© 2011, 2013, 2014 by Raymond Alexander Kukkee
You, Too, Can grow Bonsai
The art of growing bonsai, or growing ‘trees in pots’ is often thought to be an impossible, mysterious horticultural method, with bonsai grown and maintained successfully only by dedicated individuals from strange Eastern lands, surrounded with rising fog and exotic, craggy volcanic landscapes. Ancient Asian cultures are the source of this unique and beautiful process.
There is little doubt the art of how to grow bonsai originated in Asia, since spectacular individual bonsai specimens have been documented as being centuries old, and have been passed from one generation to the next for perhaps thousands of years. Specimens five hundred years or longer in both China and Japan are quite common, are recorded and still growing. The art of bonsai was first practiced many centuries before North Americans even discovered the enchanting beauty of the diminutive trees —or the secret knowledge and fascinating methods used to grow superb bonsai specimens successfully—both large and tiny.
Bonsai -The Art
The culture of bonsai in China and Japan is ancient, going back centuries. In the Eastern tradition, as with any tradition, has become highly disciplined as an art. Bonsai are trained to meet exacting rules for specific styles, classified for sizes, and types.
Training of bonsai is brilliantly achieved by root reduction, grafting, pruning, clipping, trimming and wiring a tree not only for a reduction in size and adaptation to grow in a pot, but also to conform to the desired image. There are many bonsai ‘styles’ as illustrated by this handy chart.
Can You Learn to Grow Bonsai?
How does the ‘ordinary’ gardener ‘grow’ bonsai? With the mystery removed, the every-day gardener wishing to learn more about bonsai first learns how to keep a tree alive in a pot or other confined growing space, much like a potted houseplant. Anyone interested enough can learn to grow respectable bonsai. No, it may not look like a spectacular 500-year-old Japanese specimen–but it will be ‘bonsai’ nevertheless. Given a few years using learned skills and applied techniques, you can grow presentable bonsai within a few years.
A simple start can be made by obtaining a tree seedling, a small natural sapling or even growing a young tree from seed. Any suitable species may be used for bonsai, although some species like elm, pines, spruce, lilac, birch, willow, junipers, cedars and some fruit trees adapt more easily than others. Bushes like black currant, grape, Hascap (honeyberry) and others are also adaptable to bonsai. Note that if you use apple, pear or other fruit trees as bonsai, the flowers and fruit will be full-size—which is always amazing.
The tree of your choice is then carefully introduced to life within the confined soil and limited growth potential of a pot by removing the main tap root, excessively long or large root structures. Preserve the tiny rootlets as much as possible, and plant it in a training pot in a free-draining medium.
If choosing young saplings that are too tall for bonsai, they can be carefully cut off at an angle at the required height, which will encourage them to sprout new branches to form the new tree—leaving a larger trunk which is desirable. Thoughtful cutting of the trunk and carving to remove excess wood, and replacing the main leader with a small branch wired vertically will quickly encourage the formation of an replacement leader, new branches and top growth —and after a year or two of growth, the tree can be dug up and adapted to the pot. Alternatively it can be dug up, the large tap root removed, smaller roots trimmed, and moved into a dedicated training bed for further growth and systematic root trimming for a couple of years prior to planting in a pot.
In the advanced art, following proven methods to ‘design’ the tree to conform to specific rules, design criteria and to meet specified characteristics is deemed desirable,— even mandatory if one chooses to display bonsai in competitions. For the beginner, however, perhaps it doesn’t hurt to ignore detailed rules for a while until essential and important basic tree-growing techniques are learned.
Bonsai material is Available Everywhere.
The fact is, in it’s simplest and most natural form, to create bonsai, one may find suitable bonsai material in the back yard, in the nearest forest, or even growing in a ditch or along road right-of-ways. Propagate a tree from semi-hardened twig cuttings from indigenous species, adapt commonly-available young nursery stock, or carefully collect suitable and easily-moved young saplings or naturally-developed specimens from the wild.
