LIFESTYLE: HOME & GARDENING
Bonsai - “ Harmony in Practice
Bonsai is the art of seeing a tree in all its majestic splendor and recreating that vision on a smaller scale for one’s own enrichment. It’s a mixture of art, gardening, design, landscaping, meditation, and spiritual communion. For the bonsai enthusiast, it is a practice that brings a deep connection to the wonder of nature and unveils an awe-inspiring, artistic truth.
Although bonsai is associated with Japan, the practice actually began in China
After World War II, American and British soldiers took home examples of bonsai from the far east.
According to Colin Lewis, author of the book, Bonsai – A Step By Step Guide, the word “bonsai” means ‘a tree in a pot’ in Japanese. Although bonsai is associated with Japan, the practice actually began in China thousands of years ago when the ancient Chinese created miniature landscapes called penjing in potted containers. The Chinese originated the planting of a single tree in a container called pun-sai and this formed the basis of the Japanese term bonsai.
In Chinese history, Buddhist monks practiced pun-sai and only those born of nobility or title could own an example. When the Chinese invaded Japan in the Middle Ages, one of its cultural influences resulted in the blossoming of bonsai in Japan.
After World War II, American and British soldiers took home examples of bonsai from the far east, and its popularity has continued to grow to the point that bonsai is an easily recognizable word in western society.
Craig Coussins, in his book, Totally Bonsai, tells us that what distinguishes bonsai from other kinds of plants is simply whether it looks like a miniature tree. Although there are many different styles of bonsai and an infinite number of ways to shape the plant, it must capture the essence of a miniature tree in order to be classified a bonsai.
He says anyone with a creative flair, a fascination for trees, and a bit of a green thumb can keep a bonsai. It does take care and attention, but so do most houseplants, and the same things that can kill a common houseplant such as over-watering, the wrong exposure to light, or neglect will harm a bonsai tree as well.
In purchasing a bonsai, he suggests going to a bonsai nursery to ask questions and obtain important information such as the name and history of the plant. Is it an indoor or outdoor plant? Does it have low growing branches to indicate a strong healthy spreading of roots? Check the taper – the way the tree rises to a nice shape at the top. What climate and temperature is most conducive to its growth? Is the bonsai imported? When was the last time the tree was repotted? Shriveling of the bark, unhealthy branches, or discoloration of the leaves are red flags that the tree may be diseased or on its last legs. Ask for care directions, and if they are followed, most reputable bonsai nurseries will exchange the tree if it dies within a period of months.
The most important aspects of the care of a bonsai plant is keeping it in the right light and temperature for the type of tree, appropriate watering, and fertilizing it at correct intervals with houseplant food. Obtain these care directions from the nursery. A developing plant will need to be repotted every two to three years, so that the roots have new and healthy soil in which to grow. The pot selection must fit the style and size of the tree and should help to create an aesthetically pleasing landscape. The soil should drain freely and augment the particular species of tree.
Colin Lewis conveys the fact that a bonsai plant can die in as little as twenty-four hours if the soil is allowed to dry out from lack of water. He also cautions that over-watering can damage the roots of the plant. He suggests watering the soil with a fine spray in the early evening until water seeps from the drainage holes in the pot. Then wait a few minutes and repeat the process. Test the dampness of the soil to determine watering needs. It’s also important to spray the foliage to moisten the leaves.
Lewis gives three methods to fertilize a bonsai: soil pellets, watering it onto the soil, or spraying it onto the leaves. A proper mixture of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium will keep a bonsai tree healthy. Match a feeding program to the type of plant, its size, and the season for best effect. As in watering, over-feeding can damage a plant, so pay close attention to the feeding schedule outlined by the nursery or grower.
In his book, Bonsai Survival Training, Colin Lewis states that a bonsai plant can lose its shape and become overgrown in a matter of weeks. Thus it’s imperative to prune and trim a tree to maintain or enhance its shape.
Craig Coussins, in Totally Bonsai suggests the use of bonsai scissors to cut back the leaves of a tree in three layers. At the top third of the tree, find a branch and locate where the leaves begin to grow. From this base, count one set of leaves and snip off the rest. In the middle section, count two sets of leaves from the base of the branch and trim. At the bottom, count three sets from the base and cut so that the longest branches are at the bottom.
He indicates other tools such as wire and wire cutters, angle cutters, brushes, branch benders, and tweezers are essential in the toolkit of the bonsai grower. Wiring is used in bonsai to develop the shape of the branches and the form of the tree. Wiring is made of different materials such as aluminum and copper, and thickness varies according to need. The wiring is used to control directional growth and should be checked at four weeks to make sure it isn’t pinching into the bark. Often wiring is left on for three months to provide a desired shape, and it’s best to cut the wire off rather than to unwind it because the latter leaves damaging scars.
Angle cutters take off sections of a branch. It’s important to add a sealing agent to cover the cuts when this tool is used. Brushes clean the pot surface after trimming. Branch benders are used once plastic is wrapped around a thicker branch to slowly bend it into shape. Tweezers remove moss and insects from the tree.
Coussins identifies a number of the most popular species of bonsai trees: pines such as the White pine and Scots pine, maples such as Kashima maple and Mountain maple, and other species like juniper, larch, cypress, cedar, spruce, beech, azalea, birch, elm, and oak.
This article serves as a mere introduction to the art of bonsai. If you want to learn more, Craig Coussins suggests the following resource links: www.stonelantern.com, www.bonsaimagazine.com, and www.internationalbonsai.com.
Perhaps the best summary of bonsai can be glimpsed in a quote from the foreword to Colin Lewis’ book Bonsai Survival Manual by Jack Douthitt, “Bonsai allows a pause in the relentless pace of daily life, and contact with nature’s great calm.”
Ray Wong is a freelance writer in San Diego. His opinion editorials have been published in the “San Diego Union” and the “L.A. Daily News.” He writes a family column for a San Diego newspaper called “Asia,” and he can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.