Bonsai trees are one of our favorite plants. Bonsai is the method of growing trees and shrubs to create small and dwarf-like trees. The name bonsai translates to ‘tray cultivation’. This is because bonsai trees tend to be grown in smaller, flatter containers, which restricts the root growth to a small area. This, combined with careful pruning and shaping, means that miniature trees that resemble the same shape and structure as a standard tree grown outdoors are able to be created.
Bonsai is often considered an art form. Most bonsai trees are grown from small seedlings or cuttings, which are rooted either in very moist compost or in water before planting. Some people have bonsai trees as ornamental decorations and other people see it as a fun hobby that they can excel at and display their art by creating differently sized and shaped trees with various species.
Bonsai trees can be both outdoor and indoor. In the UK and US, most bonsai trees tend to be outdoor varieties. However, during severe winters you may wish to keep your bonsai tree indoors to protect it from the harsh conditions and any freezing, which may otherwise damage or kill a small plant like a bonsai tree.
Bonsai can be created from many different varieties of trees and shrubs. Often, a shrub such as a juniper can be used to create a bonsai. Strictly speaking, a juniper is not a tree but a juniper is a type of shrub that can be shaped into a traditional outdoor tree-like structure.
Virtually all types of trees can be used to create bonsai trees. When the growth of trees is restricted by putting them into small tray-like containers, this has the effect of creating smaller leaves and branches in the upper part of the tree. Pruning takes place on a regular basis (at least monthly during the winter and spring months for most species) and this must be very carefully done to ensure the shape of the tree looks aesthetically pleasing whilst not damaging any growth that is intended.
If you are new to bonsai, using plants and trees that have naturally smaller leaves may be a good starting point. Plants with naturally small leaves, for example, something like junipers and azaleas, may be good plants to start to learn bonsai. Trees such as the Scott’s pine, Ficus, cherry, larch, golden larch, yew and Japanese maple may also be good selections for those taking up bonsai for the first time.
Creating a Bonsai Tree
Each species of tree or shrub used to create bonsai trees require slightly different treatments. For example, deciduous trees can be pruned at any time. However, most pruning work is undertaken in the winter and spring months and the trees should be allowed to propagate naturally throughout summer and autumn. Japanese maple trees (Acer Palmatum) are slightly different because they should be pruned in autumn and not in spring because otherwise, cuts may allow sap to form, which can bleed down the tree and damage or cause further stunted growth, which is not required. The shoots of Japanese maples can be pruned as necessary in spring but this should not be excessively undertaken.
Creating the Shape
As well as pruning, bonsai wires can be used to shape the branches to create ornate or natural-looking structures depending on the requirements of the owner.
As previously explained, bonsai should be kept in small containers to stunt the growth of the roots. In addition to this, root pruning and repotting as necessary, which may include using a wider tray eventually, will encourage the bonsai tree to produce finer roots. This again helps stunt growth and keep the bonsai tree miniature. However, finer roots create a larger surface area and a more efficient way for the bonsai tree to uptake water and nutrients from the soil or compost as the bonsai tree is potted in. Root pruning should be done in the springtime. Remember that most pruning of the upper part of the bonsai tree should be done in the winter months.
Every 1 to 3 years, the compost or other growing media, depending on the variety of the tree, should be changed. This should be done by carefully lifting the bonsai tree out of its tray-like container gently shaking off any excess soil, and then likely rinsing any soil from the roots that remain using just water (ideally clean rainwater). The bonsai tree should then be repotted into a suitable compost that is well sifted and aerated, and the compost should be pressed but not compacted firmly. If after watering on several occasions, the compost begins to compact to the bottom of the tray, you can top up the compost later on to ensure that all the roots are well covered and the tree is in enough growing media to sustain its nutrient and hydration requirements. Once repotting has taken place, do not keep the bonsai tree in a sunny or hot environment until it has firmly been re-established and you can see evidence of new springtime growth.
