Miniature trees as an art form began in China around the sixth century. Their Penzai (“tray plants”) were landscapes created with miniature trees and rocks. When Chinese monks migrated to Japan they took Penzai with them. The Japanese continued to develop the art, and their “Bonsai” trees became status symbols for the upper class.
Plants used for Bonsai are not genetically 'dwarfed,' but normal plants that are trained to stay small. Bonsai can be grown from seeds or from clippings, but it will take a couple of years before you have a reasonable looking plant. A small juniper or maple from a local nursery will give you a good display with just a few hours work. Or you could purchase a completed Bonsai and just give it the necessary TLC. Here are some notes on creating and growing Bonsai.
Soil and planting
The most common components in Bonsai soil mixtures are akadama clay, pumice, lava rock and compost. You can make your own soil with these components, but pre-mixed Bonsai soils are readily available. Plant your tree at the same depth it was in the container you purchased. Bonsai containers are shallow; this contributes to the small size of the tree. Smaller containers generally result in smaller trees.
Most Bonsai need to be repotted every year or two to allow more room for the roots to grow.
The best way to train a Bonsai is to prune it on a regular basis. This ‘maintenance’ pruning will help it keep its existing shape. ‘Structural’ pruning to change the shape or style is more extensive.
“Wiring” allows you to reposition branches. Wrap wire around the trunk and the branch you wish to move. Then use your thumbs and fingers to gently move the branch. Remove the wires after a few weeks when the branch has stabilized in its new position.
Style your Bonsai to capture the natural features of life-sized trees, albeit in miniature. Popular styles include upright, leaning, cascade (the top of the tree grows downward), exposed roots, and windswept. If you want to see examples the North Carolina Arboretum south of Asheville has a wonderful collection of Bonsai in many styles.
Watering and fertilizing
Never let a Bonsai dry out completely. When the soil gets slightly dry soak thoroughly to wet the entire root system. Water trees individually as they dry out instead of at fixed intervals, using a watering can with a fine nozzle to prevent the soil from being washed away.
Most Bonsai trees should be fertilized during the entire growth season from early spring until mid-autumn. Use a balanced fertilizer (like 6-6-6), reducing the amount at season’s end. Indoor trees can be fertilized year round. Don’t fertilize re-potted trees for about a month, and don’t feed sick trees.
Bonsai need to have woody trunks: maple (acer) and fig (ficus) trees are the most popular choices. Ideally Bonsais are grown outdoors and do best when they can experience all four seasons. They can be grown inside but more care is required (figs are easiest to grow indoors).
Growing Bonsai is obviously more complicated than we can cover in this short article, but the result is easily worth the effort. Two excellent instructional websites are https://www.bonsaiempire.com/ and https://www.wikihow.com/. And visit the NC Arboretum’s annual Bonsai Expo each October.
Dr. Jan Lemasters is an Extension Master Gardener Volunteer in Haywood County. For more information visit https://haywood.ces.ncsu.edu, or call the Haywood County Extension Center at 828-456-3575