My mother-in-law introduced me to Bonsai years ago. Living in Hawaii during her young married life had greatly influenced this wonderful woman's natural artistic nature, love of green, growing things indoors and out, as well as her taste in preparing fine food. She loved fresh and salt water aquariums, exotic plants and flowers, wearing muumuus and going barefoot!
When I married into the family, I was immediately instructed in growing, designing and caring for bonsais, how to make the most delicious teriyaki sauce in the world, and eating sashimi. Luckily for my husband, I loved all of it. Now I will be happy to share some knowledge about the Art of Bonsai.
WHAT IS BONSAI?
The most simple interpretation of the word "bonsai" is "tray gardening"; it is attributed to ancient Chinese and Japanese cultures. When you place a plant in a tray or pot, you limit the growth the roots may achieve and, consequently, limit the growth of the plant above the earth in the pot. In other words, the plant becomes dwarfed, restrained and unable to achieve it's full potential in terms of size - height and breadth. With proper care (water, food and light), the stunted plant will live for a very long time. It is thought bonsai originated when medicine healers traveled distances and needed to carry herbs and medicinal plants along in order to treat their patients with fresh and potent herbal medicines.
Perhaps it was to enable the traveler to more easily pack and carry the miniature, living herbal remedies that caused bonsai to evolve into artistic shapes. At any rate, the trunks of the plants were often trained to grow in certain shapes - including those of animals. You have to appreciate the patience of the stylist ... you know how much you can expect a maple or fir tree to grow in one season. Some bonsais alive today are centuries old and extremely valuable. In fact, there is a thriving "black market" for these plants; theft of ancient and not so ancient bonsais is more common than you might expect.
Bonsais are also found in many sizes, from as tiny as 2 inches to 2 feet. The qualification is that the plant has been stunted and dwarfed by pruning its roots and branches, and not allowed to attain its full potential by limiting its ability to grow freely.
BONSAI FOR BEGINNERS:
There are at least three ways you may enter into the world of bonsai but the very first thing you should do is to buy a good gardening book with a complete section on bonsai, or research bonsai on Internet. We will give you basic instructions here, which might make you aware of just how badly you need to take a class on the subject. If that's not convenient, get a book with a complete guide to bonsai showing step-by-step illustrations.
Here are the three most widely used sources of bonsai plants:
- Grow a bonsai plant from seed,
- "Adopting" a seedling tree, herb, vine or other woody type of plant,
- Buy or receive a plant that has already been trained.
You may actually purchase seeds of common or exotic plants that are recommended for bonsai. However, if you'd like to do a cheap experiment, save a couple of pomegranate, grape seeds, apple, pear, orange or any other type of seeds from fruit you commonly purchase at the market. Allow them to dry out for a couple of weeks, then fill a small pot with soil and plant the seeds. I usually set the little pots in the garden window above my kitchen sink where I can keep an eye on them. Keep the soil moist but not overly wet. See our page on growing plants from seed.
The seeds should germinate within a week or two. When the plant reaches about six inches in height with 2nd and 3rd sets of leaves, it's ready to transplant into a small bonsai container.
"ADOPTING" A BONSAI PLANT:
- Fruit and nut trees common to your environment, i.e. cherry, apple, pear, plum, filbert, walnut, etc.
- Berry bushes and vines, i.e. blueberry, blackberry, pomegranate, raspberry, grapes, etc.
- Ornamental trees, shrubs, bushes, i.e. lilacs, Lily-of-the-Valley bush (andromeda), willow, roses, camellia, juniper, mugo pine, most evergreens, etc.
- Herbs, i.e. rosemary, thyme, oregano, etc. In some instances, the herbs thrive in a "stunted" condition making them very well suited to bonsai.
There are several opportunities to "adopt" plants that are already growing to train as bonsais. In the spring when nurseries, home improvement stores and general department stores set out their small containers of flowering shrubs and fruit trees, you will have a great selection to choose from. You might start with a lilac which is easy to transplant and care for, and have the additional benefit of rewarding you with sweet smelling flowers!
Or you might select a small fruit tree, berry bush or fruiting vine. Again, apple, pear, plum trees and grape vines are popular candidates. So are ornamental trees, bushes and shrubs - Japanese maple, evergreens, and woody herbs.
If you want to really go back to nature, look around your yard or make an excursion into a woodsy, forested area looking for a small plant that suits your purpose. Just be sure it's okay to take a specimen from the property. As I've mentioned before, I have the good fortune to live on five acres that are covered with a wonderful variety of small plants well suited to bonsai. My favorite is the Northwest native evergreen huckleberry which commonly propagates itself by its root system underground. The new plants spread quickly and are easy to obtain.
Choose one that is 4-6 inches high, then dig into the dirt around it removing about a cupful of soil with the roots. You will need to clip the roots that bind it to the parent plant so have a sharp tool handy for that. Try to not disturb the root ball or allow the roots to dry out.
"OFF THE SHELF" BONSAI:
Although purchasing an already trained bonsai is the easiest thing to do, it can be disheartening if you don't know how to care for the plant to keep it in its stunted, artistic form or how to water and fertilize to keep it healthy. Since bonsais may be quite expensive, you need to educate yourself on proper care and environment.
Most pre-planted bonsai come with instructions on care. You need to pay close attention to the directions, especially with watering as bonsais are typically planted in shallow containers without much water retention ability. It's a huge disappointment to see the plant wither right before your eyes, particularly if you have paid several dollars for the arrangement.