Bonsai have been an intrinsic part of Japanese culture for over a thousand years. These dwarf-potted trees were originally cultivated in China but were adopted by Japanese Zen Buddhists in their attempt to embrace the beauty of nature during a period of severe austerity. Nowadays, the growth of bonsai trees is less to do with discovering the path to enlightenment and more about the fusion of horticultural knowledge and design.
The art of bonsai has gained popularity around the world: in Italy they offer bonsai theory classes, thousands subscribe to specialist bonsai publications in the US, Spain and France and every four years, the World Bonsai Convention attracts more than 1200 participants. But don’t be fooled, growing a Japanese bonsai tree is a difficult art to master which demands both a physical and an emotional commitment. So what exactly are Japanese bonsai trees and how do you grow them? Our beginner’s guide explains all.
How to grow a bonsai
Bonsai are not a species of dwarf plant. Instead, they begin life as a cutting from a larger plant (providing that it has a woody stem/trunk and grows true branches) which is subsequently potted in a shallow container and encouraged to grow.
The beauty of bonsai lies in its versatility. There is no set form, allowing your imagination and creativity to run wild. However, for those of us who are looking for inspiration, there are guidelines and style guides available.
How to care for a bonsai tree
Regarded as the most important part of bonsai care, come morning or night, bonsai trees should be watered whenever the surrounding soil appears dry. To ensure that the entire network of bonsai roots are sufficiently watered, continue to water your bonsai until the water begins to run out of the drainage holes. Use a fine-nozzled watering can filled with rainwater to gently soak the bonsai tree without damaging and washing away the soil. Although untainted rain water is preferred, watering your bonsai with tap water is also perfectly acceptable.
Just like water, fertiliser is another vital component of bonsai maintenance. There is, however, a delicate balance between over and under feeding your bonsai tree, so be sure to read the fertiliser packet instructions carefully.
The nutrients nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium each have a vital role in the survival and growth of your bonsai:
Nitrogen– an essential component of all plant tissue, nitrogen promotes the growth of leaves and stems.
Phosphorous– stimulates healthy root growth, increases winter hardiness and encourages fruits and flowers to appear.
Potassium– known as the ‘quality nutrient’, potassium promotes overall plant health and growth in several different ways.
As the seasons change, so do the fertiliser needs of your bonsai tree:
Spring (March-May) – Increase the nitrogen content of the fertiliser to boost growth.
Summer (June-August) – Choose a fertiliser with an equal volume of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium.
Autumn and Winter (September-February) – Try using a fertiliser with a higher phosphorous content to prepare and maintain the tree during the harsher winter period.
Pruning is an essential part of bonsai up-keep and is not just for aesthetic purposes: pruning also helps to keep your bonsai healthy. There are several different parts of the bonsai which require your pruning attention: the shoots, leaves, buds and twigs. If you maintain and prune your bonsai tree regularly you can expect a more mature and beautiful tree bursting with vitality.
When you need to repot your bonsai generally depends on its species. However, as a rule of thumb, bonsai need to be repotted every 2-5 years and early spring is the best time to do it. A great way to tell if your bonsai needs repotting is to see whether its leaves have begun to yellow, or whether, when lifted out of the pot, the network of roots have amalgamated into one solid mass.
How to repot your bonsai
- Lift your bonsai out of its pot and remove a portion of the root mass.
- Trim any excess roots.
- Clean your pot and replace the mesh over the holes on the underside of the pot.
- Cover the bottom of your pot with a layer of soil and reposition your bonsai on top of it.
- Fill in any gaps with fresh soil.
For a comprehensive, pictured guide to repotting, check out: https://www.bonsaiforbeginners.com/Repotting-bonsai.html