How To Grow Bonsai

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Throughout the centuries bonsai have fascinated the onlooker, intrigued at the ability of the creator in producing something that is in perfect miniature. The technique allows the artist to own a forest without the need for acres of land. 

Few are able thereafter to resist the temptation to try and create such fascinating living specimens themselves. Real devotees to the art are able to produce masterpieces of living sculpture much admired and coveted, but for most of the intrigued will be satisfied with achieving even one or two modest examples, gaining a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction in the process. Those with an artistic flare, coupled with a love of nature will no doubt be successful if they understand some of the basic principles.

A very brief epitome of the steps involved in the creation of a bonsai is to "pinch the shoots and prune the roots" but to do either it is vital to understand what each step would eventually achieve. Thoughtless pruning and indiscriminate pinching of shoots may spoil irreparably the effect of what otherwise might have been a perfectly balanced and beautiful specimen. 

Most of us connect the art of the bonsai culture with Japan but it was in fact the Chinese who first began to create miniature tree specimens over a thousand years ago. It was the rugged, gnarled trunks, which often resembled animals, dragons, and birds that so fascinated the growers of these trees. 

There are a great number of myths and legends surrounding Chinese bonsai, and the grotesque or animal-like trunks and root formations are still highly prized today. Chinese bonsai come from the landscape of the imagination and images of fiery dragons and coiled serpents took far greater precedence over images of nature.

The exact time that the art was introduced into Japan is debatable, although it is possible that it had arrived in AD 1195, as there is reference to it in a Japanese scroll attributed to that period. Once bonsai was introduced into Japan, the art was refined to an extent not yet approached in China. The ideals and philosophy of bonsai were greatly changed over the years. For the Japanese, bonsai represents a fusion of strong ancient beliefs with the Eastern philosophies of the harmony between man, the soul and nature.

The bonsai may suggest many things, but in western eyes, the natural look is preferred. Bonsai are created from trees or plants; they are not special hybrid dwarfs. Small leafed varieties are particularly suitable, but essentially any plant can be used, regardless of the size they would normally grow if they were not miniaturized. In creating in miniature, the artist attempts to engineer in his developing creation, something of himself, and the vision that he sees the subject in future years.

Bonsai are basically outdoor plants; they are not houseplants. Most materials used are hardy trees and shrubs that undergo the natural processes, producing food through photosynthesis during the warm months and requiring a dormant period during cold weather. But there are exceptions because many plants that are suited to indoor conditions here in Britain do make excellent bonsai subjects.

Even so many of these to can be taken outside during summer, positioned in sheltered places and greatly benefit from the outside atmosphere even if it is only for a limited period. Subtropical and tropical plants such as bougainvillea can become indoor bonsai during winter. However when hardy, outdoor plants are grown in shallow pots or bonsai containers their roots are subjected to extreme heat or cold. Therefore it is advisable to offer some form of shelter during particularly hot days and during winter months. This does not mean that they should be taken indoors but rather they be moved into shade or in winter, positioned under shelter of a porch the pot can be wrapped for insulation. 

Likewise foliage and branches of even quite hardy conifers can suffer from a cold east wind so they too should be given shelter. Bonsai created from hardy plant material can be brought indoors for short periods if necessary, but do not subject them to extreme conditions.

GETTING STARTED: Bonsai can be developed from seeds or cuttings, layering, air layering, stump or mound layering, from young trees or from naturally occurring stunted trees. A good time to find suitable plants is to search around the garden or hedgerows in summer when many self-sown seedlings will have pushed their way up through the soil and can easily be lifted and re-potted. You can begin however by choosing suitable older subjects and therefore larger and more developed. A trained eye with an aptitude for possible bonsai material can spot likely young plants on visits to the nurseries and Garden Centres.

Take a stroll along the rows of yearling or two-year-old seedlings you are sure to spot a few with potential. Leggy specimens should be passed over in favour of those with low branches as these are easily pruned off later if not required. With practise those specimens, that can be shaped into espaliers, cordons, pyramids, and columnar, weeping or broad canopy will be easily spotted.

Bonsai are kept small and trained by pruning shoots and roots, by periodic re-potting, and by pinching off new growth. Mature looking bonsai plants are not necessarily old. Pruning and pinching foliage and new growth to train and shape the plant create the illusion of age. Aluminium wire can be temporarily used to reposition or bend a branch or trunk, but it should be removed before it scars or cuts into the branch. Bonsai, which are grown for their blossom, must be pinched judiciously or there may be few if any flowers. In such cases pinching is carried out after the flowers have faded.

SOIL: Potted trees do not do well in soil that is always wet. Potting soil and topsoil are heavy soils that can remain wet for weeks. Bonsai soil is mixtures of ingredients, which allow the water to drain freely and at the same time, retain moisture and gives nourishment. Before adding any soil mixture, be sure to cover the drainage hole(s) with screening to prevent the soil from washing out of the pot. When re-potting, it is always best to use the soil mixture in its dry state.

Most beginners use a general potting mix for bonsai soil until they get the hang of things and just until they can familiarise themselves with the other processes involved in the bonsai culture. As long as the mix is open and well draining you should not have a problem. If you can get pre-made bonsai soil then you can be confident that you are providing the best possible mix for your plant to succeed. 

Bonsai soil is much more free draining than potting soil and doesn't contain quite as much fertilizer as normal potting soil. It is available at specialist bonsai nurseries, and even some general nurseries stock it too.

Many experienced bonsai growers do make their own soil mix and have their own ideas as to what is the best mixture. A basic bonsai soil mix to use - and one that would apply to almost all species is: one part loam, two parts sphagnum peat moss, two parts granite grit with the addition of a slow release type fertilizer.

WATERING: Another very important care consideration is the correct amount of watering. You must ensure that the bonsai tree is in a sufficiently big enough pot to hold enough moisture to support the tree. Your bonsai should never be left to completely dry out. At the other extreme, a bonsai tree can suffer if it is over-watered or left soaking in a pool of water. Special care when watering is needed if your tree is root-bound or if it is exposed to the sun and wind.

Given proper care, bonsai can live for hundreds of years, with prized specimens being passed from generation to generation, admired for their age, and beauty and also as a reminder of those who have cared for them over the centuries.


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