Bonsai plants

"A method of pruning and shaping to create an illusion of a very old tree in miniature"


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Bonsai does not refer to a type of plant, but rather describes a method of pruning and shaping to create an illusion of a very old tree in miniature. It is placed in a small pot which further restricts root growth and therefore plant size. A bonsai can be created from any plant which develops a woody trunk and tolerates pruning well. Bonsai can be created from tropical plants, perennials with woody stems, deciduous shrubs and evergreens. There are several forms, such as formal upright, cascade, forest and windswept.


The easiest bonsai to care for, if you are a beginner, is a tropical plant. A weeping fig, for example, grows well in our homes, so will continue to do so after it is pruned and repotted. Also suitable are boxwood (Buxus), Fukien Tea (Carmona), myrtle (Myrtus), Natal plum (Carissa) and Tree of a Thousand Stars (Serissa).


Deciduous shrubs and woody perennials need a cold, dormant period in the winter, just as if they were growing outdoors. Plants such as white or paper birch (Betula), crabapple (Malus), Siberian elm (Ulmus), Cotoneaster, and pygmy caragana form attractive bonsai. During the winter they need to be kept in a cold but frost-free place and need little light after they have lost their leaves. Close to but not touching a cold window in a cool room is suitable. A garage heated to just above freezing, or a root cellar, may be appropriate, or the plant may be buried in the ground to just above the pot rim and mulched well over winter. They can't be kept outdoors in a pot above the ground during the winter, as the soil temperature fluctuates dramatically during our weather changes.


Evergreens are the most challenging. Because they need high humidity in the winter and a temperature just above freezing, they cannot be grown successfully in the living room! They will tolerate a windowsill if kept close enough to the glass to be quite cool, as long as the needles don't touch the glass if it is very cold outside. Keep warm air away from the plant and be sure there is no hot air register under it. A tray larger than the pot, filled with water and topped with 'egg crate' (used on fluorescent lights) or strong metal screening will increase humidity. Set the pot on the screen and water will evaporate around it. An alternative is to sit the pot on a tray filled with pebbles and keep water to just below the top of the pebbles so that water cannot get into the pot through the drainage hole. Pine, juniper, and spruce can be used successfuly if the winter requirements can be met. Larch lose their needles in the winter, so must be kept cold and moist but do not need light when they have no needles.


The amount of light a bonsai needs depends on the type of plant. Tropicals have the same requirements as a bonsai that they do under normal conditions. Figs, for example, need medium sunlight, while azaleas require bright filtered light and citrus needs bright direct sunlight. Deciduous trees need no light when they have lost their leaves in winter, and a bright, sunny spot when in leaf. When evergreens are cold in the winter, they are semi-dormant, so need little light, but need bright light when warm enough to grow. Many bonsai are grown under fluorescent lights, usually one warm white and one cool white bulb. The lights must be quite close to the plants and the length of day depends on the type of plant. One that needs winter dormancy needs a short day in the winter and a long one in the summer, but a tropical coming from the equator prefers a twelve hour day all year round.


Because bonsai are in small pots in relation to their root size, watering is critical. Soil mixtures should encourage good drainage, and will vary depending on the type of plant. Inserting a finger into the soil will tell you if the soil is damp or dry enough to need water. No bonsai soil surface should be covered with any material that prevents water from evaporating from the surface and oxygen from entering the soil, or does not allow you to feel the soil. In hot weather, most bonsai will need checking for water daily, as once a plant's roots become too dry, they may not be able to absorb water and the plant may die. After many years of care, that can be devastating! Bonsai do not need a lot of fertilizer, as rapid growth is not appropriate. The type of fertilizer used depends on the type of plant, but is generally a balanced one, such as 20-30-20, for deciduous plants, and 30-10-10 for evergreens. Use half the recommended strength, and do not fertilize in the winter unless the bonsai is a tropical being grown under fluorescent lights.


There are a few specific rules, but much is learned by experience and visualizing what image is desired. If the plant evokes a feeling of age and strength, or long time survival under less than ideal conditions, it represents reality in miniature. That is bonsai.

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