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!

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.

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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