Begin with Bonsai

Ron Kushner, for the Shuttle

Bonsai has a beginning, but no end. A bud today becomes a branch tomorrow. The farther it is pursued, the farther away it is.

 — Bonsai grower Chase Rosade 

Bonsai,” literally translated from Japanese, means simply “plant in a pot.” The Japanese get most credit for bonsai development, but the actual history is far more international and contradictory. 

A plant has only the requirement to be woody to qualify as a subject for bonsai in the Japanese tradition. Leaf size is important. Leaf size can be reduced by proper pruning but only to a point. The original “scale” of the leaf must not be too large.

In judging a good bonsai, one’s eye moves up the tree in a fluid-like manner with no distractions, from the bottom of the pot, to the roots, to the trunk and up the trunk to the canopy. The trick is to make the bonsai look old and mature as soon as possible. The sculptural “movement” of the trunk is also vital. The trunk is the most important “beginning” point of bonsai.

Bonsai picks up the character of a real tree and captures the spirit of nature, whether mountainside, seashore or anywhere else. Bonsai is more than simply a little tree; it actually creates an entire environment.

Bonsai goes through seasonal changes, just like the leaves, buds, fruits and color of trees in nature. In 40 to 50 years, a bonsai develops just like a “large” tree in nature. The crown gets rounder, the branches tend to droop and the trunk gets thicker.

Bonsai has a front, a back and two sides. Make sure the “front” is determined prior to potting.

It is a misconception that bonsai are “tortured.” The opposite is actually true, where the plant is very natural and its systems extremely efficient.

Soil should be very fast-draining, , at best, pebbles with no organic matter. An organic mix could be created, but it must drain quickly. The faster draining the soil, the more fibrous roots are created (and bonsai needs fibrous roots due to their efficiency in taking up nutrients.

A bonsai’s root mass must be anchored to the bottom of its pot with wire to keep the tree stable. The mass of fibrous roots in fast draining soil is a sponge-like machine for the plant to take up nutrients efficiently. If there are lots of roots, there will be lots of leaves.

Too much attention is usually the cause of death of a bonsai. Water only when needed — on the dry side of moist, not bone-dry but not too wet. Moisture can be checked with a piece of chopstick inserted into soil, much like an oil dipstick. Always water from above. Do not “dunk” pot into a sink full of water. Water leaves also to wash off dust and insects. Homes are on the dry side. Misting daily is OK (or place pot on top of a humidity tray of moist pebbles).

The more light the plant gets, the better.

Liquid fertilizer (balanced) is best for bonsai — do not use slow-release sticks, balls, etc. Also do not use compost tea should not be used; it is not good to have more microscopic bacteria feeding on the soil).

Bonsai should be accented with a “human, ballet-like form” with foliage at various spots. Keep branches horizontal or slightly downward, always taking off new ones growing directly up or down. Provide plenty of “clip-and-grow ” attention for proper training, with lots of directional pruning. Cut back horizontal branches to healthy, green leaves. Once any branch grows to five new leaves, cut it back to two. Use special branch pruners designed for bonsai. The tree will “slow down” in winter with little pruning necessary as leaves won’t develop so fast.

There is no such thing as “instant” bonsai!

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