Bonsai is a Japanese word that is used everywhere to mean a tree or shrub planted in a shallow container, and trained to look like a full-size tree.
Many of us have admired bonsai trees and have been tempted to grow one ourselves. Often they are bought, perhaps as a gift, from a garden centre. These trees usually come with very limited instructions and sadly most of them die.
You Are Not Alone...
People often think that it was their cavalier disregard of the needs of the tree that caused its untimely demise. This is probably not the case. Many of the ready-made bonsai available at garden centres are really not very good plant for the purpose - although things are improving.
Unless the tree is purchased from a specialist bonsai nursery, there is a good chance that the tree will be one that has been grown quickly to form a thick trunk, had its top lopped and then been planted in a pot that is far too small. It has little chance of survival, unless remedial action is taken.
What Went Wrong?
Something that is not often properly understood is that a bonsai is not a special kind of tree; it is an everyday tree that has been trimmed, pruned, and shaped to form a miniature tree. It is not surprising, then, that most bonsai trees fail to thrive on the windowsill.
The garden centres are often at fault for not explaining this. To keep your new acquisition healthy, you need to recreate the sort of conditions the tree would find in its natural habitat - and most people's living rooms do not provide these conditions. Even with the proper care and attention, garden centre bonsais often prove difficult to keep alive.
So What Can I Do?
There are many books that give full details on how to grow beautiful bonsai, but this entry is intended to provide guidance for those who do not wish to invest a lot of time or money... until, that is, they get hooked!
The best material is also the cheapest - it's free! The ideal starter is a young sapling of a native tree. You are looking for a small tree a foot or two in height, probably a single, slender stem. If it has a couple of branches, so much the better. You must ensure that you have permission if you wish to take a tree from private land, and taking trees from the wild is forbidden in some cases, but many gardens will readily provide saplings normally discarded as weeds.
Hawthorn trees are ideal in temperate climates like the UK - they are relatively slow growing and have small leaves. Young shoots, which are ideal, are often to be found beneath hawthorn hedges. Privets are also readily suitable. Any woody plant will do, but it's best to choose one with fairly small leaves.
Trees such as sycamore and horse chestnut, although very common, are less suited, as they have very large leaves which do not look at all in scale on a bonsai. If you would like a bonsai that is on the large side, you could do worse than plant an acorn or two.
Once you have found your sapling, you should dig it gently out. This is best done in early spring, before the buds have begun to swell, but it can be done later. You may find that your new tree has a long tap root. Cut off about half to three-quarters of the length of this taproot, and plant the tree in a small pot with some fresh compost.
As you now have quite a tall plant in a shallow pot, it may be necessary to secure it. You can use garden wire for this, available from any garden centre, but ordinary copper wire will do nicely. Pass the wire over the top of the root ball and thread the ends through the drainage hole(s) in the pot. If your pot has two or more drainage holes, pass each end of the wire through a different hole. Ensure your tree is properly seated in the pot, and then wind the two ends of the wire together underneath to secure it. If the pot only has one hole, pass both ends of the wire through it. Then find a stick that is longer than the hole is wide (a piece of garden cane, a twig or even a pencil) and wind both ends of the wire round the stick to secure your tree.
You can use ordinary garden secateurs, as long as they're sharp and well adjusted, or gardening scissors for all of this; you don't need bonsai tools. Strong scissors work best for trimming twigs and leaves. It is important to produce nice clean wounds that produce a minimum of bruising. There is no need to use a 'proper' bonsai pot, but if you can find a pot (plastic or unglazed inside) that is fairly low and wide it will look better and provide a healthier environment for the roots. Why not use that pot that the dead bonsai from the garden centre came in?
To start with, you do not need to be terribly fussy about the compost. This was a tree that was growing quite happily in the back garden, after all. The compost should be clean and fine textured. A good bet is to use around three parts of ordinary potting compost to two parts grit or coarse sand, as you want to provide good drainage; which is important because frequent watering will soon cause heavy soil to become compacted.
