by Amanda Rose Newton
Ancient, attractive, and mysterious, both the tiny trees and the practice itself takes on a mystical quality that makes the art of bonsai seem out of reach for just anyone.
Once you get past the fear of downsizing a 20ft+ tree into a pot, these miniature versions are a rewarding and satisfying hobby for just about anyone.
You don’t need expensive equipment, space, or plenty of extra time to be a successful bonsai owner. By arming yourself with knowledge of the practice, the basic skills needed, and the plant’s needs, you will find bonsai to be an obtainable hobby.
With Christmas just around the corner, much of the focus in the horticulture world is on conifers, which while beautiful are not typically a tree an apartment dweller can enjoy post-holiday season.
We are also on the cusp of “resolution season” with the new year coming into focus. If your goals involve pursuing a new hobby or adding more greenery, consider taking a nod from the ancient Chinese and crossing both off your list.
Bringing the Landscape In
The practice of bonsai took on roots (pun intended) 2250 years ago. That is not a typo — 2250 years ago!
Paintings going back to pre-700 AD reflect bonsai, which is a Japanese word given to the practice later on that loosely translates to “planted into a container”. This is a very accurate picture of what the ancient Chinese were hoping to achieve, which was taking an exterior landscape and reproducing it for indoor enjoyment.
Not only would you get to enjoy the elements of nature indoors, but those elements were thought to become more potent the smaller the models became.
Those who wished to learn from nature could focus on these elements to eventually learn their secrets. For many of us, even in modern times, we can appreciate the healthy qualities of nature and can relate to how having this concentrated in small spaces can completely change the atmosphere and increase positivity.
If you have been reading the blog now for a while, you are probably not surprised to learn that the Chinese were the first to embrace the indoor plant, given the frequency flowers and greenery have held importance in both folklore and tradition.
Today, most of us are familiar with the Japanese style of bonsai which focuses on the elegance and style of a single tree instead of an entire landscape. The “grooming” that characteristically goes along with the practice, such as wire training and pruning, is credited to this time period as well.
Post-World War II saw bonsai popularity soar in Europe and the United States with the practice becoming especially popular for those without backyards and interested in developing skills that can turn into a life-long hobby.
Although the practice has been refined over time, it is still accessible to just about anyone who wants to learn. Below are some tips to get you started as well as suggestions for 5 of the easier choices for beginners.
Whether you want to grow your plant outdoors or bring it in, the same rules apply.
Choose the right tree.
Make sure to pick a variety that is meant for your climate and meets your care requirements.
Bonsais can be kept indoors or outdoors, with some doing better in one environment over the other. If you do not think you are going to remember to water your bonsai on the regular, you should choose something with lower water needs. Here are a few classics perfect for beginners (make sure you choose one labeled bonsai starter):
Ficus (Ficus Sp.) – Whether weeping or ginseng, ficus are a great choice for those needing an indoor-exclusive bonsai.
The leaves are beautiful, and the bark adds interest. All ficus have lower water requirements and perform the best in filtered light.
Jade (Portulacaria sp.) – With its succulent-like leaves and beautiful woody stems, this is another interesting choice for those in need of an indoor bonsai. Low water requirements are another attribute and they are easy to care for as long as they have direct light. They can be kept outdoors, pending the temperature range stays above freezing.
Chinese Elm (Ulmus parvifolia) – For those with outdoor space, you can’t go wrong with an elm. They hold that classic bonsai shape with little effort and are rather hardy.
Juniper (Juniperus sp.) – If evergreen is more your style, you can achieve that look with a Juniper.
A bit more finicky than the rest, it really needs to be kept outdoors for the best result. They are fairly susceptible to spider mites, so be sure to be scouting regularly.
Rosemary (Salvia Rosmarinus) – If you are nervous about your first bonsai experience, a rosemary shrub is a great place to start! It’s a great place to learn how to train and prune without the fear of overdoing it or losing an investment piece. As a bonus, each time you prune you have fresh herbs to add to meals!
Of course, there are numerous other starters available, including arboricola, fruiting trees like Barbados cherry and pomegranate, as well as flowering trees. If you are one of those who like to go all into a hobby, feel free to start with whichever strikes your interest!
Container and Substrate
Kits are available to help you get your bonsai situated in its new environment. Be sure to pick up a specialized bonsai pot, which will have a hole at the bottom for training wire. You can pull the wire through before applying the soil layer to help anchor your tree in place if you wish.
As far as media, be sure to choose something specific for bonsais your first time around. They like a specific mix that includes sand for drainage, rich soil to grow in, rocks for drainage, and occasionally moss or mulch chips for moisture retention. Repotting is usually needed once every 2 years.
This is where things get tricky! The short answer is there is a range and it is dependent on your space (humidity, temperature) and the type of tree you have. Remember bonsai trees live in tiny pots which means they will use the water quite fast. However, just like other potted plants, overwatering is the number one way to kill one.
Keep an eye on your plant leaves and a read on the soil moisture and water when needed, not on a schedule. Fertilizing needs to be done for the same reason, as nutrients in that confined space will be consumed rapidly. Be sure to use smaller than usual quantities as growth is not the goal.
Shaping and Styling your Bonsai
Pruning is the most essential portion of the bonsai beauty routine. It shapes the tree and is what keeps its delicate size intact. Remember, you are trying to achieve the look you would see on a full-size tree on a smaller scale, so keep that vision as you go.
The best time to prune is in the spring when the plant will naturally be growing. A pair of bonsai scissors is best to create a wound that will heal better than commercial scissors.
Wiring is the second part; it can be done year-round and needs to be removed before it digs into the tree limbs. This trains the limbs into a windswept look or a more upright look depending on what you are trying to mimic. There are a variety of styles, with many specific to individual tree species.
Be sure to research your particular species for best looks, and the difference between pruning for maintenance and pruning for style.