If you want something to plant and forget, don’t buy a bonsai tree. The miniature trees require pruning and daily care most of the year, but they give back visual appeal, tactile pleasure and, one hopes, longevity.
Bonsai (pronounced bone-sigh) literally means “tree in a pot.” The art of pruning and styling trees into the classic bonsai shapes has been practiced in Japan for hundreds of years. As availability of bonsai grows in the United States, more plant enthusiasts are trying to grow bonsai.
There are two categories of bonsai. Hardy bonsai, the biggest category, live outdoors and go through all the seasons including changing colors and losing leaves if they are deciduous. Many are evergreen. Because bonsai are grown in containers rather than the ground, their roots are vulnerable and need winter protection such as placement in an area away from harsh winds, along with adequate mulching and “heeling in,” burying with additional soil. Tropical varieties such as ficus and serissa cannot withstand temperatures below freezing and must be brought indoors in the whiter.
Bonsais can be grown in two ways:
• The grower can select an immature plant and train it as a bonsai from the beginning of its life, perhaps with a stint in the field to promote faster growth.
• Or he may select an older tree with a trunk that is tapered toward the top, has small foliage and the look of an old, twisted tree. With root pruning and other bonsai techniques, he can turn it into a miniature.
The object of bonsai growing is to make a tree look old. The illusion of age is important. Beginners are advised to buy a healthy bonsai from a reputable dealer.
Except when protected for the winter, bonsai should be placed on a table or bench outside so they can be viewed and cared for at eye level. Most respond best to early morning sun and afternoon shade although others such as pines and junipers need full sun. Members of the maple family prefer shade.
Watering is one of the most important components of bonsai growing. During the spring, summer and fall, bonsai should be thoroughly watered once a day, preferably in early morning or late afternoon. They should be thoroughly soaked until excess water comes out from the drain holes in the container.
Because bonsai are grown in a small amount of soil in a container, fertilization is also important. Time release, organic and water soluble fertilizers can be used.
Bonsai are pruned and trimmed throughout their growth periods to maintain the desired shape. Vigorous new growth is removed in the spring.
Styling or wiring branches into position is the most complicated aspect of bonsai growing. Very few bonsai don’t have to be wired. Your idea of the way it should grow and the plant’s idea are usually different. The young and small branches are most likely to need wiring.
You can also learn how to grow bonsai from experienced bonsai growers in forums such as meetings and workshops of local bonsai societies.