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Top 5 Reasons New Bonsai Artists Fail

You’ve seen these fascinating little trees either online or perhaps in a friend’s home and you’ve decided that bonsai seems like a great new hobby. Before you jump in with both feet, however, you should realize that many new enthusiasts give up long before reaping the rewards of their hard work because they simply don’t have all the necessary information to succeed. Here are some common pitfalls to avoid:

1. Choosing the wrong tree: this often happens when people see an eye-catching display marked “bonsai”, down at the local big-box hardware store. Given the tongue-in-cheek term “mallsai” by the enthusiast community, not all of these trees make bad bonsai, it’s just that they may not be in the best health and the prominent display inspires impulse purchasing – which means you might take one home before you even know what to do with it. Your best bet is to order a quality tree from an experienced grower and use the delivery time to research care.

2. Lack of understanding the commitment: some enthusiasts like to say it’s easier to have a pet than a bonsai, because the pet will be very vocal when it needs something. While there are many easy care trees, like ficus and juniper, you will still need to commit to checking on your plant regularly, repotting it when needed (generally every 1-3 years), and arranging for its care if you’re away for extended periods of time. The enjoyment and visual rewards you get out of your bonsai will be commensurate with the effort you put into it.

3. Over-enthusiastic trimming: the minute that exciting little botanical beauty arrives, it’s very tempting to go full-on Edward Scissorhands so that you can get a head start on turning it into the shapely bonsai of your dreams. Because the art-form is one that requires years of training, pruning, and pampering, you should resist the urge to try for the “instant bonsai”. If you think you might be a little too gung-ho about trimming, try a fast-growing plant like juniper or jade; that way your leafy little friend will regenerate more quickly if you accidentally go too far.

4. Getting discouraged too quickly: just as with any type of gardening, you’re probably going to kill a tree or two. No one is perfect at any hobby right away – we fall when we’re learning to ice skate, and we end up with plenty of ugly cakes no one would pay for when we try our hand at bakery-level decorating. Identify your mistakes and try again. You will get it right!

5. Lack of patience: few factors defeat more new bonsai artists than simple lack of patience. Don’t expect miracles overnight – this art-form is not end-goal oriented, rather it’s a years-long process of waiting, and learning, and trimming, and waiting some more. In reality just a few minutes a day can give you a relaxing, visually rewarding hobby that becomes an ever-evolving gift lasting years and years.

Start out right with a healthy plant and reasonable expectations, and these tips will help you bypass common mistakes, giving you an even more satisfying bonsai experience!

Must-See Bonsai Exhibits Across the USA

Most people don’t realize that there are bonsai all around us – possibly even in a museum near you. Here are some of the best exhibits across America for enthusiasts and admirers alike to visit:

The National Bonsai and Penjing Museum

http://www.usna.usda.gov/Gardens/collections/bonsai.html
Location: Washington, DC
Admission: Free

This exhibit in the nation’s capital was established in 1976 and is considered the premier destination for those interested in the art-form. Located in the United States National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., the exhibit boasts many beautiful specimens including the famous 390 year old tree that survived the Hiroshima explosion. Don’t miss this expansive display of Chinese, Japanese, and American subjects.

The Bonsai Garden at Lake Merritt

http://gsbf-lakemerritt.org/
Location: Oakland, CA
Admission: Free

This exhibit in Oakland, CA is maintained by the Golden State Bonsai Federation and contains an impressive collection of literally hundreds of trees, from Trident Maple and Korean Hornbeam to Redwoods and Shimpaku Junipers. The list is exhaustive, and there is something for virtually every enthusiast in this beautiful, colorful collection.

The Huntington

http://www.huntington.org/WebAssets/Templates/content.aspx?id=15393
Location: San Marino, CA
Admission: $10 (Kids) – $23-25 (Adults)

The Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, CA is the second of the two exhibits maintained by the Golden State Bonsai Federation. The Huntington’s collection is considered one of the finest of its kind in the United States, and their ever-changing exhibit contains trees ranging from relatively young to around 1000 years old. The collection numbers in the hundreds, with a multitude of species. The trees span two peaceful courtyards, with the shohin collection residing against the soothing background of a beautiful water feature.

