location where they will be happy and thrive needs to consider their native habitat and creating conditions at your location as similar to those as possible. This is why we call some Bonsai indoor and some outdoor and use those locations for them to thrive and experience yearly changes and cycles. Outdoor protection or indoor growing and sometimes both is needed for plants not native to your area and depends on the plants hardiness zone -i.e.- temps, humidity, and sun exposure, etc. Common sense again with care and understanding your plants needs and conditions through its yearly cycles are essential. I evaluate my plants by looking at the tips or buds and foliage throughout the year. The tips and buds have the newest, sensitive growth and are good indicators to its condition.

Exhibiting, Judging and Critiquing is popular in Japan and elsewhere and sometimes follows adherence to standards of known styles and consideration of health, the artist’s refinements and the Artistry. There are no “only” ways in Bonsai. The grower’s own satisfaction is what many strive for while some strive for others to admire their creations.

There are many resources available to learn about Bonsai now. If reading, I suggest looking up the specific topic(s) you desire. Again, use common sense when taking advice! Some people may not be certain of the best advice for you or your area? When asking for shaping advice, I suggest not allowing others to cut your trees or it’s their Art? There are many Bonsai Clubs throughout the world and in many major cities. Locally there is the Akron-Canton Bonsai Society, Cleveland Bonsai Club, Columbus Bonsai Society, Cincinnati Bonsai Club, Sandusky Bonsai Club, and more. You can easily Google “bonsai” in the area you are traveling to and explore other region’s Bonsai.