GardenSmart :: EPISODES :: 2004 show24
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Show #24

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 grow.

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 small.

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 dramatically.

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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