Jul 24

Bonsai – Introduction To the Living Art

Blooming Azalea Bonsai

Blooming Azalea Bonsai

Say ‘art’ and most will think of painting or sculpture. There is a kind of sculpture, though, that takes as its raw material not stone or wood but a living tree. That is the art of bonsai.

From the Japanese word for ‘tree in a tray’, Bonsai is the art and product of shaping trees by careful pruning to produce a miniature tree or bush. Not produced from genetic dwarfs, bonsai are the result of years of patient shaping of ordinary species by master artists.

Because they are grown and shaped in a small pot, but are produced from ordinary species – pine, maple and many others – extreme care is required to keep the delicate plants healthy.

Soil type and temperature must be just so – conditions that are only within the artist’s control within a certain range. Pruning techniques take years to master and are only possible to a certain kind of temperament. Potting and re-potting practices must be learned and they are many and varied.

Watering alone is a complex science for these small trees and bushes. Too much and the bonsai will become water-logged and develop fungi and root rot. Too little and the soil quickly becomes dry and leaves wilt and the tree dies.

Soil and potting practices overlap with watering needs since drainage is critical. Pruning habits interact with shaping techniques, which in turn are affected by soil maintenance and watering practices.

Bonsai are among the most difficult products of art to create as all these elements and many more have to be carried out to near perfection merely for the plant to survive. Add to that complexity the goal of creating pleasing shapes, styles and colors for both plant and pot and you have a high art.

On top of the inherent horticultural difficulty of learning and mastering a dozen sub-sciences, there is the need to master the artistic vision and skills to produce any of several basic or advanced styles.

There are five basic styles alone: formal upright, informal upright, slanting, cascade and semi-cascade. From that base branch out a dozen advanced types, including the literati and other difficult forms.

An art of that kind is not mastered in a month.

Craftsmen labor for years to produce a single tree, which may last a hundred years or longer. The trees are then often passed down from generation to generation, each successive artist adding his or her own distinctive style. As the tree is lovingly molded according to the personal aesthetic of each caretaker, past efforts are venerated and learned from.

Years of training and experience are required to become a skilled bonsai grower. Ordinary horticulture is by itself a difficult craft. But to produce a miniature tree from ordinary species takes a lifetime of patience and learning.

The results are widely regarded as well-worth the effort, though. Bonsai are admired the world over for their uniqueness, their longevity, variety and beauty and for the skill that goes to produce them.

In an age when brilliant technology can mass produce global cell phones and self-diagnosing automobiles, these individually designed and hand crafted, miniature works of art continue to inspire awe and admiration.

Jun 24

Bonsai: How To Care for White Pine

Pine Tree Bonsai

Pine Tree Bonsai

Though no bonsai is easy to train or care for, pine is among the easier species. More tolerant to drying, they adapt well to a pot and often require only regular trimming and biannual repotting.

In the wild, pine commonly grow to 50 feet or more with trunks that are a foot in diameter and larger. Yet they make excellent bonsai trees and look stellar in miniature form. Because of their naturally straight trunks and symmetrical branch arrangements they are well suited to the formal upright (chokkan) style.

In the chokkan style, the trunk is straight and rises vertically from the base, in contrast to the cascade (kengai) that is both curved and grows horizontally across the surface. The chokkan thus makes a good starter species for budding bonsai artists.

Bonsai trees are not a dwarf variety, but a full-sized species that has been carefully trained to emulate conditions in the wild on a very small scale. White pine bonsai, therefore, will have the same characteristics as the full grown variety.

White pine have blue-green needles that form in bunches of five, growing from a small bud. Branches grow in a circular pattern, looking down at the tree from above, with several levels around the tree at intervals up the trunk.

A healthy tree looks healthy, especially in the spring when new growth appears. Needles will be a brighter green and start lengthening. Full-sized pines can add two feet or more to their height during the season. You’ll want to remove or reduce some of the new shoots during this period every year or two.

Repotting can be carried out during spring but can wait as late as early autumn, after the summer heat has cooled.

During repotting ensure there is good drainage when you’re done. Pines tolerate dryer soil much better than over-watering. A mixture of 50% soil, 10% peat and 40% coarse sand works well for many, but there are many variations on the material and relative amounts.

Repotting is a good time for root trimming, but be conservative. Pines need a deep pot in order to grow a deep root system for stability. No more than 1/3 of the root should be cut off during the procedure.

Branch pruning is best carried out during late autumn.