The North Carolina Arboretum

http://www.ncarboretum.org/
Location: Asheville, NC
Admission: $12 (Parking fee only)

The bonsai collection at the NC Arboretum is fairly new, having been established in 1992 upon the generous donation of a number of trees from a private donor. The Arboretum took off with the concept of a display and assigned caretakers to the precious trees. Since that time, the exhibit has grown to over a hundred specimens, including some cultivated from seeds or cuttings right onsite. The Arboretum takes particular pride in their local species, such as the Eastern White Pine and American Hornbeam, which represent the Blue Ridge region and allow the exhibit to retain a local flair.

Marie Selby Botanic Gardens

http://selby.org/
Location: Sarasota, Fl
Admission: $6 (Kids) – $19 (Adults)

The story of the Sho Fu Bonsai Exhibit at Selby in Sarasota, FL is an interesting one. The Sho Fu Bonsai Society approached Selby in 2007 with the idea of instituting a bonsai exhibit. It took two years and much negotiation and fundraising on the part of the society, but in 2009 the exhibit finally opened, appropriately timed during the Asian Festival. The display is small but elegant, and is a testament to the devotion and perseverance of enthusiasts. Volunteers from Sho Fu maintain the exhibit.

If you have the opportunity to visit one of these beautiful exhibits, you won’t be disappointed. It might even inspire you to donate a tree or two to your own local botanical gardens. As awareness and popularity of the art-form spread, more and more people will be exposed to bonsai through amazing displays like these.

What Tools and Supplies Do I Need?

When first beginning on your bonsai journey the array of available tools, supplies, and equipment can be dizzying. There are literally hundreds of items that can be used in bonsai care, from the bare basics all the way to top-of-the-line extravagant specialty tools. Where to start?

What You Really Need in the Beginning:

  • Bonsai scissor: these are an essential basic, and it’s better to go with a high-quality pair of Japanese shears (available at www.DallasBonsai.com) than a cheap substitute. You will use these for lots of leaf and branch trimming so you want them to last, and not damage your tree.
  • Concave cutter: concave pruners are a staple for bonsai owners because they allow branches to be cut away from the trunk without leaving a huge, ugly scar. This tool makes a slightly indented cut that will heal nicely.
  • Wire cutter: it’s useful to have the specific set made for the art-form because they have a special rounded head that protects your tree while cutting and removing wire.
  • Small plier: you will be doing quite a bit of bending and manipulating wire while training your tree, and a quality pair of pliers will make this job much easier.

Tools That Are Handy to Have:

  • Root cutter: specially designed to make pruning roots easier, these cutters have very strong blades that are able to slice through the thick fibers of a hefty root system.
  • Root hook: while a chopstick is often used and can be sufficient with smaller bonsai, a root hook is useful when working with a larger tree that has stronger roots.
    Japanese watering wand: these have a very fine shower stream, allowing you to water and wash your plant without fear of soil disturbance.
  • An assortment of brushes: there are a multitude of brush choices, from nylon to steel and more. These can be helpful in cleaning your bonsai’s trunk, as well as rubbing branches to stimulate growth in desired areas.
  • Soil scoops: these come in handy while measuring out various components of your potting mix, and can also filter out dust at the same time.
  • Saw: depending on the size of your bonsai, you may need a small saw to cut branches. There are specific Japanese saws made for cutting bonsai.
  • Turntable: a turntable makes it smooth and easy to turn your tree as you’re pruning, trimming, and wiring. A luxury item perhaps, but still very useful.

Don’t worry about investing a ton of money right at first – as your bonsai experience grows and evolves you will learn through practice which items will be most beneficial to you.

Like any hobby or art, bonsai growing can be as simple or complex as you want it to be, but either way the reward is a beautiful living piece of artwork.

How to Prune and Train Your Bonsai

You’ve chosen your tree and your shape and now it’s time to learn how to make it happen! Pruning can seem intimidating but once you know what to look for and how to systematically execute the process, it will seem much easier.

