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Bonsai Blog

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New Year Giveaway Winners

This New Year we gave away a $450 and $250 gift card to two lucky winners. Our New Year Giveaway is complete and all winners have now been notified.

Congratulations to Douglas D. with ticket number 5218066 for winning our $450 gift card and Lauren H. for winning our $250 gift card with ticket number 5218124.

Thank you all for participating in the giveaway! We look forward to doing more giveaways in the coming months!

Indoors vs. Outdoor Bonsai: What’s the Difference?

Many people tend to think of bonsai as primarily indoor plants. This misconception was helped along by the movie “The Karate Kid” in which one of the main characters had a bonsai that he kept in the house. The truth is that the vast majority of trees and plants suitable for bonsai must be kept outdoors. These temperate species must go through a period of dormancy during winter, just as they do in nature.

There are, however, a few species that can be kept inside and lend themselves to the classic bonsai shaping and training. These are mostly tropical or sub-tropical plants which must be sheltered from weather below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Some of the best indoor species include:

  • Ficus – the beloved ficus – or fig tree – is easy to care for and can be shaped beautifully, offering the traditional look of the bonsai we know and love. They require high humidity, and should be monitored for water needs rather than following a schedule. The leaves are poisonous to animals so keep out of reach of pets.
  • Jade – the Portulacaria afra is a succulent that is much less fussy than many tropicals. It retains a lot of water in its leaves so you probably won’t need to water frequently. It should be repotted every other spring and needs good drainage.
  • Privet – often used for hedges, privet is hardy and great for beginners. It requires average watering and fertilizing and bright light for at least some of the day.
  • Carmona – known as the Fukien Tea, this China native has small dark green leaves and can produce little white flowers, and sometimes berries, year round. The water level should be kept well-balanced, as it is sensitive to both over- and under-watering.
  • Sageretia Theezans – known as the Bird Plum, and another native to China, this tropical evergreen also produces white flowers. It needs to be kept moist all the time, and should at least have sun in the morning.

Outdoor species like juniper, maple, and flowering bush species are typically easier to care for because they are used to being in their natural, temperate climate, one with seasons and a period of dormancy in winter. Some outdoor species can be converted to indoors but it usually requires a very seasoned bonsai artist and special procedures. It’s better to start out with the kind of bonsai you want right from the start.

Keep in mind that indoor species will still need adequate light – this can be achieved by putting the plant in a sunny window for long periods during the day or by artificial light systems. If your species requires high humidity you can use a fish tank or other clear plastic container to provide the required level.

Myths and Origins of the Bonsai

Although the word bonsai itself is Japanese (literally translated “plant in a tray”), its origins can be traced to China, where the practice was much simpler than the art-form we know today. About 2300 years ago, the Chinese jettisoned their Taoist belief in the Five Elements Theory (wood, earth, water, fire, and metal) into “pun-sai” – the practice of cultivating dwarf trees in small containers. It took over a thousand years but eventually, somewhere around the 12th century, the art of pun-sai made it to Japan just as Zen Buddhism was spreading throughout the orient. At some point the trees broke free of their monastery homes and began to have exposure in important Japanese circles.

The Japanese ran with the concept, developing and refining it over the centuries into something like what we know today. The unique plants came to be revered and would be brought out among the elite on special occasions. The humble trees were embraced by Japan because of their representation of the bond between man, spirituality, and nature. After WWII, Americans were exposed to the art-form when people from all walks of life were exposed to Japanese culture and traditions. Its popularity then spread to Europe and across the world.

As bonsai became popular in the Western world, so did misconceptions about the fascinating little trees:

  • Myth: bonsai is a specific species of miniature tree. In fact, bonsai is not a species; the little “plants in a tray” can be formed from a wide range of trees and shrubs – almost any perennial, woody cultivar can be coaxed into a suitable bonsai. In fact one of the most popular flowering bonsai is the azalea. www.DallasBonsai.com features a wide variety of appropriate trees.
  • Myth: bonsai are indoor plants. This myth was partly propagated – or exacerbated – by the movie “The Karate Kid”, in which Mr. Miyagi had an indoor bonsai. There are a few species that can be kept indoors but the vast majority need to be outside most of the year.
  • Myth: bonsai are like cacti and can be ignored most of the time, requiring little to no watering or care. These little trees are a commitment – there’s no doubt about it, they need to be monitored, watered, pruned, trained, and sometimes nursed back to health.
  • Myth: eventually they become “full grown” and will remain their miniature size for the life of the tree. In fact, they will continue to grow – albeit slowly – and need trimming and pruning.
  • Myth: a bonsai should look very old – the older and more gnarled the better! The truth is that the tree should look however its owner desires. Yes, traditionally scars and other signs of age have been attractive to bonsai artists, but they certainly aren’t necessary – your tree should represent whatever you want it to.
  • Rumors abound about this ancient mysterious art-form, which may just make it all the more captivating to our imaginations!

