Bonsai first became popular in China and by the 6th century AD the popular art had spread to Japan. The Mandarin Chinese characters making up the word BONSAI are identical to those used in Kanji Japanese. On the left, the upper character is ‘bon’, meaning tray or low-sided pot; the lower character is ‘sai’, meaning a planting or plantings. Together they translate literally to ‘plantings in tray’, not to the mistakenly held belief of ‘tree in pot’. Japanese bonsai now has its own styles, conventions and terminology and the art is practiced throughout the world.
‘I had a bonsai once… it died!’ is probably the most common phrase you will hear when talking about bonsai. Let’s be honest, most people are introduced to the world of bonsai by either buying or receiving as a gift a small indoor specimen from a supermarket. These specimens are almost always of the indoor variety and are tropical or sub-tropical in habit, requiring near-natural environmental conditions to thrive. Unfortunately, modern houses with central-heating, dry atmosphere and low light levels are hardly conducive to healthty growth, so it is very common for these specimens to give up the ghost, sooner or later.
Isn’t bonsai training cruel to the tree? Training a tree to become a bonsai specimen is probably not as cruel as training a dog to do what you want it to do, rather than what the dog wants to do… and which gardener grows roses and other shrubs without pruning them heavily each year? Training a bonsai may be said to be akin to tree surgery on the minutest scale. If bonsai training was cruel the tree would not survive, and there are some specimens that have been growing in pots for many hundreds of years and have become family heirlooms.
Bonsai can become an absorbing and lifetime hobby and it is never too late to start; probably not as difficult as you may imagine and doesn’t require vast amounts of of money (although if you wish to acquire mature specimens these can be quite expensive). Successful bonsai culture is a hobby that needs constant attention and you cannot ignore things for weeks on end, or even days. A few minutes attention to your trees will be needed most days from spring to autumn. The majority of bonsai trees are outdoor in habit and should be brought inside only for displaying for a few days at a time. Mature bonsai trees need a little food and most general purpose liquid fertilizers can be used (tomato fertilizer, for instance) at a weaker than normal strength. Tree shape is enhanced and maintained by wiring and pinching out new growth.
When roots eventuall fill the pot, trees should be repotted, in the process trimming back the root mass by about a third.
John Innes No. 2, with extra sand or grit is ideal and is the time-honoured planting medium in most cases although ‘Acadama’ is a modern, specially developed bonsai-specific medium and now widely used.
Above all, bonsai must never be allowed to completely dry out, even if this means watering them twice a day in mid summer.
How do I start? A mature bonsai tree can be purchased from one of the many specialist nurseries but these can be expensive for beginners. There are a number of cheaper alternatives:
Seeds, self collected or purchased from a local garden centre. Normal tree seeds are used, since there is no such thing as bonsai seed.
Seedlings taken from your garden.
Cuttings taken from trees or shrubs in your own or a friend’s garden.
Garden centres contain a host of suitable material that in only a few years can yield acceptable bonsai specimens. This is termed as ‘raw material’.
The way to really learn about bonsai culture is by joining a club which meets regularly. There you can benefit from lectures and discussions, as well as advice from the more experienced club members.
How long does it take to grow a bonsai tree? It can take many years to produce a mature pine from seed but fortunately other species of trees take far less. Using mature trees or shrubs purchased from a garden centre, it is possible to produce an acceptable bonsai within three to four years. Miniature bonsai (mame), just a few inches high, can be developed in two or three years, e.g. Cotoneaster from seed; Cypress from cuttings, etc.