It’s common for some of the needles to become brown and fall off in the summer. This needn’t be cause for concern unless the tree is diseased.

Check for large hemispheres of very dark growth on the branch that can indicate the presence of a tumor. If there are none, and only a small percentage of the needles are brown, the condition may well be normal.

Aphids and mealy bugs are common pests, but easily controlled by a commercial or home-grown mixture. Often a slight misting with a dilute liquid dishwashing detergent will take care of the problem temporarily. The needles should be misted with plain water the day after.

Pines can be watered daily provided there is very good drainage, but every other day is fine. Feeding should be done every two to four weeks from early to late spring and again at the end of summer to early autumn. This coincides with the pine’s active growing seasons.

May 24

Bonsai: How To Care for Maple

Maple Bonsai

Maple Bonsai

Maples come in a variety of sub-species, but all of them make beautiful bonsai trees. Slightly more difficult to care for, they are nonetheless greatly in demand by bonsai enthusiasts. Their leafy appearance is attractive, particularly in the fall when they turn to yellow and red, just as do the full-sized maples.

Some varieties thrive well as indoor plants, but for the most part bonsai trees are outdoor plants. Opinions vary about how much sun they require, but partial sun/partial shade is a safe bet with most types.

They survive winter well in the wild, but in bonsai form they require some care. Less water in the winter is called for and care should be taken that the roots don’t get any frost.

Copious watering in the summer is warranted, provided – as with any bonsai tree – there is good drainage. A little extra moisture isn’t a bad thing, though, especially for the flowering varieties. Maples like moist soil.

They adapt well to various styles, but the informal upright (shakan) may be best, given their leafy nature and somewhat brittle branches. It is possible to train them into the han-kengai (semi-cascade) and others, but extreme care must be taken to avoid splitting the trunk and branches.

Han-kengai can be achieved without wiring by a cord attached to a stake in order to curve the trunk. However, this form doesn’t typically occur in nature. Since traditional bonsai art aims at emulating nature on a small scale, this form is uncommon.

Feeding once per month is fine, with a slow-release fertilizer from spring to autumn. Taper off during hot summer months, though. An organic type works well, but Peter’s 20-20-20 is also a good mix. Hold off any feeding for a few weeks after repotting.

Since they can produce ample branches and leaves, root systems tend to grow accordingly to support them. Pruning, therefore, should be taken as a concerted project. For fewer branches and leaves, roots can be pruned more aggressively.

Branch pruning is best carried out in fall or winter when there are fewer or no leaves. This gives a clearly visible working area, leading to fewer mishaps. Maples heal better if pruning paste is used to seal the wound after branch removal.

Pinch back new growth during the active growing season to keep foliage to a moderate level. Remember you are creating a bonsai, where the goal is somewhat minimalist. A fully leaved tree looks more like an ordinary houseplant.

Wiring is less common with maples for a variety of reasons beyond the somewhat brittle branches. They acquire pleasing shapes with leaf and branch pruning without extra effort and they scar easily.

Like most bonsai trees, repotting every two years is a good practice. When replanting a mixture of 60% soil, 20% peat and 20% coarse sand will provide the correct drainage environment. This is best done in early spring, before buds have started.

Apr 24

Bonsai: How To Care for Blue Junipers

Juniper Leaves of a Bonsai Tree

Juniper Leaves of a Bonsai Tree

Junipers are, along with pine, another of the common species sought by beginning bonsai enthusiasts. And for good reason: it’s a beautiful species that tolerates a wide variety of conditions well.

Junipers make an especially good species for the kengai (cascade) style in which the trunk and branches grow out over the pot and below the horizontal surface.

Junipers enjoy full sun and tolerate moderately dry soil conditions. Soil shouldn’t be allowed to dry out completely, however. Copious amounts of water are fine, provided there is adequate drainage.

Feeding should be carried out every three to four weeks from early spring to autumn. Opinions vary, with some preferring organic fertilizers but this seems to be as much an ideology as a view based on good botanical science.

Man-made chemical fertilizers can be harsh, though, and should be used with care to ensure the proper proportions. Half-strength of 20-20-20 NPK (Nitrogen – N, Phosphorus – P, Potassium – K) is common. Avoid applying during the hot months or within a few weeks after repotting.

Repotting is a good time to trim roots, but gradual reduction is best. Cut off no more than 1/3. Trees younger than 10 years old should be repotted every two years, older ones every three to four.

