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How to Grow Bonsai

Bonsai is often used to describe dwarfed plants.  However, in a historical context, bonsai was the name given to potted, styled trees created by Chinese and Japanese artists.  In fact, it is widely acknowledged that it was the Chinese who first began collecting and transplanting dwarfed trees which they discovered growing naturally on mountain tops and hillsides, but the Japanese perfected the art of Bonsai.

Although bonsai trees are indeed dwarfed, they are also trained and cultivated to look like an aged miniature tree. Everything from the leaves to the stem resembles a scaled down tree. The actual bonsai includes both the pot and landscape created by the artist.

The term 'bonsai' is formed from two words: 'bon' which means container or pot, and 'sai' which means plant or plants. Nevertheless, when combined the two words mean much more than merely a tree planted in a pot. It is the craftsmanship and artistic creativity that goes into bonsai which separates it from a simple potted tree.

The art of bonsai is not intended to simply re-create nature, but it strives to capture the essence of the wild and stimulate the observer's imagination into thinking about how the tree might be growing in a natural landscape.

Whilst the beauty of bud burst and the emergence of flowers might be seen in a natural landscape, the intricate detail of these things can be more fully observed and appreciated in a bonsai or collection of bonsai.  

What Types of Plants are Suited to Bonsai

Bonsai involves growing plants in a confined situation. In contrast to the beliefs of some, growing bonsai is not an act of cruelty - although it involves confining root growth and regularly pruning the roots and top of the plant, it can be kept in a miniature form for hundreds of years (in some cases) and can vastly outlive its relatives which are growing in the wild or in gardens. Like other trees and shrubs, the bonsai is still able to produce flowers and fruit if it is given suitable care and attention.

The bonsai should look like a miniature tree, with not only the trunk and branches scaled down, but also the leaves. As such, it is preferable for bonsai to utilise smaller leafed plants. We try to achieve the following in the plants we use for bonsai:

  • Roots - spreading densely and many branching in all directions.
  • Trunk - well tapered and very thick at the base.
  • Branches - thick, lower down and multi branched with thinner branches at the ends.
  • Leaves - small, dense and vigorous.
  • Top - of the plant must look vigorous, healthy and vital, even if it is not growing with any real vigour.

Finding Plants to use for Bonsai

Regardless of the skill of the bonsai creator, the original material which is used to create the bonsai will have an effect on the end result.  So, select material with care.  You may have already propagated your own material for bonsai.  Perhaps you are going to purchase a small plant that someone else has propagated and perhaps even begun to train.  Regardless of how you obtain your material, there are a number of things you should consider when selecting stock.

1. Timing

At some point, all bonsai will need to be potted into a proper bonsai container.  To avoid shock to the plant, the best time to carry out this first potting is just prior to the plant experiencing a flush of growth for the year.  In many areas, this will be just before spring.  This obviously will vary depending on the climate. In cooler areas, the timing is of more importance than less seasonal areas.

2. Selecting the Bonsai Plant
  • Eliminate the completely unsuitable.  You should immediately eliminate unhealthy or diseased plants.  Anything that shows signs of insect infestation should be left alone. If the soil in the pot is too wet or too dry, the chances are that the specimen will not be too healthy. Ensure that if it is in leaf, that the leaves are bright and not speckled or dry around the margins. Bark should be smooth and not wrinkled. Check for the presence of moss which would suggest that the tree has become established in its container and is a desirable feature. Check for the presence of a drainage hole underneath the container, but do not worry if there is some fungal growth here since this is normal.
  • Observe the structure of the plant.  If there are any serious structural defects, decide whether they can be concealed.  If not, the plant may not be worth using.
  • Look for favourable attributes.  For example, does the plant show a pronounced 'tree-like' shape, a pleasing curve, etc?  Are the branches growing in an aesthetically pleasing manner?  Are the branches arranged around the plant evenly?
  • Are the larger branches on the bottom of the plant and the smaller branches toward the top?  When looking at branches, remember that the location of branches on a trunk is actually set.  Widely spaced branches cannot be made to come closer together.  It is better to select a plant with many smaller branches that can be pruned.  Leaves and soft foliage are not important structurally, as they will grow around the structural elements of the bonsai.  These are the renewable parts of the plant: the trunk and branches are the important structural attributes.
  • Generally speaking, trees with smaller leaves or needles work best. Whilst the leaves of many deciduous trees can be reduced in scale those of longer needled conifers are more challenging, the exception being Japanese black pine (Pinus thunbergii). The leaves of deciduous trees with larger leaves can be successfully miniaturised if they are not re-potted too frequently and if some or all of the leaves are trimmed off.
  • If choosing flowering or fruiting trees, consideration should be given to the size of the fruit and flowers. For instance, normal apple tree fruits would look out of scale whereas crab apples look in scale. Once again those with small fruits and flowers are more well suited e.g. cotoneaster and pyracantha.

Learn more about Bonsai

Bonsai is an ancient art and a hobby that anyone can try. It's is great if perhaps you have limited space, or are not able to work in a garden, or have the time and desire to create something special.

There is much to learn about the history and the processes involved with producing bonsai. We offer a 100 hour course suitable for those looking to learn more about there hobby, or if you are looking to set up your own business or expand your existing business into selling bonsai. The link for the course, and some others which may be of interest,can be found at the bottom of this page.

The course is studied by distance learning and includes practical exercises for the student to undertake whilst they study. This means that you can apply your learning through the course, with the practical elements providing you will the opportunity to develop your skills.

The course has been developed and is tutored by highly experienced specialists. Throughout the course you have access to a tutor, who will also mark your assignments and provide feedback on your work. The course is available to start at any time.

If you are interested in learning about the art of bonsai, or a looking to further develop your skills and knowledge of plants, why not get in touch with our highly knowledgeable horticulture tutors today? They have a wealth of knowledge and will be happy to help you in choosing a course to suit your aims.

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