Bonsai is probably one of the most exciting forms of ornamental gardening in the United States today, since it combines both art and horticulture. The art of miniaturizing trees was developed in Japan, but it has become popular throughout the Americas since the 1940s, and the term “bonsai” has become a fairly common word in our language. Still, its technical meaning is not understood by many Americans.
In essence, bonsai reflects nature in miniature. It is enjoyed by its owner much like a piece of sculpture. It might be a twisted old pine, a grove of white birches, a windswept juniper at the seashore or even a distant landscape of spruce.
Many books and articles on bonsai have appeared since the late 1950’s. Some of the literature, although excellent, is difficult to understand because it was written by Japanese bonsai growers or their students who made little attempt to translate the information and techniques into American terms and conditions.
Several factors may overwhelm a person starting in bonsai, beginning with the name itself. The Japanese “bonsai” is derived from two Chinese symbols, bon meaning a tray or pot, and sai meaning to plant. It is a three-dimensional art form unique in sculpture because it uses living plants, woody or semiwoody. Each tree, like a sculpture, is trained in a meaningful form. Each is grown in a specially chosen container.
A facet of the art that frightens beginners is the appearance of a finished bonsai. It seems very old, as if it must have taken years to bring to such a point. This is not true and should not make a beginner shy away. Yes, bonsai must be artistically pleasing, and should appear to be old, but there are quickly mastered ways of achieving this result.
Inspiration for bonsai comes from nature. Look at mature trees for their basic shapes; observe the outline of trees on a distant hill or the distinct shape of a gnarled apple in a pasture. Notice the three dimensional forms of trees-some rounded, some pyramidal, some tall, others short and thick. These are characteristics you will want to reproduce.
Only five requirements are basic for beginners in bonsai. If you understand them, you can get satisfactory results with your first tree:
First, select proper material. Second, prune for style and design. Third, wire for shape. Fourth, select a complementary container. Fifth, constantly refine the tree.
Selecting the proper plant is the most important factor. Leaves, twigs, branches, trunk and surface roots should be in scale so the bonsai will look like a mature tree in miniature. Select stock with naturally small leaves or needles. Select material with solid trunks and large leading branches. The trunk line and heavy limbs should have interesting shapes that can be used in the final design. Height is not as important as other factors, since that can readily be decreased by pruning if desired, or increased by turning the tip up with wire. The trunk ‘should taper from base to top, thick at the bottom, and leading from heavy branches to small twigs at the apex.
The first pruning for basic shape frightens many beginners, accustomed to outdoor pruning done to induce dense foliage. In bonsai, however, you want the trunk line and the first three bottom branches to be clearly defined. The secondary branches and twigs will provide the outline of the composition as the plant matures. At the beginning radical pruning is absolutely necessary with’ many trees. Excess branches must be eliminated to develop the design and let sun reach the lower or back parts so new buds and branches will develop where needed.
Wiring is for shape only. Copper wire is by far the best to use, since it is pliable until bent; then it becomes firm. As growing cells become woody, they set into their final position, and only new green growth needs further shaping and wiring. Wires are usually left on branches six months to a year, or perhaps longer depending upon how fast the plant grows in diameter. If left on a growing tree too long, wires will bite into the bark and leave ugly marks that take years to heal. When a tree is first potted, wiring should start at the lower trunk and extend out to the twig end, so that the basic shape is developed during the first growing season.
After the tree has been pruned and shaped by wiring, the roots should be pruned one third. Then the bonsai is planted in a suitable container. Many sizes and shapes of containers, all with specific traditional uses, are available. The rules about containers are easy to master, and are found with examples in
any good beginner’s text. The container is the receptacle for the tree -its frame. It is part of the composition and should be considered when you are thinking of the tree’s design.
5. Constant refinement.
Continuous refinement as the plant matures is necessary to develop its beauty and artistic form. A practiced grower can develop a good bonsai in a few hours, but he must groom it periodically during every growing season or it soon loses its basic shape and charm. Just as you clip a hedge to keep its shape, or wash and trim a poodle, you must also feed, wire, trim and care for a bonsai during its lifetime. Otherwise it will not mature into a thing of continuous beauty.
The care and training required to develop plants into bonsai are the same for us as they are for the Japanese, but we should use our own native materials to reflect our environment. Thus our bonsai will suggest-in miniature-American elms, apples, maples, pines, firs, junipers and many others. Bonsai can lead into gratifying studies of native trees and shrubs, as well as into artistic satisfactions.
— article edited for GardenArtistics