Page 158 - 2017-greengate-Gardensense-magazine
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Bonsai literally means "plant grown in a pot".
The ancient Chinese grew plants in containers for religious, medicinal and decorative use. By 600 A.D., miniature copies of actual landscapes became popular, and single trees such as maples, cypress, pines, and bamboo were being grown in pots. At this time, Buddhism was introduced in Japan, and the Chinese monks brought bonsai with them as well as their religion. They were introduced to the Japanese Imperial Court in the eighth century. At first, they were often natural shapes, later they were shaped and pruned in the way of modern bonsai. By the mid 1800’s, they were being exported to the Western world, and in 1873, declared to be Japan’s national art.
Today, they are a way of keeping a miniature tree in a pot, shaped and pruned to resemble a very old, native tree. We, too, appreciate the various styles that indicate their character. A formal upright might remind us of a stately oak or spruce tree, and an informal upright has curves in the trunk but still retains its vertical appearance. Windswept style would have many examples in our country! Cascade bonsai are seen as dwarfed trees on a hillside, cliff or shore, where the branches grow downward to escape harsh weather. They might be represented by juniper, English ivy or cotoneaster. Several smaller trees of the same species in a shallow container could be a forest, with the taller trees at the front and smaller ones at the back to give a feeling of depth. Small pebbles and pieces of driftwood enhance the feeling of a forest floor. Small birch seedlings or weeping fig are possible choices to try.
Bonsai pots are generally shallow and the length is approximately the height of the plant. The tree is often planted in one of the outer thirds, and a longer, lower branch extends toward the unplanted two-thirds. Cascade bonsai are planted in deep, narrow pots so descending branches are above the base. Colour is personal taste, but most often flat finish, neutral colours are used for evergreens and flat or shiny ones, sometimes in brighter colours, are used for deciduous and flowering plants. Be sure that the pot isn’t more obvious than the plant is.
Pruning is done to create an image of an old tree, and to keep it the size we want it to be. Plants lose
their oldest needles and leaves in the center and at the bottom, as they grow older, so removing these indicates age. Each branch must have a space to be in; crossing branches and those too close together are eliminated. A front is selected for the tree, and no branch should grow directly toward the viewer. Bonsai are not normally moved to larger pots, but root pruned to eliminate older, thick roots and allow smaller roots that absorb moisture room to grow. Remember that if we remove a third of the branches, we should remove a third of the roots - they need to be in balance. Surface roots indicate age as well, so the roots are often planted so they can be seen.
Any plant that has a trunk and branches that can be pruned can be used to make bonsai. Tropical plants are the easiest to grow in our area, as they do well in our homes over the winter. An azalea is an excellent one to try, as it tolerates pruning well and develops a woody trunk quickly.
Others such as weeping fig, fuchsia, ivy and bougainvillea, are worth trying. Deciduous outdoor trees as shrubs, such as elm, apple, birch, spirea, and potentilla, lose their leaves in the fall, so need a cool place for the winter but don’t need light when they don’t have leaves. They can do well in a cool basement or on a windowsill close to, but not touching, a cool window. Evergreens are much more difficult to keep over the winter! They need to be cold but above freezing, and as high humidity as possible. A garage or greenhouse heated to just above freezing works well but isn’t easy to come by.
A bonsai should remind you of an old tree in a garden, forest or on the side of a mountain. Enjoy it and appreciate the culture that developed it, but be open to new ideas as well. The Japanese use Japanese cherry trees and maples because that is what grows there. Nanking cherries and Amur maples make wonderful bonsai and are freely available in our area. Enjoy the discovery and the journey as well as the destination, as it will never be ‘finished’. That is what makes Bonsai so fascinating.
NOTE: Go to our website if you would like to know more about Bonsai

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