Documents: Special Interest: Bonsai:

Simple Bonsai
by Jerry Filipski
by Jerry Filipski


Gerald (Jerry) Filipski is the gardening columnist for the Edmonton Journal, a position he has enjoyed as a freelance writer for the past 12 years. Jerry also writes for Canadian Gardening, the new Alberta Gardener as well as for the lifestyle magazine of P&O ferries. Jerry also does numerous public speaking engagements including some major gardening conferences and workshops as well as question and answer sessions for Wal-Mart and Rona.

September 23, 2007

"The art of making bonsai involves in itself the pleasure of cultivating trees; the sort of gratification which a mother finds in bringing up her child. It is accomplished with affection. To show affection is to comfort oneself.
-- Norio Kobayashi

Creating bonsai can be fulfilling as well as providing a unique addition to your plant collection. The Japanese word bonsai translates to "dwarf tree". The making of a bonsai is among the most time honoured of all Japanese forms of gardens, and specimens are known to live hundreds of years under the care of a master. 
The bonsai is a miniature form of gardening that reflects the beauty of nature on a tiny scale. Bonsai trees are favorites of city dwellers because even if there is no space for a garden, Japanese families still tend their bonsais on balconies, and window sills.
The beauty of bonsai lies in the fact that there is no right or wrong in terms of how to sculpt the plants into the desired shape. The mind’s eye of the gardener is what determines what is right or wrong. One gardener may see something totally different in a plant than another gardener. Create what pleases your eye. Far too many people feel the art of bonsai is something they cannot handle because it seems complicated. In fact, the techniques are very simple, basic and easy to follow.
The ideal plants for this bonsai are low growing woody shrubs, such as groundcover junipers and other creepers. You can also can also use plants with long tendrils such as wisteria vine and weeping willow, which cascade down the side of the pot. These are faster growing and require a lot more clipping, but they make large dramatic specimens in a very short time. Some local garden centres are beginning to carry dwarf specialty plants that are suited for bonsai. I have purchased Okinawa holly and dwarf balsam and cypress locally and created interesting bonsai specimens with these plants. 
The advantage in using dwarf varieties is in having a plant that naturally grows small and retains its dwarf shape and form readily. This does not mean you cannot use larger varieties. It simply means you will have to tend to them a little more to maintain their small size. Buy the larger varieties as small as you can. If you look you can find small junipers and so on in 4 inch pots. The younger and smaller the plant the easier it will be to shape and maintain.
For our purposes we will look at a Canadian style of bonsai that can be created in a day. The first step in creating bonsai is to study up on bonsai trees and gain a sense of how they should look. Check out books on bonsai or Japanese gardens from the library and study the pictures closely for shapes and proportion. When you go to the nursery to buy a plant for bonsai, it helps to have a picture in mind of how a nice specimen should look.
Next choose a pot. You can use a real bonsai pot but these are expensive. Check your local import store for attractive Oriental ceramics that have a drain hole, or a good quality red clay pot, preferably one that is square. The pot should be large enough to fit about half the rootball in. For a one gallon size plant your pot should be at least three inches (7.5 cm) deep and at four inches (10 cm ) or more in diameter. Smaller plants will fit in smaller bonsai pots.
To plant your bonsai you'll need a small amount of potting soil, a few pebbles, and a sturdy pair of scissors, clippers or wire cutters, and a small piece of window screen.

  • Cut the screen in a circle larger than the drainage hole and then lay it over the top. Then scatter the pebbles on top of that to increase drainage.

  • Slide the plant out of the pot, shake off some of the soil to get a view of the rootball. Gradually prune away the smaller roots at the bottom until you have a mass that is able to fit in the bonsai pot.

  • Fill the gaps with potting soil and try to avoid any air pockets underneath. Firm the plant down so the surface of the soil will be about a half inch below the top edge of the pot. Omitting this step will result in the water it running off and never soaking in thoroughly.

  • If you can get moss from tree trunks or shady parts of the garden, skim it off with a little soil and pack it around the base of the bonsai to cover up the soil. The moss will liven up every time you water. It will also act as a mulch to help in retaining moisture. This is an important consideration since the roots are shallow and not covered by much soil. The plant has a tendency to dry out quickly and careful attention needs to be paid to a daily watering regime.

  • Set your new bonsai pot on a table and sit down so you are at eye level. Have your wire cutters, clippers or scissors on hand and study the shape. Are there some twisted branches underneath that can be revealed? If so, clip away the foliage so you get a glimpse at them, but don't over do it. For a single long branch cascading off one side, head back the competitors and shave the edges to make it more attractive. Take your time because once you cut something off it can never be glued back on again.

Since these plants grow slowly they don't need a lot of high powered plant food but like a mild solution of liquid fertilizer occasionally. Provide the bonsai with moderate sun but no direct hot afternoon rays. Bring it indoors to enjoy during the winter, and replace the moss when needed.
Try creating scenes with stones, tiny wooden bridges and Japanese figurines arranged in scale with the bonsai tree.
Consider the miniature art of bonsai where all of nature is represented inside the confines of a tiny pot. Add just the right affordable touch to your Asian inspired decorating themes both inside and out and in the process discover the centuries old traditions of bonsai gardens.

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