This week we learn about Bonsai. Bonsai literally translates as a tree
in a pot. Bonsai is believed to have started about 200 AD although
there are paintings that depict Bonsai that date back to about 1100
AD. This art form started in this country after World War II when
returning GI's brought back their love for Bonsai. These plants are
neither a dwarf variety nor treated with a magic potion to stunt
growth. These are plants that have been subjected to a number of
horticultural and sculptural techniques in order to create their
natural and beautiful shapes. They're miniaturized versions of their
full sized cousins. Constant pruning determines the shape and health
of the plants. Today we'll learn the basic techniques of Bonsai - how
to select, prune, care for and water these fascinating plants.
Cham Ith started with Bonsai because his wife had been involved with
Bonsai for years. He finds it challenging because of the horticultural
and artistic aspect. He finds it an extension of gardening, just good
horticultural practices, techniques are the same as those utilized in
the yard. One treats the Bonsai tree the same as other trees. They may
require more attention, need watered more regularly but otherwise it's
a fun hobby. These trees live in small soil, that is why they stay so
small. Genetically they are the same tree as their larger cousins in
the yard. This isn't a form of tree torture, there isn't anything
painful about the process, these trees just live in a small space.
Cham started about six years ago. Because he was impatient and because
some of these trees would take 30 to 40 years to develop he has
purchased several specimens. The prices for trees like these can range
from approximately $30 to several thousand dollars, depending on the
tree. Cham has about 100 specimens.
Bonsai is best if started from seed because one gets better trunk and
better root spread. Plants with fruits or berries or exposed roots are
always attractive, thus desirable.
Bonsais are divided into different groups, some are symmetrical, some
informal. There are 7 different types, 7 forms. One is Formal Upright,
we look at an example, a Japanese Larch. These must be trained from
seed and wiring must be utilized. It is wide at the base where the
trunk joins the roots, then it gets smaller as it gets to the top, as
well it has right branch and a left branch to counterbalance. It
offers a symmetrical look.
Windswept is also difficult because it is hard to train and make look
realistic, as if it goes in one direction, like something from a
windswept cliff. The goal of Bonsai is to make the tree look as if
mother nature had produced the tree not man.
Slanted Style , a Japanese Black Pine, will have miniaturized needles.
Over time, with proper pruning at the right time of year the needle
length can be reduced to make them look more proportional. There is
more to Bonsai than just cramming a tree in a pot and hoping they'll
One of Dr. Rick's favorites is a Boxwood. It has small leaves and
they're slow growing. Slow growing is a good quality for Bonsai
because that helps in maintaining its' miniature form.
Exposed roots provide a powerful look. They show how the plant clings
to the soil, how they anchor themselves to the ground, then spread
through the soil.
Mountain Dwarf Azalea is an example of the Cascade Form. It has been
trained for a long time, the leaves and flowers are proportionally
The Fire Thorn or Procantha is an example of exposed roots and takes
15 years to train. Bonsai requires a lot of patience.
Forest of Group Planting is another style. We view a Chinese Elm
planted as a landscape with rocks. The rocks, called Turtle Backed
Rock, from China, are glued or attached to the marble slab. They hold
the soil needed for the roots to grow and they create the cavity
where the soil and plants sit. This evokes a landscape feel similar to
a seashore, just like mother nature.
If thinking about growing your own Bonsai, remember these are trees.
Granted they're miniaturized and kept in small containers but they
need to be kept outdoors. One wouldn't bring a Red Maple or Azalea
inside, same here. They will require diligent care, they will need to
be checked for over or under watering but need to remain outside most
all of the year. If a tropical variety - a bright window or greenhouse
would be perfect.
If instant gratification is important, Bonsai may not be for you.
During the growing season, let them go. Cham only prunes them in the
fall when it turns cold and the plant stops producing food. Cham uses
scissors to prune the small branches. For bigger branches he again
waits for the tree to go dormant to avoid sap bleeding then uses a
concave cutter. He also uses tweezers with a scraper on one end to
remove trash and weeds and to scrape moss off the trunk. Moss will eat
into the bark and bark is what makes Bonsai interesting.
Cham also uses a metal prop to separate the branches. Once the
intended style, the training, is decided upon to make them look nice
the branches are spread to change the branch direction. This is less
stressful than wiring. Wire is wrapped around the branches like a
vine. It is wrapped in the direction the branch should go. The wrap
shouldn't be too tight or it will cut, conversely if too loose it will
have no effect. Snug is good.
The pot is also important. There are many shapes and styles. There are
rectangular pots suitable for formal upright or informal upright.
There are round pots, glazed and unglazed pots. Most of the pots are
low and they have holes. The holes are for drainage. And there is
usually a drainage mesh, this keeps bugs from coming in.
As with most plants, soil is important. Generally a well drained soil
is preferable. For tropical trees they will need a soil that can
retains water, this is particularly important during the hot summer
months. In these cases Cham likes to add Peat Moss.
Bonsai plants need to be repotted frequently. To do this have
everything ready because it isn't good for the roots to be exposed to
the air for long periods of time. Cham repots a Japanese Pepper, it is
a tropical tree and vigorous growing. After one season the roots can
become bound in the pot. He turns the pot over and uses chopsticks to
chisel out the old soil. It has been growing in a soil mix of Calcine
Clay and crushed pine bark. Cham chisels out this old soil and trims
the roots. It doesn't damage the roots and allows room for new soil.
As long as more than 50% of the roots aren't cut off, everything will
be fine. It gives room for roots to grow and that's how plants grow.
For bigger trees Cham uses bigger chopsticks. Cham now uses a soil mix
of perlite and peat, it should now be good for a year or two. He likes
this soil mix because it holds more moisture and when next summer gets
hot it won't need to be watered as much which is better for the tree.
Next the pot must be prepared. He adds some soil to the bottom, making
a mound, it will spread out. Make sure there aren't air pockets. Cham
secures the tree with wire, this offers protection from strong winds
and anchors it in the pot. The pot has two holes, Cham uses those
holes and runs wire (thin aluminum or copper) through either side and
anchors the tree. He is securing the rootball, not tying around the
trunk of the tree, because it would effect the look and because he
wouldn't want to girdle the tree. Make the wire just tight enough so
it won't blow out of the pot. Once in, sprinkle more soil on the top.
Again, Cham uses chopsticks to work the soil into the crevices making
sure there are no air pockets. The soil should be flush with the top
of the pot. It will sink with time and watering, when that happens
more soil should be added. Cham will now sprinkle with Moss spore and
with cooler weather it will hopefully cover the plant with moss. This
will have a classic Bonsai look. When done water throughly making sure
the rootball is completely saturated.
Pruning Bonsai plants is similar to other plants. Pruning effects how
fast and in what direction plants will grow. Winter is a very good
time to prune. If you have fast growing plants and want to slow them
down one of the best times to prune is after they've flushed out. In
the spring they have a lot of stored energy, after the leaves flush
out, give them a heavy haircut. This will slow their growth
The best way for someone to get started with Bonsai is to go to the
store and buy a plant and turn it into a Bonsai. Look for a
healthy tree, make sure it is lush green, then select the size, then
the type of tree, the shape of the trunk is also important. Any good
plant that is healthy can be turned into a Bonsai.
Thank you Cham for the Bonsai lesson. Bonsai is fascinating and really
an extension of gardening. Many of the landscape principles we use
everyday are applicable in Bonsai. We thank you.
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