Are you a patient gardener who is willing to wait a while to see the results of your horticultural labors? Maybe you’re looking for that perfect holiday gift for a favorite gardener who likes long-term projects. Are you short on space but big on creativity, and are you somewhat artistic? Are you looking for a weekend project that might take hundreds of years to complete? Could you possibly make it to Brooklyn some time to see some great examples?
If the answer is “yes” to any or all of these questions, then you too can become involved in the slowest growing but very popular gardening trend: the Japanese botanical art of bonsai. And as you traverse the malls at this holiday season, you are sure to see shops and stalls set up to sell what I’ll call pseudo-bonsai or quick bonsai. There is even a nationwide chain of stores that sells nothing but these horticultural miniatures.
By the Japanese definition, bonsai is a tree or other plant that grows while confined to a pot. There is more to the definition than that, however, for not every potted plant or even tree in a pot is a bonsai. To be a true bonsai, the tree-soil-pot combination must duplicate the beauty of nature in miniature so that a viewer can imagine a distant scene as it would exist in nature — mature trees, wide landscape and beautiful sky.
This being said, I hope that your reaction is the same as mine when you walk into the big Orange Box and see very cheap imitations going for around 15 bucks. This trash is not bonsai. What is being sold here are some inexpensive, young plants that are thrown into some even less expensive shallow pots. Because the whole setup is on a miniature scale, they call it bonsai. Unfortunately, these particular plants grow very rapidly and die in a matter of months in their straitjackets.
There is much that is unique about this horticultural art form. Bonsai, in addition to being multidimensional, also show continual, though often minute, changes. They show the passage of time through growth and seasonal changes. They show motion as leaves move in rhythm with the slightest breeze, and they show changing colors from the bold ones of flowering time to the muted ones of fall.
Obviously, it takes something special to make bonsai. To compose a realistic bonsai with what appears to be mature trees, you have to select plants that have small leaves or needles, short distances between leaves, attractive bark, and branches that allow shaping and forming. Keep in mind that although you have usually seen bonsai displayed indoors, they are not houseplants (at least not in traditional bonsai). They are meant to be kept, cared for and grown outdoors as they are cold hardy and need natural dormant periods.
The second most important consideration after bonsai tree selection is container selection, because the containers must enhance and not dominate the plants. Select simple shapes in earthy colors. Mud greens and browns, grays and occasionally cream white are considered ideal, though blue is now popular also. If your plan is to have flowers or fruit, you may want to set it off with deep blue or a very deep red container. Though you may choose containers of various materials, bonsai containers are traditionally pottery, either glazed or unglazed outside, with small drainage holes. Be certain the pot blends well with the entire picture so that you can create truly natural scenes.
With pot and plant in hand, you should now decide on the shape or style for your bonsai. Just before deciding on the shape, take a good look at your tree. Check its natural form. See how a mature tree of the same type actually grows in nature and try to duplicate it with one of the five basic bonsai styles.
The formal upright style is the easiest for a beginner to grow. It features a straight trunk and horizontal branches. The bottommost branch is lower and extends further from the trunk than the branch on the opposite side. There is usually little pruning necessary for this style and, frequently, if your tree selection has been good, you can have an instantly displayable bonsai. Position the tree about one-third off-center in an oval or rectangular container to give it extra appeal.
The informal upright style is almost the same as the formal except that the trunk bends slightly to the front. This slight bend gives the tree a look of motion and informality. Many nursery trees are naturally slanted. If you can find one you like, and if its size is appropriate, nature has done part of the styling job for you. Informal upright bonsai should be potted about one-third off-center in an oval or rectangular pot.
In the slanting style, the trunk slants to the side at quite an angle to the tree’s imaginary vertical axis. Lower branches are arranged in three-unit groups and start about one-third of the way up the trunk. The lowest branch should spread in the opposite direction to the slant of the tree and the tree’s top must bend slightly to the front. Plant these trees in the center of a round or a square container.
The cascade style features a trunk that starts growing upward toward the sky, then abruptly turns downward until it reaches a point below the bottom edge of the pot. It is supposed to look like a tree growing down the face of a cliff, so place the pot (round or hexagonal) on a table edge or small stand. Because slanting bonsai are difficult to train, give yourself some help by selecting low-growing plants instead of trying to force an upright grower into a very unnatural form.
In addition to proper tree selection, there are three basic operations that will enable you to get your bonsai into the shape and style you want: pruning, pinching and wiring.
Though the initial pruning is heavy (in some cases downright drastic) it is not complete. Do this first pruning in stages: one third immediately, then wait a month for the next third and another month or two for the final pruning. Spread out all branches and check the trunk — it establishes the final form of the tree. Cut out all dead, crossing and weak branches until you achieve the general form selected. “Open up” your tree by careful pruning. Make all pruning cuts above buds, side branches or main forks of trees and see that they are flush with the trunk or stem. Cut back new growth, but don’t remove all of it. Prune carefully and don’t weaken the tree unnecessarily.
Pinching is done all the time, not only to shape the plants, but to help develop lush foliage. When new growth appears, pinch off some of it with your fingers and nails. Pinch or twist, but do not cut or pull.
Use copper wire to bend and shape your tree. Start at the bottom and work up. Wire evergreens only when they are dormant and deciduous trees only during their growing season. Anchor one end of the wire to the base of the tree before winding. Wire from the trunk to the main branch. Protect the bark with pads under the wire and don’t wire too tightly. Keep turns about one-quarter inch apart and moving upward at a 45-degree angle. Bend and shape the plant carefully by hand after wiring and leave the wire on the tree no more than a year.
Well, that’s about as simple as I can explain it. But remember that true bonsai masters train for dozens of years and some of the most magnificent bonsai can be 250 to 500 years old — and older. And if you’re considering buying a true bonsai for a holiday gift, remember that real bonsai isn’t inexpensive and inexpensive bonsai is little more than a hoax. There are also special tools for this art, and they too make great gifts.
If you are really interested in learning more about this revived art, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden has a magnificent collection. You can also join the Long Island Bonsai Society and check out the society’s auction in December (longislandbonsai.org). Try to find the book “Bonsai with American Trees” by Kawasumi and Murata. This book was first published in 1976 and featured at a BBG Bonsai festival attended by thousands in spite of a major snowstorm that year. The American Bonsai Society has a wonderful website that will open many more doors for you as well (absbonsai.org). And even if you do it small and slow, keep growing.
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