WHAT IS BONSAI?

Bonsai is a living work of art, created by nature and humans over a long period of time and care.  The cultivation of bonsai began more than two thousand years ago in China.  Cultivation in the United States became more prominent after World War II.  Masterworks of bonsai appear natural at a glance, though in reality they are the product of years of skilled design, specialized techniques, and daily care by bonsai artists.  Bonsai as old as 500 years, passed down to different bonsai masters, are still living and represent the most sustained efforts of any art form.

Bonsai is miniaturization of trees and shrubs that occurs by regular pruning of the roots and branches.  The main objective with bonsai is to create an illusion of age, as age is revered.  Youthful vigor is celebrated by blooming and fruiting plants.  A tree might be planted in the ground to allow the trunk to reach a desired thickness before placing in a chosen pot.  Further enhancement of shape to favor maturity would be to use wiring to alter the shape of the trunk and branches.  Other methods can also be used, such as weights or clamps.

There are different techniques for carefully achieving an illusion of age, such as jin or shari, which are bark stripping techniques.  These methods require experience and it’s recommended that once practices them well before applying them to a valuable tree.

LOCATION- INDOOR VS. OUTDOOR

Most bonsai thrive outdoors, with a few exceptions.  Those are trees and shrubs accustomed to living in subtropical, temperate, and cold climates.  All conifers, almost all deciduous, and evergreen should spend all their time outdoors.  In extremely cold climates, they should be protected from winds and bitter temperatures stored in a cold frame, greenhouse, or heated garage.  Light requirements will depend on the species you have selected for your bonsai.
There are a few semi-tropical species suitable for bonsai, as well as all tropical species of trees and shrubs that live in warm climate regions in the world.  As an example, figs, aralias, sheffleras, serissas, and mini boxwoods are all fine for indoor bonsai.  Indoor bonsai are sensitive to cold drafts, and also should never be near a heat source.

A FEW BONSAI STYLES

Formal Upright:  A straight and formal upright tapering trunk.  The outline is like a triangle.
Informal Upright:  Similar to the formal, but with a curved trunk and irregular triangular outline.
Twisted Trunk:  Gnarled, weathered looking trunk.
Cascade Style:  Spills off the side of the pot, and is modeled after trees that grow over water or down the sides of mountains.  Semi-Cascade is slightly less dramatic, with a peak roughly in the middle of the pot.
Wind Swept Style:  In this style, all of the branches are wired to one side to appear shaped by wind.
Exposed Root (neagari):  An unusual style that typically is used with cascade style, with roots exposed, mimicking trees that have had soil washed away by floods, or mud slides.
Root-over-rock:  Another exposed root style that has the tree growing over a rock with an exposed root structure.
Clump Style:  Three trunks come out of the roots.
Twin Trunk Style:  There are two trunks coming out of the roots that contrast one another.
Group:  Multiple, separate trees arranged in the same pot to simulate a forest or grove.

WATERING:

Watering your bonsai can be the most challenging thing to master.  The best time of day to water your bonsai is morning or evening.  Some bonsai like a more moist soil, while others prefer a drier soil.  Check your tree daily and feel the soil with a finger to judge if it needs water.  The leaves can be a good indicator of too much or too little.  If they are soft and wilted, it’s likely that overwatering has occurred, and if the leaves are browning, dry, and wilted, it’s likely that it needs more water.

There are two recommended methods to watering a bonsai.  The first is to set it in a tub of water and let it soak, removing all air bubbles, which is a great method if your tree has dried out and needs hydration.  Another is the three-times method; water once, then again, then a third time, giving enough water so that it runs out the drainage holes of the pot in a steady stream.  never let the water stand in the pot tray, and never water so little that no drainage occurs.  After watering you can tilt your bonsai slightly to allow full drainage, empty the pot tray when finished, and tilt it back upright again.

FERTILIZING:

It is highly recommended that one uses a weaker solution than what is called for.  Organic fertilizers are not only more eco-friendly, but reduce the risk of root burning.  In general, fertilizing is done during the tree’s growing season, and applied as often as every week to every two weeks for outdoor deciduous conifers, and for indoor bonsai can be applied year round every two weeks in a weak solution.  Typically, outdoor trees are not fertilized during the dormant period, or at the least once per month.  Watering is always done first, then fertilizer.  Never fertilize a tree that is weak, freshly repotted, or sick, as it can be harmful to your tree.

TOOLS:

Bonsai are never finished.  If you want to maintain a desired shape, you must trim your tree.  There are two tools perfect for the beginning bonsai hobbyist.  The first is a Concave Branch Cutter which, aptly named, has a concave shape and allows for a close cutting of a branch or twig, leaving no unsightly stub on your bonsai.  The resulting wound heals over quickly with little scarring, making this tool incredibly useful for shaping and pruning your bonsai.  The second tool is a good set of Long Shears.  The handle is long, allowing ease of reaching through foliage to harder to reach areas and tight spaces.  They can be used to nip off foliage, or trim small branches.  Another tool that will really come in handy, especially if you delve into using wiring to shape your bonsai, is a good pair of Bonsai Wire Cutters.  These are made specifically to cut wire cleanly on your bonsai without damaging the bark.  Don’t forget the versatility of another tool which is quite inexpensive…a chopstick!  A chopstick can provide many uses including: gauging the water in the soil, helping repot your bonsai by loosening the root mass without breaking or tearing small roots, combing through roots to gently untangle them, as well as tamping and working soil around a bonsai that’s being repotted.

REPOTTING YOUR BONSAI

Repotting a bonsai is typically done every year on younger trees and every 2-3 years on older trees, ideally during dormancy.  If you would like your bonsai to grow larger, a pot that is 2/3 the height of your tree is recommended.  A good time to repot your bonsai is when it becomes rootbound, and when you lift up your bonsai you can see a thick tangle of roots wrapped completely around the root ball.  Repotting is important for replenishing soil.  The frequency and ways that bonsai are watered leaches out a lot of the minerals and nutrients that good soil provides.  It also gives you an opportunity to prune the roots, though this isn’t necessary when moving your tree into a larger training pot.

PRUNING AND WIRING:

Pruning Bonsai:  Pruning is a way to get rid of branches that are undesirable, reduce the size of branches and leaves, and to shape your tree to the most aesthetically pleasing shape.  Pruning is great for trees that have already established trunks and shape.  Prune above leaf nodes to chart the direction the next branch should take.  Roots are usually pruned to 1/3 – 1/2 the original length, and are pruned to encourage more growth and strengthen the tree.  Deciduous trees are typically pruned in the fall after leaf drop, or early spring before the buds break.  Evergreens are also done in the spring when new candles appear on conifers, or new growth shows up on leafy varieties.

Wiring:  Wiring is done to shape your bonsai.  It’s typically done during the growing season.  The most common wiring to use is anodized aluminum wire.  Use caution when wrapping wire around the trunk and branches, looking out for leaves and nodes.  Start trunk first at a 45˚ angle, moving on to the largest branches, then secondary twigs.  Bend trunk and branches gently to avoid breakage.  Generally the wire should be left on from 6 months to 2 years dependent on the species and growth of the tree.  You should keep an eye on the tree to make sure the wire isn’t cutting into the bark, as ugly scarring will result.  Indoor bonsai can be wired anytime of the year, though summer is preferred.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

Down To Earth carries some great books with info for the bonsai beginner and hobbyist, including:

• Indoor Bonsai for Beginners
• Bonsai 101 Essential Tips
• Growing Bonsai Indoors

For further reading, check out the public library for great books on the art, extensive history, and keeping of bonsai or check out the Eugene Bonsai Society at www.eugenebonsai.org