Bonsai Grow Guide
There have been volumes – no, libraries – written about the art and science of bonsai. We hope this little introduction will stimulate the reader to consider this amazing horticultural hobby. Our Bonsai Grow Guide will give information to beginners and enthusiasts alike.
The art of growing miniature plants in containers (called penjing) was practiced by the Chinese more than 2000 years ago. The Japanese took up the practice a thousand years later, and called it bonsai, pronounced bone-SIGH. It was introduced to Europe in the late 19th century, but the dwarfed plants were considered horticultural curiosities and even monstrosities. Not until after World War II did bonsai as an art form really catch on in the West.
Most any kind of woody plant can be made into a bonsai specimen, but some are better than others. Plants with relatively small leaves, flowers, and fruits are favored. Conifers, with their small, needle-like leaves, are especially good subjects for bonsai. But don’t discount rhododendrons, crab apples, various maples, elms, birches, hawthorns, willows, jasmines, plums, alders, firethorn, wisteria, and even semi-woody subshrubs like rosemary, wormwood, sage, and oregano. (Latin names provided below.)
Among the best plants for the novice to start with are any of the junipers, Japanese maple, European beech, weeping fig, Malaysian fig, jade tree, firethorn, Chinese elm, Dwarf Schefflera, littleleaf cotoneaster, boxwood, and dwarf pomegranate.
The best way to learn the art and science of bonsai is from a teacher. Look for a bonsai club in your area. Bonsai enthusiasts are only too happy to welcome newbies to their hobby. Check out this list here for a list of all the Florida Bonsai Clubs.
Bonsai starter kits are available from dealers. These generally include a plant – often a juniper – a flat bonsai pot, instructions, and various tools for trimming, training, and caring for your specimen. Kits are good way for beginners to get their hands dirty the first time. You can get yours at a local nursery or online.
Choosing a Starter Plant
Bonsai dealers offer “pre-bonsai” plants with good bonsai potential that have already been trimmed and root pruned a little.
A rooted cutting can be used to start a bonsai specimen, but you can find your own pre-bonsai at your local nursery. Look for picturesque specimens with thick trunks and many branches. Remember, they don’t have to be trees: Vines, shrubs and semi-woody sub-shrubs can be trained to outstanding bonsai specimens. When choosing a nursery plant for bonsai, look for a healthy specimen that isn’t yellowing, is well rooted in its pot, and without pests. Pick one with a relatively thick trunk, preferably twisted or misshapen. Nursery rejects are often perfect subjects for bonsai. A thick trunk makes the plant look older, which is what you want. You also want the trunk and the limbs to taper towards their ends. Trunks and branches that are the same diameter bottom to top just don’t look right. Some dead branches on the potential bonsai tree can be a good thing. The scars from old branches help to make the specimen look older and more weathered. Bonsai experts often have to create scars when their subject is too “perfect.” Roots that spread out from the trunk on the surface of the soil (called nebari by enthusiasts) make the specimen look older and are always highly valued. You don’t want them criss-crossed, though. The first branch should be the largest branch and should be about one-third of the way up the trunk. Avoid plants with most of the larger branches near the top.
Remember, unless your plant is a tropical houseplant, typically grown indoors, it will need to stay outside. Just be careful it doesn’t get burned by too much intense sun. Keep it well watered, but don’t allow the soil to remain soggy. You should start the actual bonsai training of your new plant in the spring of the year. Remove the plant from its pot and place the root ball in a bucket of water and slosh it around to wash off most of the old soil. Take the root mass out of the water, spread out the roots, and trim away about one-third of their length. Repot into a “training” container slightly smaller than the one it came in. Repeat in six months. You should repot your bonsai into its (usually smaller) final display container within a year or two.
The Potting Mix
You can make your own potting mix with soil, leaf mold, and sand, but there is nothing wrong with a good quality commercial mix, and it’s convenient. Perfect Plant’s offers their very own pre-mixed Bonsai Soil that will enrich and deliver the nutrients your bonsai tree needs to thrive. You may want to add extra pebbles or perlite to improve the drainage, though.
Bonsai artists take great care in the selection of the final container for their works of art. They balance the dimensions, shape, depth, and color of a container with the specimen that will be displayed in it. Here is where your individual creativity comes into play.
Pruning is how we keep our bonsai specimens miniaturized and artistically shaped. The goal is to create a Bonsai that resembles nature as nearly as possible. Major pruning should be done in spring and early summer, but you can make touch-up cuts any time.
Use a concave cutter which allows you to cut branches flush with the trunk. This leaves a wound that heals better than ordinary flat bladed pruning shears would. Pruning is another place where your individual artistic creativity comes in, but there are a few simple guidelines to keep in mind. If two branches occur at the same height of the tree, keep one of them and remove the other. You don’t want a lot of branches near the top of the specimen, so remove those that are crowded or disproportionately large. Pinch back (nip) new growth before it becomes woody to force growth of side branches. Pinching back terminal buds makes the plant bushier. You can then select which of the new shoots to keep.
Bonsai experts bend and shape branches by “wiring.” If you wrap aluminum or copper wire in a spiral around a branch, you can carefully bend the branch into the desired curve and shape. It should take just a few weeks for the branch to be retrained, and you can remove the wire before it scars the growing branch. You can find more information on this here.
Caring for Your Bonsai
Bonsai plants should be watered once a day; twice a day during hot, dry weather. Water until the surface of the soil is saturated and water runs out the bottom of the pot. As for fertilizer… be sure to check out our very own Bonsai Fertilizer by Perfect Plants. This fertilizer releases slowly over time in granular pellet form. It will last for one full year just be sure not to apply in the winter time. You will see greener leaves, stronger roots, and durability in your bonsai trees!
Established bonsai conifers should be repotted and root pruned every 3-4 years, and deciduous trees every year or two.
Artisans have been perfecting bonsai for thousands of years. We are fortunate to have their experience and wisdom to guide us. Check out the American Bonsai Society (http://absbonsai.org/) and look for local groups in your area to help you get started in this ancient horticultural art.