Bonsai means “tree in a pot (or tray)” in Japanese. It refers to growing trees in small pots in such a way as to look old, interesting and artistic. “Bonsai” is also the plural form of the word (no “s” needed.) The art is believed to have originated in China thousands of years ago, and is now practiced all over the world.
In Japan, traditional examples are known for their more formal designs. In present day China, Vietnam, and other south Asian countries, bonsai trees are less formal, but may incorporate more of a landscape feel. These tend to include large rocks simulating mountains, pools of water, and tiny ceramic figures called ‘mudmen.’ (Many of which are fishermen, or storks – a symbol of luck in the far east.)
The Importance of Location
To do bonsai, it is important to know what your environment offers. Especially in the northern hemisphere where tropical trees cannot stay outside in winter (and native species must.) You will need an outside space – preferably away from eyes of passersby – with room to display trees on benches and to grow young ones in the ground for a few years to quickly fatten trunks – a major goal in bonsai development.
If there is no reasonable outdoor place, then you can only grow tropical species. These generally require supplementary lighting (such as fluorescent fixtures) and humidity control (which requires more than a daily spray).
Places like offices and dorm rooms are not ideal for growing bonsai trees as conditions are usually out of your control in terms of light, temperature and humidity.
How Bonsai Trees are Different
Bonsai are not ‘house plants’, and they don’t last long if you treat them as such. While 99% of the time you will find trees in regular “potting soil” – whether you buy them at nurseries, the supermarket (a good source of tropicals you can grow into bonsai trees), or shopping malls – you will need to repot them into a special soil that is best for Bonsai. This soil consists of fast draining grit, along with a small organic component in varying proportions depending on the species. This special soil is necessary so that water does not end up rotting the bonsai tree roots, as happens all too often with peat – the main ingredient in potting soil.
Seasons greatly influence bonsai trees. Gardeners should treat temperate species differently in the winter than they would in spring or summer because they require cold dormancy during winter months. Seasons also determine the right times to repot or transplant trees and when not to.
Special Care Needed
While bonsai trees may serve decorative purposes, they are very much living things, and one should regard them as such first and always. They require a commitment of time above and beyond what one gives to house or garden plants. Gifting bonsai trees is usually a bad idea unless you’re sure the person you’re gifting has the knowledge, time and interest in caring for them. It can take decades to produce a beautiful bonsai, but only weeks of carelessness to finish it off. Leaving that care to well meaning friends on a temporary basis can also be problematic.
Pruning Bonsai Trees
And for those of you who believe pruning is a highlight of bonsai tree care – possibly after watching “Karate Kid” – note that it is just one aspect of growing a bonsai. You should prune not just for its own sake, but for very specific reasons. These reasons include removing or shortening branches, adding to a pre-planned design, stimulating new foliage growth in a particular place on the tree, or to periodically neaten the outlines.
But don’t take your tree home and just hack away – you may find the species does not ‘bud back’ lower on the remaining branch and end up with no look at all! The vast majority of good bonsai trees are first grown up a few years, then chopped back hard, leaving a mature looking trunk to grow new smaller branches, giving the illusion of a much older tree.
Check out the Rest of our Bonsai Tree Guide
Growing Bonsai Trees is an extremely rewarding hobby. If you have the time, interest and vision, start your bonsai tree hobby today with our comprehensive guide: