Understanding Bonsai

Anne Spencer

Bonsai is not a particular kind of plant. It is how you grow any plant that gets woody as it ages, has small enough leaves to be believable as a miniature tree, and can live happy and healthy in a small pot. A bonsai can be pine, oak, maple, azalea, boxwood, ficus, cherry, Japanese pagoda tree, forsythia, or any other tree or shrub that can handle the bonsai training. Even a chrysanthemum can be trained as a bonsai.

Say `bone sigh'. The `bon' in bonsai means the tray (pot), and `sai' is tree in Japanese.. .a tree in a tray. The pot usually is shallow. The tree is supposed to look old, like a real tree in a yard, or on a mountain, or in a field. It is to be a miniature of the real thing.

A real tree in the ground has roots that reach out and grab the earth, holding the trunk upright toward the sky. The roots grow underground, searching out moisture and nutrients and move them back through the main rootage and up the trunk to the tree's leafy top. The leaves combine the water and nutrients with energy from the sun, and the tree grows. As the years pass the trunk gets heavy, the branches divide more and more and hang down with age, the roots spread out on the soil surface under the tree, and old bark forms. The tree looks old.

The same goes for a bonsai. The only differences between the real tree and a bonsai are size and the fact that a bonsai grows in a container and a tree grows in the earth. The job the bonsai grower has is to be committed and caring enough to do what is necessary so the bonsai tree can survive in that shallow pot and live to grow old looking.

The most often asked question is How Old Is It? If the grower has owned the plant from the beginning, the question is easy. But if it came from an old hedge, or was collected in the wild, etc. the answer is not so easy and the grower must make an educated guess. A bonsai doesn't have to be old to look old. Many elements including exposed roots, rough bark, fine branching, and good trunk taper from bottom to top add to the look of age.

Those elements of age (the most important parts on a bonsai) happen gradually as you grow the plant. It is not fast. There are tricks to speed the process up, but I won't go into many of them here. It may take 3 years, or 12 years, or 25 years to create a mature bonsai. Usually the smaller the bonsai the less time it takes, but not necessarily. The important thing to remember is, you will enjoy the process of creating it all along the way. They are to love! Buy one already partly developed or create one `from scratch'. You can learn. Do both. Do many. You can learn to grow bonsai if you can grow plants.

Beginners wonder how to keep a bonsai in scale. How do we keep it small. The answers are root pruning, top pruning, and limiting the size of the pot.

With such a small pot there is no room for long roots. They don't need long roots. The water and nutrients are available, if the grower doesn't forget them. The growers regularly prune the bonsai roots, which cause them to divide, which creates more root tips directly under the base of the trunk to help feed the bonsai. The more root tips there are on a bonsai, the healthier it gets and the easier it is for it to survive in that small pot.

In the early years of a plant's training, it is root pruned often, and normally grown in a training pot (larger than the correct size bonsai pot to help it develop faster), but is not  
root pruned so frequently as it ages. How often you root prune depends on the age, condition, stage of development, and species of the plant one is growing as a bonsai. For instance, a young deciduous plant can be root pruned yearly, whereas an old one can go 2-3 years before the roots need trimming. A young conifer can go 2-3 years before roots need trimming and an old one can go 3-5 years.

As the roots are developing, the top is allowed to grow freely to develop trunk size in the early training stages. There are many choices, both artistic and cultural, effecting the top of the tree. Wire is sometimes used to help design the bonsai's top growth. It allows the artist control over placing a trunk or branch more pleasingly. The wire is left on only until the branch `sets' and then is removed to avoid marking the tree's bark. The young roots are kept buried and shallow. As the root system ages it is exposed to make the tree look older and more interesting and natural. The top of the tree ages and will start to look more natural, too. It develops small internodes, smaller leaves and branching. It becomes a bonsai.

Curiously, as the bonsai ages, it responds to the pruning of its roots and top branches and being grown in a small pot by slowing way down in its growth. In other words, it responds to its environment. It doesn't get so big. It stops trying to grow fast. But everything ages, just as if it were in the ground and old.

Your skill level will grow with practice, and so does the ability to make necessary choices as your plants age. Don't panic. Just learn, one plant at a time, as they age.

A mature bonsai, whether it is small or large, continues to grow and change and add characteristics of old age, just like a tree in the ground. They go through all the seasons with the same beauty trees in nature have. Depending on the species, they produce flowers and fruit, fall color, pine cones, etc. The difference is, you can have them right next to you on your deck, or apartment balcony.

You will need to fertilize to keep your bonsai in good health. They will need good light, and some protection in the winter. You will need only a few simple tools and the right soil with good drainage and some pots to put them in. Check regularly for pests & diseases. Get someone to water them when you go on trips. Don't forget them, however. They can die fast if they are too dry or too wet for too long or inside when they should be outside.

You can grow them in your house if the species you use are not hardy in our cold winters. Houseplants like ficus make good indoor bonsai because they normally live in warmer countries. However, trees like maples, for instance, need to have cold winters and go dormant to grow well. Boxwoods and a few others don't care; inside or out, they are happy.

Growing bonsai does take patience. Just find something else to do while you're waiting for your trees to grow. And if you get tired of them, you could plant them back in the ground. They would again grow in the normal way for that species, and in a few years you would never know they were ever trained as a bonsai.