There is a widespread belief that caring for bonsai is very complicated, and the way they are portrayed in films and series does little to dispel this myth. While it is true that bonsai is an ancient art, there is nothing exotic, mysterious or overly difficult about caring for them. To some extent caring for a bonsai is like caring for any other plant and although there are different details to take into account, anyone can enjoy the benefits of having these cuties at home. You just need a little knowledge to gain confidence, so after reading and learning how to get started in the world of bonsai, you'll be running to the shop to order one.
Bonsai 101: the basics
Many people have the idea that a bonsai is a species of tree, when in fact bonsai refers to the technique of maintaining dwarf trees and giving them a very particular shape and aesthetic. On the other hand, the word bonsai refers to the plant and the pot as a whole, because the aim is to provide a miniature landscape, so it is common to see arrangements with rocks and other natural elements in harmony with the tree. Bonsai can be made from almost any species of tree, although some species are always preferred over others for aesthetic and environmental reasons.
Another interesting feature of bonsai is that, unlike a painting or a sculpture, a bonsai is a work of art that never ends. It is constantly growing and developing, so to some extent you can't own it, you just take care of it until the next generation takes over. As such long-lived and unique trees, it is easy to understand why it has such a deep and important meaning in Japanese culture.
Types of bonsai
Before you go out and get your first bonsai, you should have an idea of what type you would like to have. Bonsai can be classified according to their habit and size. Depending on the way the trunk is made to grow, a bonsai can be:
Moyogi - Informal upright style
In this style of bonsai the tree is upright, although the trunk may have some curvatures. It is a very popular form for beginner trees, as it does not require as much care in terms of pruning and wiring the branches, and almost all trees look very nice in this style. Your first bonsai will probably be of this style.
This style is ideal for deciduous trees, which usually have thin branches and are very leafy. As the name suggests, the trunk is straight, but branches out at one third of the height as if it were a broom turned upside down.
Chokkan - Formal upright
This type of bonsai requires the trunk to be completely straight, plus the base of the trunk looks a little wider than the rest, giving the appearance of a triangle. It is a style seen in nature in conifers when they grow without having to compete for light. They look very imposing and handsome, especially as they offer a very natural set.
Shakan - Leaning
As the name suggests, the trunk should grow at a slant, if possible at an angle of 60 to 80°. To maintain visual balance, the first branch is left in the opposite direction to the inclination. The tree should maintain the conical shape, with a thick base tapering to the apex. The idea here is to imitate those trees that due to external conditions (wind, terrain, lack of light) grow in capricious directions.
Kengai - Waterfall
Imagine that a tree has grown on the edge of a mountain, has received the weight of some rocks that have slid down and has grown downwards. This is basically a Kengai. It's a tricky growth habit to some extent, because you're forcing the tree to grow in the opposite direction to its natural one. It is usually planted in tall pots and you want the branches to grow horizontally to harmonise the whole.
where do I start?
- Seeds, cuttings and trees
There are several ways to obtain a bonsai. There are those who grow their chosen species from seed, and while this is possible it requires a good deal of patience as it may take 3 to 5 years before you can start styling it. This method is economical but impractical for the enthusiast who wants to enjoy the beauty of bonsai immediately.
Another option is to buy or look for a young tree, in fact there are places that sell pre-bonsai or trees that are the right size to start working on them. For this you require the precise knowledge to know how to work with the roots and how to style the branches using wires and even then it is a risk, because they don't always survive, especially when you are starting and learning.
In my opinion, the best option to start in the world of bonsai is to buy a young tree that is already prepared and ready to go home. This way you ensure that the bonsai is strong and on track to continue to develop healthy and happy. All you will have to worry about is caring for it and looking after it. In any case, it is advisable to buy it from reputable places like Be Green, as they offer you the guarantee that you are getting a healthy and perfect tree.
- Choosing the right tree
The first point is the same as choosing any plant: you need to know your space and lifestyle. You need to take into account the space, the climatic conditions and the region where you live. You should also think about whether you want to have your bonsai indoors or outdoors, as this is a determining factor in choosing the perfect species. If you decide to have it outdoors, you will find many more options, but don't let this discourage you, as there are some beautiful species that grow very well indoors.
