I became obsessed with bonsai while I was in college, growing tortured shrubs in cheap square pots in the yard. When I lived in Taiwan the obsession grew, but I was frustrated trying to grow the beautiful specimens I saw at the weekend flower markets. I never thought to use a grow light in our tiny apartment, and there wasn’t enough natural light for the kinds of trees I tried to grow. Those that survived the light conditions inevitably lost the battle to dehydration when they were abandoned for vacations.
Even when lighting is not a problem, Bonsai are challenging to keep. While trees can be grown out in any container, at some point the leap must be made to a bonsai dish. The thicker the trunk and the smaller the container, the more dramatic the effect of a tiny tree, rather than a small shrub. To achieve a realistic shape the tree must be aggressively pruned and wired. For the over enthusiastic beginner hobbyist the temptation to overdo it can be powerful. Furthermore, the reduced root area in the small pot can quickly overheat and dry out, making almost daily care necessary during the hottest months.
Bonsai require patience, consistency, and dedication. There are moments of great anxiety and excitement, such as during wiring or repotting, months of tedious care, and years of waiting while trees are allowed to rest and grow out. A bonsai is a greater commitment than the average plant, and it is more personal as well. The artist comes to know her bonsai very intimately. She plans its development, worries over its health, and takes pride in its beauty. A bonsai may live for decades or even hundreds of years depending on the species.
Kill Some Trees
If you are excited about getting into bonsai, you must accept at the start that you may kill a few trees. Don’t let that discourage you. Start with hardy shrubs that you see growing well in your area and which are typically used for landscaping, so you know they will respond well to pruning. Choose species with small leaves and branching structures, and look for individuals with good trunks. Dig down to find the roots and make sure they are well-developed. A good style to consider for a first bonsai is a cluster of trees. Nursery shrubs often come with several trunks. They can be framed as a small island of trees, with moss at the base. Trees trained in this style often look more mature more quickly. Whether you are considering a cluster or a single tree, take your time choosing a specimen. If all goes well you will be looking at your bonsai critically for many years to come.
When you bring home your bonsai to be, it is best to give it some time to recover and grow out before you shape it and pot it into a bonsai pot. Loosen the shrub’s root ball and plant into well draining soil in a large pot, preferably of stone, concrete, or clay. For some time, just watch your tree and make sure it is adjusting well. Move it around to find the exact balance of light it prefers. In order to avoid drying out, it is best to keep trees in as much shade as they will tolerate. If it is winter and the tree is dormant, it may take some time before new growth appears. When you notice robust growth and the tree seems healthy, you can begin training.
If you are working with a tree cluster, remove any small saplings that clutter your view. Leave one or two small trees for contrast, or if you would like one to grow into a gap.
Remove branches that grow at odd angles to the rest of the tree, grow straight and are too hard for wiring, or which cut across the tree. Also remove any dead growth and leaves that grow directly from the trunk and from the thickest base of branches. The amount of pruning that can be done safely depends on the species, but to be careful don’t remove more than a quarter of the tree.
You can wire any branch or trunk that is flexible enough to bend gently in your hand. If you feel unsure, try bending a few tree twigs and shrub branches in your yard to get a sense of when a branch will bend and when it is going to snap. Wire from the base of the branch or trunk, holding the wire securely with one hand as you wrap with the other. If the branch becomes much thinner, you may need to change to a lighter weight of wire as you go. If this is necessary, double wire for a few wraps to securely anchor the new wire. Only wire several branches at first, and watch them closely. If the tree is growing, the branch will set in several weeks, and after that will begin cutting into the bark. The branch can recover from light scarring but will be strangled if the wire is left too long.
When your bonsai has recovered well from pruning and wiring and is healthy, you can consider potting it into a bonsai pot. Trees will grow quicker if left in a large grow-out pot, and are much easier to care for, but they don’t look much like bonsai when kept this way. Enjoy and maintain your tree in a bonsai pot for a year or several years, then put it back in a grow-out pot for a year or so to rest and recover from training. You can safely cut up to a third of a tree’s root mass, so consider how big a bonsai pot you will need to encompass the remaining roots. The bonsai must settle into the pot with its first spreading roots even with the lip of the pot. The roots should not be bent to fit, but should end shortly before the edge of the pot. If you find that your bonsai won’t quite settle into the pot, err on the side of trimming away more roots rather than letting the bonsai sit too high in the pot.
The enjoyment of a bonsai is constant tinkering. Surely this is why they appeal so much to gardeners, who can never leave anything alone. Continuously develop your bonsai’s branching structure by pinching the tips of branches as they grow. Pinch large leaves and leaves that grow from the woody parts of the tree. Arrange moss and pebbles at the base of your bonsai to exaggerate the illusion of a tiny tree, being careful that the moss doesn’t cover more than half of the overall surface area, as it can lock in too much moisture and not allow for proper drainage. Remember to rest your tree after a few years, and enjoy it for many years to come.