You can have considerable success simply using the soil the sapling was growing in, but this does encourage weeds and it really is best, and not expensive, to provide new compost. You can kill off many of the organisms in the soil by baking it in the oven. But, be warned, your kitchen will smell terrible!
Once the tree is potted up, reduce the height of the stem by about half to encourage branching.
Twig in a Pot
The best thing to do with the tree now is to leave it alone for a while. Once it is potted up, keep it moist and do not allow it to dry out; remember, there is very little root. You should check it every day. Once it is in leaf it can dry out very quickly in warm weather. However, it is important not to overdo it and allow the compost to become soggy and waterlogged.
It is important to emphasise that the tree should be kept outdoors. That is where it was growing, before it was harvested, and that is where it needs to be to thrive. It can be brought in for a day or so to be admired, but it should live outdoors. After a few weeks you should see signs of new growth. It is safest to leave well alone this first year.
Unless you have chosen an evergreen tree, the leaves are going to fall in the autumn and the tree will become dormant. Obviously, the leaves should not all drop in the autumn from an evergreen. Evergreens do shed leaves, but only one or two at a time, and not only in the autumn. There should still be a dormant period in winter when no new growth takes place.
Do not be tempted to bring your tree indoors. When frost threatens, it can be placed somewhere sheltered, such as a garden shed, an unheated greenhouse or garage, or a porch. It doesn't matter if the plant doesn't get much light while it is dormant, but don't allow it to dry out. Don't worry about the cold; the tree will be 'expecting' a cold spell. Provided you avoid the compost freezing solid it should come to no harm.
If finding a suitable place to overwinter your tree is a problem, you could try growing a tropical plant as a bonsai. Even training citrus fruits (which are easily grown from seeds) as bonsai is a good way for those with limited access to the outdoors (prisoners serving life sentences, let's say) to get acquainted with the art.
In the early spring, just before the buds begin to swell, it is time to start the process of turning your twig into a bonsai tree. Take it out of the pot, and gently clean most of the compost from the roots. You should see fine, fibrous roots beginning to form. Trim off about a third of the root ball. Replant it into the pot with fresh compost, being sure to work the compost well into the roots. A chopstick is the ideal tool for this. Water it in, and then keep moist as before. It is important that you do not allow a freshly root-pruned tree to become waterlogged, nor should you fertilise it for a couple of weeks.
In late spring you can start thinking about pruning. It is beyond the scope of this entry to give advice on creating the formal bonsai styles; with this first effort it is better just to train the tree into a shape that pleases you. Don't be tempted to twist your bonsai into a bizarre shape; the art of bonsai is in imitating nature.
You should control the height of the tree and encourage branching by stopping the top growth. This can be achieved by pinching the growing tip between finger and thumb. If you wish to reduce the height further, then clip it back with your secateurs or trimmers. Allow the branches to grow as far as you wish, and then trim them back. Prune back to a bud that is pointing in the direction you wish the branch to go, it will grow in that direction. Don't be afraid to prune your tree; it will not kill it provided you always leave buds for regrowth.
You should repeat this process every year for the first five years or so, after which you should reduce the frequency of root-pruning and repotting to every other year, or even every three years; there is no hard and fast rule. You should be guided by the tree, and whether it needs it.
Now for an Encore
Once you have created your first bonsai, you will probably want to do more. This is a sign that you are becoming hooked. Don't resist it. Buy some bonsai books, join a bonsai club. Look out for exhibitions of bonsai and let yourself be inspired by the bonsai that enthusiasts have created over the years. Experienced bonsai growers are normally glad to share knowledge and help out beginners, whether through a club, at an exhibition, or via an Internet forum. You can discover techniques like wiring, and growing trees over rocks, or in forests. Visit a nursery and treat yourself to some young trees to work with. Bonsai is a hobby and an art for life.
Want to Know More?
The following links contain further information, including pictures of trees to inspire you, as well as detail on more advanced techniques. They have a forum where you can go to get advice from more experienced bonsai growers if you have a question about your own tree.