The safe bet is to choose a tree that grows naturally in your city or region, as you will know that it will adapt perfectly to the space. For example, the olive tree or Acer palmatum can grow perfectly in almost any region of Spain. If you have any doubts, you can ask the experts at Be Green at the time of purchase.
- The perfect size
Bonsai come in a variety of sizes depending on the species and how the tree has been arranged. It is possible to find specimens as small as 20 centimetres, up to monstrosities of 1 metre or more. Think about the location, lighting and aesthetics and remember that the tiniest ones may require a little extra attention.
- Potting is important
Bonsai is a word that includes the plant and pot together, this is because a bonsai is a little piece of the landscape at home. The pot should complement the size and style of the tree. It should be wider than it is tall, with enough substrate to cover the tree's roots and drainage holes to allow excess water to drain away. A good trick is to worry first about the form and function of the pot at first, then you can change to one with a better aesthetic sense when the tree is a little more developed.
While the care of each bonsai will depend directly on the species of tree, there are general considerations you should take into account. As with any type of plant, the most important thing is to place it in the right spot, where it will receive the amount of light and humidity it needs to be happy. Once it is well positioned, caring for it will be easier.
The amount and frequency of watering will depend, as always, on several factors such as the species of tree, the size of the pot, the climate and its location. In any case, you should be aware that because the pot is so small, the substrate tends to dry out quickly, so you should be very attentive to watering. This does not mean that you should water daily or several times a day, because excess moisture can cause root rot, which is one of the main causes of bonsai death. Pay attention to the substrate before watering and learn its own rhythm. Always check that the drainage holes are not blocked and that the pot is the right size for the tree.
- Repotting and potting medium
Most bonsai usually require repotting every one and a half to two years or so. This will prevent the tree's roots from growing so large that they lack room to develop, become tangled and make it difficult for the tree to absorb water.
To transplant the tree, carefully remove it from the pot, trying to protect the main roots. Gently remove excess substrate. You can prune the roots, removing the tips of the thickest and oldest roots that have no nutritional functions. Lift the plant and trim with clean, sharp scissors the bottom part of the root system, the part that hangs down, about halfway down. This stimulates root growth and preserves the size of the tree.
As for the substrate, it should retain water, without waterlogging, allowing adequate drainage to allow oxygen to circulate and prevent root rot. These characteristics can be achieved by an inorganic substrate, containing some akadama, which is a baked clay made especially for bonsai, and the right proportion of organic matter.
- Pruning and shaping
While you don't have to prune your bonsai all at once, it is something you will have to do at some point when it has developed so much that it starts to lose its shape. The aim of pruning is to make the tree look exactly like a large, adult specimen, but in miniature. Pruning should be done in spring and using suitable tools so as not to damage the branches. If you want to prune for aesthetic reasons, do it in winter.
There are certain precepts to keep in mind when pruning the branches of a bonsai:
- When you have 2 branches on the tree of the same size, cut one and keep the other.
- If one of the branches grows in a strange, crooked or unnatural way, you should cut it off.
- If you notice that there are branches at the top of the tree that are too thick and disproportionate, you should cut them off.
Trim any overhanging branches that damage the conical or triangular shape of your tree in a regular way, as well as removing any dry leaves or broken branches. Remember to always use suitable tools and go little by little, you can always trim a little more but if you overdo the cut and deform the tree, you will have to be patient and wait for it to grow back.
As for the techniques for shaping and styling the tree, anodised aluminium or copper wires are used, delicately wrapped around the branches so that they can be bent and moved into the shape you want. In this way you can give the tree the look you want. This is not for beginners and you must know how to do it well in order not to hurt the branch and to achieve the desired result. If you have bought an already grown and styled tree, this is not necessary.
Fertiliser and/or fertiliser application should be done during the active growing period (spring and summer), depending on the species of tree, although many use a balanced 7-7-7 fertiliser. Fertilising is very important because the tree is in a limited space, with a reduced amount of nutrients that must be replenished on a regular basis. It is advisable to dilute fertilisers to half of what the instructions indicate or use half the dosage to avoid any risk of burning the roots with excess nutrients.
Dedicated to creating an army of cacti, succulents, poodles and cats to help me conquer the world. In the little free time I have left, I play, write and dance.