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The Art of Caring for Bonsai

A Guide to Nurturing Nature’s Miniature Masterpieces

BY Sebastian Ortiz

Like any hobby, bonsai begins with that spark of inspiration that ignites when you experience the art of others, and suddenly your world expands, as you see more of what could be and what you can create. At least, that is the common story between Norm Geisinger and John Walker, members of the Birmingham Bonsai Society.

Norm remembers the day he first laid eyes on a bonsai at the New York Botanical Garden. There he saw a collection of over three dozen exquisite, living sculptures, each possessing a unique charm as they embodied nature’s magnificence in a confined form. “I saw them and I was just absolutely intrigued with how they do this. How do they create these things?” said Norm. Similarly, John also remembers the day when his interest in bonsai began. As John remembers it, he attended a bonsai show at Birmingham Botanical Gardens and left with the artistic inspiration to create his own. “Just seeing bonsai in a formal setting like that gets you inspired and gives you an idea of how in-depth you can take the hobby,” he said.

Bonsai, the centuries-old Japanese botanical art form originates from China as a practice known as penjing, or the art form of creating landscape scenes on a miniature scale. As John and Norm will tell you, many horticultural and aesthetic decisions are involved in achieving the true goal of bonsai: nurturing and training a tree in a container to appear as it would in nature. While the hobby is a worldwithin-worlds of depth, and it might seem intimidating at first, John and Norm share tips on how to get started caring for your bonsai with ease.

Choosing the Right Plant

The journey of caring for a bonsai begins with selecting the right tree species. Choosing the right tree, according to Norm, requires doing a bit of homework first. “I tell novices and people that I’m training: if you see a tree at the local nursery that you’ve never worked on before, don’t buy it, go home and do some research first. All of the major universities that have any kind of horticultural school offer all kinds of resources about trees. See what the tree needs in order for it to survive,” said Norm.

“A common misconception people have is that they believe bonsai are made for indoor display. Only tropical varieties do good indoors, but even those grow better outside in the summer,” said John. Therefore, researching the needs of your tree and your region’s climate are essential to ensure your bonsai’s health and longevity.

Additionally, consider the size of the tree, as different species may grow to varying heights and styles. While traditional Japanese bonsai trees include pine, juniper, and maple, there are various species to suit your preferences and location.

Watering with Care

“Water is probably the hardest thing to get a handle on at the start of your bonsai hobby,” said John. Overwatering or underwatering can be detrimental to the tree’s health. John suggests regularly checking the moisture level of the soil by sticking your finger about an inch deep. Only water the bonsai when the top layer of soil feels dry to the touch. “If your tree dries out completely, the top of the soil will become hydrophobic, so you will have to soak the tree to get it to uptake water again,” said John.

Pruning and Shaping

Pruning and shaping are fundamental to maintaining the artistic form of a bonsai. Regularly trim away excess growth to maintain the desired shape and promote healthy development. Use sharp, clean bonsai shears to make precise cuts, avoiding any tearing or damage to the branches. “As a rule of thumb on deciduous trees, trim when the newest growth has hardened off,” said John.

Wiring can also be used to guide the branches gently into the desired position, but it should be done with care and monitored to prevent wire marks. “The best way to learn how to wire is to watch someone experienced or watch online videos. Another way is to cut small branches off of trees in your yard to practice.” said John.

“Pruning and wiring is the best way to keep your tree in shape, but pruning can hurt the tree if done too often,” said John. Each species is a little different when it comes to pruning so it’s best to join a Bonsai Society to learn the intricacies of specific species.”

Repotting with Precision

As bonsai trees grow, they outgrow their pots and require repotting every 2-3 years, a process that rejuvenates their root system. Carefully remove the bonsai from its pot and trim away one-third of the root mass before repotting it in fresh bonsai soil. “When you cut the roots back once you put it back in the soil, the tree will react by growing out new root hairs,” said Norm. These are extensions of the tree’s roots that increase the plant’s nutrient and water intake.

Repotting should be done during the early spring before the tree starts producing new growth. Trees that need repotting usually stop draining as well; you can test by inserting a chopstick to see how hard the root ball is.

Take the tree out of its pot, work the old soil around the edges and the bottom of the root ball. Trim, overly long, circling roots, or any thick roots that can be safely taken off. You do not have to take all of the old soil away. You can leave a small amount. Repot into fresh soil that drains well; water thoroughly; and keep in shade until you see new growth at the tips.

Protection from Pests and Diseases

Keeping your bonsai safe from pests and diseases is important to its survival. “Observe your tree daily, and look for pest and fungal problems,” said John. Webs, holes, or discoloration can be signs of pests or diseases.

Caring for bonsai is not merely gardening, it is an art form that stems from a deep appreciation for nature’s beautiful landscapes. By following these essential tips and guidelines, novices can foster their own artistic connection with bonsai and witness the growth of a living masterpiece! “Just keep in mind the only way you can learn about bonsai or any plant is by making mistakes. Don’t feel horrible if something happens to your first tree,” said John. “Stick with it and you will get better and better.”

So, let your bonsai journey begin, and immerse yourself in the fascinating world of miniature wonders!