Grow Bonsai from Seed
The extra-patient bonsai aficionado may choose to sprout tree seedlings from common tree seeds to enable him more control in shaping a new, young tree as early as possible. “Bonsai seeds” however, is a misnomer. Often a ploy to help promote sales of expensive ‘bonsai kits’. there is nothing special about ‘bonsai seeds’. In real life, bonsai are real trees that certainly may have been grown directly from commonly-available tree seeds. Some species are also undoubtedly more suitable for bonsai specimens than other varieties, therefore are more likely to be included in bonsai ‘kits’ but remain incorrectly called ‘bonsai seeds’. They are tree seeds. Seeds of some tree species will naturally take longer to sprout than other species.
Do You have the Required Skills to Grow Bonsai?
Most dedicated gardeners and homeowners with green thumbs and adequate patience are already quite capable of propagating, raising, maintaining and pruning a tree with adequate skill, dedication and care, Why? The requirements for healthy growth of garden, houseplants and trees alike are universal; nutrients, care, weeding, warmth, and light, air and water in the soil. For trees, a suitable, free-draining growing medium including coarse sand or grit avoids soil compaction; a suitable container may be as simple as a wooden box or unglazed clay pot.
Propagation by Ground Pinning
More exotic methods include ground pinning and air layering, two methods of encouraging the development of roots on a twig or branch that remains attached to the parent tree until an adequate root system is developed.
A ‘whippy’ or flexible branch close enough to the ground may be ‘bent’ ( a partial break) or slightly damaged by removing some bark. Subsequently ‘pinning’ the damaged area to ensure direct contact with damp soil and held immobile, rootlets will usually develop at the site of the ‘break’ or damage. Rooting powder may be dusted on the damaged area prior to burying it to encourage faster root development.
When the root system is inspected after a few months and if found to be sufficiently formed, the ‘new tree’ may be cut from the parent plant and planted in a suitable pot. This method is also excellent for propagating fruiting bushes such as gooseberry, currant, and honeyberry.
A second method called ‘air layering, which is to remove a narrow band of bark right to the wood on a suitably sized and appropriately-shaped branch of a chosen tree, and wrap a ‘ball ‘ of damp peat moss around the damaged area in clear plastic.
Fasten it securely, sealing the plastic with tape so it is airtight both above and below the damaged bark. Kept damp and closed tightly to prevent drying out, in most instances and with time and patience, roots will develop and become visible through the plastic. Again, rooting hormone powder can be dusted on the damaged area prior to wrapping with the ball of peat moss to encourage faster root development. While the new ‘tree’ is still attached, creative pruning of the proposed tree may also help stimulate the growth of the required roots.
The new ‘tree’ is then similarly lopped or sawed off and separated from the parent tree. It may be top-pruned if desired, and placed in a suitably-sized training pot and cared for until it establishes a strong, healthy root system. When growth is stabilized, the new ‘tree’ is placed in an appropriate pot, treated as any new bonsai, and carefully pinched and pruned in stages as required, until the desired style and shape is achieved.
How to grow Bonsai by Grafting
Bonsai may also be produced by using various grafting methods, such as side grafting, root grafting, or by using a cleft graft. A choice scion of a sensitive or difficult-to-propagate but compatible species may be grafted to a suitable, perhaps more hardy tree or to a root stock which will achieve specific growth habits, or only to a predetermined, limited size.
For bonsai, the objective is to achieve a beautiful and natural, tapered trunk and overall appearance of a natural tree, so any grafts should be carefully executed and thoughtfully located as close to the soil level as possible. The tree is then optimized as it develops for the most attractive outcome.
Regardless of propagation method you chose, if you are a gardener, homeowner, or are simply looking for a new , fascinating hobby, if you can keep a houseplant alive for several years successfully, you can also propagate and grow bonsai—those beautiful and enchanting little trees in pots.
Is that Incoming I hear?