There are two kinds of pruning – style pruning, and maintenance. When you first get your tree (or your seed grows large enough to style) you will want to begin shaping it into the bonsai of your dreams. Rather than just cutting willy nilly all over the place, there are certain steps you’ll want to follow in style pruning:

  • Normally it’s best to prune in spring or fall (before or after growing season) but you’ll want to look up information on timing for your specific species.
  • Place your tree on a solid surface, at eye level.
  • Remove any dead foliage or wood.
  • Cut away thick, vertical branches that aren’t bendable.
  • Cut away any branches that conceal the front of your plant’s trunk.
  • Even out the branches in order of thickest toward the bottom of the tree, to thinnest at the top.
  • Apply cut paste to places where larger branches were removed.
  • Do not remove more than a third of your tree’s foliage.

Maintenance pruning is just as it sounds – follow the same basic procedures as for style pruning, but only cutting away the extra growth that is compromising the look and shape you want the bonsai to have.

How to Wire Train the Branches

Wiring is an essential part of training your branches into the growing pattern you want them to follow. There are different kinds of wire but it is usually recommended that beginners use anodized aluminum. This comes in diameters of 1-6mm. You won’t need them all, a variety in sizes 1-4mm should probably suffice.

Begin with wire that’s about a third the size of the branch you’re wiring. Wrap the wire around the truck at least two times, then continue up the branch, wrapping at about a 45 degree angle. If you intend to bend the branch downward, the wire should be wrapped up around it from the bottom. Likewise if bending upward, the wire should be wrapped around from top of the branch to bottom. Continue wrapping to the end of the branch.

Now for the tricky part – bending. Brace the outer part of the branch (meaning the side that is going to curve outward) with your fingers, stabilizing it as you gently bend the inner curve with your thumbs. This helps to protect the branch from breakage. Once the curve is the way you want it, stop bending – moving it around too much may break it.

It is also important to remember that thick branches may become scarred by wire as the branches grow, so check the wire often. You can also wrap the branch in raffia to help protect it.

You’re on your way to a custom-created bonsai, invented by your imagination!

The Importance of Balanced Feeding and Watering

Bonsai, as they are just a small version of regular trees or plants, need food and water just like any other plant. Because they live in a man-made environment rather than in nature, where they would get all the nutrients and water they need through the ground and rain, their living quarters need to be kept in the right condition.

Fertilizing

The purpose of fertilizer is to get the appropriate blend of nutrients into your tree. Fertilizer is made up of N (Nitrogen), P (Phosphorous), and (K) Potassium. The ratios are expressed as 0:10:10 or 12:6:6, in the order NPK. For outdoor bonsai, feed your plant with a higher nitrogen content in the spring, to encourage growth – a 12:6:6 or so. During summertime use a balanced fertilizer like 20:20:20 (which is the same as 10:10:10 and 5:5:5). As autumn comes you will want to begin hardening your tree off for winter with a lower nitrogen level, like 0:10:10.

Each tree is different and it may take a while to adjust to the correct fertilizer level. Signs of over-fertilizing include browning or yellowing leaves, fertilizer accumulating at the top of the soil, and roots that are going black and limp (root burn).

Under-fertilizing can cause equally concerning issues like leaves shriveling up and dieback of branches.

You may have heard of foliar feeding – this is a hotly contested topic, so do plenty of research from a variety of a sources before deciding whether foliar feeding is right for your bonsai.

Watering

Watering your bonsai can seem confusing, but the most important thing is to observe your particular plant – each species is a little different and your climate, the amount of sun, and soil mixture will all influence how quickly or slowly the water is absorbed. The other major factor in watering is drainage – bonsai must have good drainage, in fact some experts even feel that it’s impossible to over-water a tree that has a good drainage system.

When you’re first adjusting to how much water your tree needs, do not set a watering schedule. Instead check the plant every day; when the surface starts to become dry, water thoroughly. Don’t allow the soil to become completely dry. The entire root system needs to be soaked – a good rule of thumb is to water the plant until water begins draining out of the drainage system. Use a fine-hole watering can and water from above the plant. If you can collect rainwater this is even healthier for your bonsai as it does not contain the chemicals that tap water sometimes can.

Under-watering causes leaves and the tips of the branches to begin drying up. The effects of under-watering a bonsai are evident very quickly. Damage from over-watering, on the other hand, can take much longer to show itself. Leaves yellow and fall off the tree and eventually root rot sets in, which may not be discovered until repotting time in the spring.

Pay close attention to your bonsai and follow instructions closely and you will soon get a feel for the healthiest feeding and watering routine for your specific plant.

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