Adventures in Bonsai

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
Adventures in Bonsai

As winter days become shorter and shorter, I find myself looking for different ways to bring my garden indoors.

Recently, I was strolling through a local garden nursery, and I was struck by how beautiful their bonsai collection was.

Later, that same day, while sewing Boy Scout patches onto my son’s uniform, I used my Fiskars Micro-Tip scissors to snip the thread. Since I’m not a true fan of sewing other than hand work, I envisioned using these along with the Softouch® Micro-Tip® Pruning snips to train a small tree for bonsai. I held onto this pleasant thought as I persevered around yet another patch.

You can purchase already trained plants, but I’m always looking to expand my gardening knowledge so I bought a small elm to attempt some techniques. The art of bonsai is an ancient one practiced as a Zen Buddhist meditation. Bonsai refers to any plant grown in a container to resemble a miniaturized mature specimen.

It takes years to learn this gentle art, but as I read and incorporated a few simple techniques, I can now give you a gentle push to start. For this project, I’m assuming your bonsai is going to be an indoor specimen (although in warmer climates most bonsai gardens are outdoors). When choosing a plant, you can start with a stem cutting, or a root cutting, but if you are an amateur, it is probably easier to grow a rooted immature plant. Bonsai aren’t necessarily dwarf plants. They are kept in check by pruning and shaping. According to Indoor Bonsai for Beginners, by Werner M. Busch, the easiest plants to train for indoors are “…the different type of fig trees (Ficus) . . . the myrtle (Myrtus communis) and the Chinese podocarpus (Podocarpus macrophyllus).”

My container was nearly square so I placed my plant in the center. If your container is a rectangle, place the plant asymmetrically within the space. This is done because both are more visually pleasing, but also in Zen Buddhist thought, your plant represents heaven and earth coming together in the container with the center being where heaven and earth meet. Much of Japanese garden design and flower arrangement incorporates the principle of the triangle, and bonsai is no exception. The three points of the triangle represent heaven, earth and humanity, and while I worked on my bonsai, I thought of each. The shape of the bonsai tree should incorporate the triangle principle, and your triangle can be vertical or horizontal. You can further train your plant in a cascade form as though growing out of a rock formation.

Before-pruning

My little tree was badly root bound when I removed it from its plastic pot so I spent a lot of time loosening the roots and shaking off the soil. Then, I took my Softouch® Micro-Tip® Pruning snips and gently pruned away about two-thirds of the downward growing roots. It was difficult to do this, but being a longtime gardener, I know it encourages the tree to grow new roots. I kept most of the lateral roots intact for the tree’s stability and health. You can see the before and after pictures above.

The type of soil used in bonsai is crucial. To keep things simple, you want soil which is fast draining and contains loose coarse particles like lava and fired clay. Like specialized bonsai tools, fired clay particles can be obtained online. However, since I have a Labrador puppy, I have plenty of broken clay pots. To be frugal, I put on safety glasses and took my hammer to the clay shards and created my own gravel which I placed in the bottom of the container. I then mixed sand with regular potting soil. Moss or gravel can be placed on top of the soil as mulch. After planting, experts don’t agree on the best way to water. Some believe you shouldn’t water from above as it compacts the soil and runs off the edge of the container before penetrating the roots. These experts suggest immersing the container in a pan of water for a moment or two. Others think watering from above is fine. Either way, the water should be of the best quality (with rain water being unsurpassed) because salt and chlorine build up in soil. If you must use tap water, let it sit for a day or two before you plant. Also, remember bonsai will need additional feeding due to frequent watering.

After-root-pruning

I used the Fiskars Micro-Tip® scissors to prune my tree into a triangular shape in the formal upright style. As you can see, it will take it awhile to recover.
My little tree is now ensconced in my large bathroom window which faces east for plenty of sun. I plan to take it outdoors placing it in partial shade once spring comes, but for now, I’ll enjoy it every morning as I get ready for my day.

For further information on indoor bonsai techniques, see Indoor Bonsai for Beginners, by Werner M. Busch.