Caring for Your Bonsai Tree
Bonsai trees should be watered as needed, just enough to keep the compost moist. Because bonsai trees tend to be potted in shallow container-like pots, they may be prone to the water evaporating more quickly than it would otherwise do from a standard deep plant pot. This means that this is ideal to touch the compost on a daily basis to make sure that it is moist but not waterlogged. In very hot summer months where the temperature might exceed 28 to 30 degrees Celsius, it may be good practice to test the moisture level of the compost twice daily and add a sprinkle of water as required. During cooler months, the bonsai tree may just require light watering twice a week. Any type of water can be used, but ideally, clean rainwater should be used because this can prevent the buildup of minerals in the potting media, which are often present in tap water and bottled water. Also, some tap water may be treated with other agents such as chlorine, which might affect the way that the bonsai tree grows and takes up other nutrients from the potting media.
Indoor Bonsai Trees
As previously mentioned, most bonsai trees are outdoor varieties. However, some bonsai trees can be created using shrubs and trees from more tropical or hot regions, such as the weeping fig, the Chinese elm, olive trees, Ficus (focus retusa or ginseng) and Fukien tea (Carmona).
Indoor bonsai is a specialized aspect of the bonsai art, which is dedicated to species that can thrive indoors. The key lies in choosing species that adapt well to indoor conditions, and carefully providing the necessary care and maintenance.
As previously mentioned, some common species for indoor bonsai are Ficus, Carmona, and Chinese Elm. Ficus encompasses hundreds of species, but Ficus Retusa or Ginseng Ficus is particularly well-suited for indoor bonsai due to its resilience and tolerance for lower light conditions. Carmona, or Fukien Tea, is often chosen for its dark green leaves and tiny white flowers. Carmona is a tropical tree, usually requiring plenty of indirect sunlight and a high humidity environment. The Chinese Elm is robust and adaptable, characterized by a beautiful twisting trunk and fine leaves.
Caring for Indoor Bonsai Trees
Caring for an indoor bonsai can be a delicate balancing act. These trees need plenty of light, ideally close to a south or west-facing window where they can get ample indirect sunlight. A consistent temperature is also important, with most indoor bonsai preferring a range of 15 to 25 degrees Celsius. Remember, these trees are still living plants that are adapted to thrive in their natural environment. They are not adapted to the consistently high temperatures of a house or the lack of seasonal variation. Therefore, positioning near a window can help expose them to some of the cooler temperatures that may occur at night.
Humidity is another critical factor. Indoors, especially during winter months, air can be dry. Placing your bonsai on a humidity tray or regularly misting can help mimic a more natural environment. Furthermore, water the tree only when the soil gets slightly dry, and ensure thorough watering until it seeps from the drainage holes.
Pruning of the Indoor Bonsai Tree and its Roots
Pruning and trimming are key maintenance activities. Regular pruning helps maintain the tree’s shape, improve health and promote growth. For Ficus, pruning can be performed throughout the year. However, avoid heavy pruning during winter months when the tree is less vigorous. For Carmona, the main growing period is summer, and that may be the best time for pruning.
Root pruning is generally coupled with repotting for indoor bonsai trees. This is a crucial process to prevent the bonsai from becoming root-bound. Ficus is quite forgiving and can be repotted almost any time of year, though spring is ideal. Carmona should be repotted every two years, ideally in early spring, while a Chinese Elm can be repotted in mid-spring to early summer, every one to three years depending on its age and size.
Repotting Indoor Bonsai
When repotting an indoor bonsai tree, gently remove about a third of the root ball from the outer layer, and then plant the tree in fresh bonsai soil mix or a specialized compost. This process helps the tree absorb nutrients better and ensures the health and longevity of the bonsai.
Fertilizing also plays a vital role in an indoor bonsai’s health. Use a balanced, slow-release bonsai fertilizer and follow the manufacturer’s instructions for use. Generally, feeding of indoor bonsai trees can be done monthly during the growing season and less frequently during winter.
Cultivating indoor bonsai is a rewarding experience that harmonizes nature and art in your living space. It requires attention and patience, but the tranquility and aesthetic boost they bring are well worth the commitment in our opinion.
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