September 6, 2011

Bonsai Basics for Beginners

Bonsai trees are more popular than ever before. Once the domain of royalty and private estate gardens, Bonsai are now produced and imported by the thousands. The Miami Bonsai Society meets at Pinecrest Gardens every month, and I must say I am learning a lot about Bonsai techniques.

I have seen Bonsai at their very best in California, Washington D.C. at the National Arboretum, and at the Philadelphia Flower Show (  which I judge annually). Some of the oldest trees presented are just mesmerizing, and the care needed to produce trees of such exceptional quality is inspiring. Just imagine: some of the champion trees are over 200 years old, and have been cared for, perfectly, for 8 generations.  Can you say that anything in your life has been tended for 8 generations ? Such trees are works of living art, and are treated as national treasures.

These venerated tree-masterpieces are the exception, not the norm. It is the culmination of decades of skills training, and a level of patience that borders on religion. The techniques are varied and include art, geometry, engineering, and an enduring love of wild nature. The overall idea of Bonsai is to produce a miniature copy of a mature tree as if you saw the full-grown tree from a great distance. In some exceptional cases, growers have used original pieces of natural stone on which to grow their trees, replicating a particular tree in the wild. The training of the new tree takes many years, tended carefully, and wired to produce a planned structure that the grower created.    

A fundamental principle of the art is to create a tree that shows a series of triangles from all views of the plant from any angle. This is part of the control of man over nature, and growers can spend decades bringing this to fruition.
Growers usually start with a small tree only a few years old, but occasionally use an older tree. If the older tree has the character the grower wants, he may save decades of time versus using a small seedling. The smaller plant can be trained any way the grower wishes, but will take longer (much longer) to train into a specimen plant. These small copies of  natural trees have limited root systems, requiring well-drained potting mixes, a very gentle fertilizing regime and great attention to watering.      

If all the care criteria are met, the end result is a perfectly shaped, symmetrical tree. Many species of plant or tree can be trained using Bonsai techniques, but some species are poor candidates. Many people think that fruit size will be affected by Bonsai techniques, but it is not. There are pictures showing a 24 inch tall Bonsai Lemon tree with a full-sized lemon ! Certain fruit trees can be used as Bonsai choices, but they need to have small fruit. The selection of the tree  can be quite a job in itself, but the results are worth the wait. Bonsai are for the patient grower, not for someone who wants a full-size garden plant in 12 weeks. They are investments, and need some skill to maintain them properly. In the hands of a careful grower, a perfect copy of a mature tree can be had in your own garden, where Bonsai can lend an extra element of peace and tranquility. 

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens
flowering cherry Bonsai

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