How to Get Started in Bonsai

How To Get Started in "The Art of Bonsai"

by Paul Gilbert , RMBS President, 2009, 2010 & 2011
The art of Bonsai is relative new in Western culture, but has been around for centuries in Japan and China. The word is derived from two Japanese characters: bon, which means pot or tray and sai, which means planting or tree. So literally, Bonsai is a tree in a pot. The pronunciation is bone-sigh, not bansai as it is most commonly pronounced. Bonsai does not refer to a specific species of tree. (At a recent Bonsai show there were 60 different species of trees displayed). A bonsai tree is a miniature artistic representation of a mature tree in nature. If it doesn’t resemble a tree in nature, there is a question as to whether it is a bonsai. The small size is attained through branch and root pruning. The world of Bonsai offers an incredible amount of relaxation, therapy and years of enjoyment.
Finding suitable material for Bonsai The best way to get started in Bonsai is to jump in a give it a try. It is not as difficult as many think. The best way to get started is not to buy a plant or shrub shaped like a bonsai from a grocery store or a discount store. Many of these trees are light deprived and may be dead or nearly dead when you make your purchase. The best bet is to purchase a one, three or five gallon shrub or tree from your local nursery. Pick a plant that has healthy foliage and a strong trunk area. The most important part of choosing a future bonsai candidate is an interesting trunk. The finished bonsai is generally between six inches to no more than three feet in height. Select your plant with the final height in mind. Junipers, such as Procumbens Nana (Green Mound), are the easiest for beginners. In addition to your local nursery, there are some excellent nurseries that specialize in pre-bonsai trees.
Getting Started After you select your shrub or tree, it is time to start the process of turning the plant into a bonsai. First clean away any undergrowth, dead leaves or needles that keeps you from getting a good look at the movement of the trunk. Take your time! Look at the tree from different angles. Study the tree to determine the front. The front is the side of the tree most pleasing to the eye. A chop stick may be placed to mark the front of the tree. (Don’t worry, finding the front of the tree is not an exact science and may change later.) At this point, try to envision what you think the tree should look like as a bonsai (a miniature tree in nature). It might be helpful to sketch out what you want the tree to look like. In bonsai there are many style variations. Do you want a formal upright tree (straight trunk)? Do you want an informal upright style (twisting trunk that moves upward)? Slanting or windswept style (resembles a tree on a cliff blown by the wind)? Cascade style (a tree growing over the edge of a cliff)? A forest (multiple trees resembling a grove or forest)? The shape of the trunk will help you determine which style to choose. Branches can be reshaped by wiring and pruning, but the trunk is predetermined by the tree, with the exception of seedlings.
Studying trees in the neighborhood and countryside will help you to have in mind how trees in nature are shaped. Most have some triangular shape. The same is normally true of a properly shaped bonsai, triangular with unequal sides. Once you determine how you want the tree to look you can slowly begin to turn it into a bonsai. This will be done in two primary ways: pruning and wiring. Pruning may be done with common garden shears and wiring may be done with anodized aluminum or copper wire. Prune away what does not belong on the tree. Start with pruning the branches growing straight down. Branches crossing each other should be corrected by pruning or wiring. In most styles, the branches should alternate right and left up the trunk. The lowest branch is usually selected to leave the trunk bare about one-third the distance from the ground to the top. The lowest branch should be the largest. The second branch should be above and opposite the first branch. It is pruned to be a little shorter than the first. The third branch should point toward the rear to give the bonsai depth. The tree may look a little sparse when you have finished cutting and wiring. Be patient. The branches will fill out. You are on the way to creating your first bonsai.
Choosing the pot and transplanting After wiring and pruning the tree, don’t be in too big of a hurry to place the tree in a pot. Transplanting should normally be done in the spring or fall. Avoid transplanting in the heat of the summer. The roots may be pruned in order for the tree to fit in a smaller pot. In pruning it is important to leave at least a ½ of the root ball mass. The tree will mature more effectively as a bonsai if you prune the roots growing straight down and leave the roots growing out on the sides. For larger shrubs (3 to 5 gallons size), it may be best to stage the repotting, placing the plant in a smaller pot for one or two years before going to yet a small bonsai pot.
Caring for the tree Most people lose their treasured bonsai trees by placing them indoors. All conifer and deciduous trees must be kept out doors. Bonsai trees do great outdoors. In the winter the pot can be buried or the tree can be placed in a cold frame or window-well with the pot buried in mulch. It is important to realize the proper amount of light is perhaps more critical to the life of a plant than is water. A well watered tree without the proper light will quickly die. Many confer trees require full sun; most maples need a little shade. If you want to keep your bonsai indoors you need to choose a tropical species, such as, a Ficus or Schefflera that require less light. When a tree is in a small pot, monitoring the moisture in the soil is critical. Your bonsai should be allowed to dry between watering, but should never be bone dry. Many trees need to be watered at least once a day in the summer and once a week in the winter. Your tree may be fertilized by using regular fertilizer at half strength.
Polish your skills through these resources Basic Bonsai Design, David DeGroot, 1995, American Bonsai Society, Bonsai Today, magazine published by Stone Lantern, The Bonsai Handbook, David Prescott, 2001 New Holland Publishers (Available through Amazon) Sunset Bonsai (An Illustrated Guide to an Ancient Art), available at most bookstores. Totally Bonsai, Craig Coussins, 2001.