Bonsai for Beginners:
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. these plants evolved into miniature copies of actual landscapes. These became popular, and single trees such as maples, cypress, pines, and bamboo began being grown in pots. Bonsai were introduced to the Japanese Imperial Court in the eighth century by Buddhist monks. In the 1800's they were exported to the Western world.
Bonsai is a way of growing a miniature tree in a pot, shaped and pruned to resemble a very old tree. There are various style of bonsai that each express the character of the featured plant. They might be represented by juniper, English ivy, cotoneaster or several other varieties. Several smaller trees of the same species in a shallow container can represent a forest, or small pebbles and pieces of driftwood create the feeling of a forest floor. The possibilities are endless.
Bonsai pots are generally shallow and the length is approximately the height of the plant for perspective. 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. Individual branches require their own space; crossing branches and those too close together should be eliminated. A front is selected for the tree, and no branch should grow directly toward the viewer. Bonsai are not generally transplanted into larger pots, but their roots are 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, as they do well in 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 it so fascinating.