Bonsai For Beginners: Tips On Care, Pottery And History

The oriental art of bonsai can be learned by anyone with time and patience.

The art of bonsai began in China around 200 A.D., eventually migrating to Japan through Buddhist monks. It is a specialized gardening craft in which plants are trained to grow into miniature versions of mature trees. Bonsais are grown from evergreens and deciduous species using pruning, wiring, and occasional repotting to encourage a naturally occurring shape. While it can take a lifetime to master the finer details of producing these tiny specimens, a novice can easily learn the basic principles. All that is required to grow your own bonsai is time, delicacy, and patience.

Although there are several ways to grow a bonsai, the easiest method for beginners is to start with nursery stock. Hardy evergreen shrubs and deciduous saplings like maples and cherry trees are well suited to training. Choose a healthy plant with plenty of foliage and a sturdy trunk. Your specimen should also have a natural form that will lend itself well to your desired result. You should have a clear goal of what you want the finished bonsai to look like, whether it will be symmetrical, windswept, or cascading. Stock that varies too greatly from this goal will be too challenging to train, so be careful in making your choice. Once you have your plant home, remove it from the pot and shake half of the soil from the roots.

Pruning and Potting

Since your bonsai will live in a small container, it is important that the roots be trimmed, but not so much that the tree is damaged. Begin by using pruning shears (or sharp scissors) to cut off a third of brown roots that were crowded around the edge of the pot. Remove an equal amount of the long roots trailing down from the root ball, taking care not to snip off too many fine feeder roots. This trimming will allow feeders to branch out, thus supplying the tree with nutrients more effectively. At this time, you can also prune the tree's branches to resemble your desired bonsai form. Although following a picture will help you make cuts, a good formula to use involves mentally dividing the tree into three sections. The bottom section should serve as the tree trunk and should be free of branches. The middle section should have a few branches reaching in various directions, while the top portion should have several branches and a defined pinnacle.



Once you have achieved a rough form, you can pot the tree. Novices can use a basic potting soil, but bonsai dirt is a better alternative because it has better drainage and fewer nutrients. To make your own, blend together two parts each of granite grit and peat moss along with one part of loam. Spread a shallow coating of soil in the base of your planter, making sure that it has drainage holes. Rest your plant on top of this dirt and pour in the rest of the soil. Gently tap the pot to help the dirt settle and check to see that your roots are covered. At this point, you should give the bonsai a thorough watering. If you wish, you can also add decorative features like stones, rocks, and pieces of wood.

Shaping and Maintenance

Now that you have completed the preliminary steps of creating a bonsai, you need start training it. Aluminum wire is used to gently guide the branches and trunk in a different direction, with different gauges being used for different sizes of plant matter. To apply wire, loosely wrap it around the desired bit of tree. Once it is in place, gently bend the plant into the desired form. It is important that you watch the wire closely as your tree grows so that it does not scar the bark. Also, do not attempt to bend pieces that are hard or woody, as you could break them. Once the tree has been trained into its new form, remove the wire. It is also important to control the growth of foliage on your bonsai. Experts recommend different methods of pruning depending on which type of tree you are growing. If it is an evergreen, pinch off excess growth between groups of foliage. If your tree is deciduous, use pruning shears to snip off bits of leaves and unruly branches. This will encourage thicker growth and smaller foliage over the life of the bonsai.

Careful year-round maintenance is vital for the health of your bonsai. Remember to water it every two to three days in the summer if rain is inadequate. Keep in mind that your tree will die if it is indoors more than a few days a month, since it has the same need for sunlight and circulation as a wild tree. Fertilize it with a mix low in nitrogen during its dormant season (early spring to late summer), followed by a nitrogen-free feeding in the winter. Every couple of years, your bonsai will need to be relocated in a new pot. In order to judge when it is time, pay attention to the soil conditions. If it does not absorb quickly at watering time or if the roots look pot-bound, you need to prune the roots and repot your bonsai. Be attentive to its condition through the seasons, changing its location outdoors to protect it from extremes. It is also advisable to read the various bonsai books available for specific information on how to care for your tree species.

With proper care, you can expect your bonsai to live even longer than a tree in nature. As the seasons change, you can enjoy the growth of pinecones, flowers, changing leaves, and all the other transformations a full-sized mature tree would experience. Once you have had success with your first bonsai, you can create a nursery of miniature botanical beauties in every species and style imaginable.

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