Getting Started with your first Bonsai Tree

You’ve decided to enter the beautiful and zen-inducing world of bonsai. You’re probably eager and excited to jump right in. But wait – first there are a few things you need to know in order to have a satisfying, rather than frustrating, bonsai tree experience.

How to Choose the Right Plant

Bonsai isn’t a dwarf tree or a special breed of plant, it’s the art of forming a miniature tree with a cutting or a small plant of a regular species. There are several types that are good beginners:

  • Ulmus parvifolia, or Chinese Elm – tolerant and hardy, slow growing and easy for beginners to care for, beautiful tiny leaves.
  • Jade plant, aka Portulacaria afra – this succulent can be grown indoors and may be easily shaped into a traditional bonsai tree with appropriate pruning.
  • Chinese juniper, or Juniperus chinensis – this evergreen juniper is a very popular bonsai plant due to its hardiness and the miniature pine tree look that can be achieved.
  • Ficus – these tropicals (technically fig trees) are the plants people often think of when they think bonsai; they are easy to wire and actually grow fruit that is in scale with the size of the tree.

What to Look For

You obviously want to choose a healthy plant. Leaves should not be dead or wilting (except specific types which drop leaves at certain times of the year), and they should be relatively small in comparison to the size of the plant. Large leaves do not make for easy bonsai shaping. Check for pests and spots – these can indicate an insect infestation or fungal infection. Remember, a bonsai is just a regular plant or tree, which means it can suffer from the same maladies as anything in your garden.

The trunk should be solid and larger at the bottom than at the top. Trunks that are like telephone poles do not generally make good bonsai. The branches should begin about a third of the way up the tree and they should get smaller as they go up the trunk, not larger.

The Root of It All

If you can examine the root system, it’s a good idea to do so. The roots should be firm, spaced evenly, and should be gathered close to the tree – not spread all over or sticking out of the soil. A healthy root system is vital to the health of the bonsai. Root rot from improper watering is one of the main causes of bonsai death and even though a plant is alive when you buy it, that doesn’t mean it’s not in a slow demise.

It seems like a lot to take in before even getting to the fun part – the shaping and growing of your tree – but if you start with a good plant (or cutting or seeds) – you will have a much better chance of developing a bonsai that will give you many years of beauty and enjoyment.

Bonsai Pests and What to Do About Them

Because bonsai are made from normal plants and trees, they are subject to the same types of bugs and pests as those in your yard and garden. You should monitor your bonsai regularly to make sure that it has not been infested by any of these tiny but destructive forces of nature. They can cause stress and damage to all your hard work and even kill the tree if not caught promptly.

Aphids

Aphids - a bonsai pestSometimes known as plant lice, aphids are one of the most common enemies of bonsai. They appear as green (occasionally black or gray) and can be found under the leaves or on stems. They suck the sap and can spread disease to your plant.

It is possible to remove them by spraying the plant with water, but you can use systemic insecticide if preferred.

Red spider mite

Red Spider MitesThese nearly invisible little pests can destroy a bonsai fast and are hard to see, sometimes making it necessary to shake the plant over a piece of paper. Found more often on indoor bonsai, the mites feed on the tree, causing the leaves to turn yellow and brown.

Spray the bottom side of the leaves with an organic soap mixture or use systemic insecticide such as pesticide pins.

Mealy bugs

MealybugsThese look like tiny balls of cotton on the branches and leaves and frequently gather in clumps. The insects are actually inside the balls, and can cause yellow leaves and slow growth. Not only do they feed on the juices from your bonsai, they also introduce a spectrum of diseases.

Insecticide should be used to rid your bonsai of these pests.

Scale

Scale - common bonsai pestThese insects look like they sound, small scale-like bumps on the leaves, branches, and trunk. A scale infestation will cause wilted, yellowed foliage.

They can be removed manually, as they have a shell that can protect them from chemical insecticides. If there aren’t too many bugs you can brush alcohol onto them to kill them.

Caterpillars

Black Swallowtail Caterpillar feeding on parsleyThese cute little guys can unfortunately wreak a lot of havoc on a bonsai, devouring the leaves. The good thing is they’re easy to see and you can pick them right off.

They tend to come back even when you think you’ve gotten them all so keep checking regularly.

Vine Weevils

Vine WeevilUnlike most pests, vine weevils can cause significant damage to the root system of a plant, because that’s where the larvae feed. While adults are bigger and more noticeable, the larvae are the most destructive and by the time you notice wilted leaves, it may be too late. If you can see adults, remove them by hand and apply a soil pesticide.

The important thing to remember about bonsai pests is that checking your plant regularly can prevent extensive damage. Always check the roots when repotting to make sure there are no unwelcome guests.

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