Soil mixture is commonly 60% soil, 10% peat and 30% coarse sand, but there are many variations on the relative amounts and material. Loam, leaf mold and sand in equal proportions is a viable alternative.

Repotting is also a good time to carry out pruning of unwanted branches. Wiring is best done in late autumn, however, after the major growing season has tapered off. If carried out during active growing season results will come quicker, but careful observation is needed to avoid scarring.

Many bonsai artists use pinching to remove the new shoots that occur during the active growing season. Just take the new growth between thumb and forefinger and give a sharp twist to remove. Take care not to move or bend the tree or branch. The procedure should be carried out frequently during the growing season to control the growth of new foliage.

Red spider mites are a common pest of this species. Look for yellowing foliage. Check under the branch for small spots. To double-check, hold a white sheet of paper or a tissue underneath. Sharply tap a branch without too much force. This should dislodge a few if they’re present. If they move, you know you have something you don’t want on your tree.

A home recipe of nicotine solution can be prepared by soaking tobacco in water overnight, but a commercial insecticidal solution will be more effective.

After the insecticide has operated for a day, spray the foliage with water daily during the growing season and allow to dry in full, but early sun. Full sun should be avoided for a few weeks right after repotting.

Apr 16

Bonsai – Advanced Styles

Bankan (Twisted) Bonsai

Bankan (Twisted) Bonsai

Beyond the basic styles of chokkan (formal upright), shakan (informal upright), kengai (cascade) and so forth there are several that don’t fit neatly into those categories. The divisions are arbitrary to an extent, but like any specialty they evolve over time to help bonsai artists guide and discuss their work.

Some of the more common advanced styles are the Fukinagashi (Windswept), the Bankan (Twisted) and the Bunjin (Literati).

Fukinagashi (Windswept)

Like most bonsai trees, the windswept style attempts to emulate nature’s effects in miniature.

Its trunk is slanted, as if grown in an environment where the wind tends to blow more strongly in one direction than another. The branches, too, will acquire a preferred direction as a result of growth that is constantly bent.

Areas near cliffs or hills, for example, do this frequently. Coastal regions often experience the conditions that produce fukinagashi. Meandering rivers, although not the result of winds, are formed by similar basic physical forces.

Unfortunately, emulating forceful winds is beyond the technical means of most bonsai artists. But the style is formed by use of similar forces, even when the artist isn’t aware of why they are basically the same.

Stressing a living plant in a preferred direction causes them to cooperate and tend to grow in that way. Those stresses (physical stresses, not the sort of chemical stress induced by unhealthy conditions) can be achieved by well-practiced means, developed over centuries.

Just as a kengai (cascade) can be formed in part by harnessing the trunk with a cord tied to a stake, so too can the fukinagashi or windswept. Wire can be used as a supplement, but this is more often used for branches than the basic trunk shape.

Often the foliage is sparse, since in natural conditions much of it would have been blown away by the strong winds that produce the bent effect.

Bankan (Twisted)

The bankan style is thought to have originated in China with the beginnings of penjing, the Chinese art that led to bonsai in Japan.

As the name suggests the trunks are twisted and gnarled, sometimes to the extent of forming animal shapes. The dragon is a popular model for the bankan.

Sub-styles range from the Nejikan, in which the trunk makes only a partial turn to the Takzukuri, or Octopus. In the latter, the trunk is considerably twisted and the branches follow suit, making a kind of vortex shape that emulates the winds that shaped the full-sized species in nature.

Bunjin (Literati)

One of the most popular bonsai styles is the bunjin or literati. The simple style, with a thin, slanted trunk and few branches is deceptively difficult. It was inspired by Chinese paintings that depicted trees growing in harsh climates. The results are often spare but dramatic.

As the trunk frequently twists around, branches are displayed at sharp angles upward and the tree presents a different view from every side. Japanese Red Pines are a popular species for this style, but there are many others. Branches often twist as they rise.

These advanced styles are not usually attempted by the novice, but sooner or later every bonsai artist will want to try them. They require great skill and patience, but the effort is more than amply rewarded by the beautiful results.

Dec 24

Bonsai Basic Styles, Part III

Kengai (Cascade)

Kengai (Cascade) BonsaiThe cascade style is among the more beautiful and desired, but also more difficult to achieve. The trunk grows down below the level of the container, often twisting as it does so.

In nature, a tree growing near a cliff subject to heavy snows, avalanches and wind may assume this inverted position. Those forces are not generally available to the bonsai artist to imitate, however. Nevertheless, with wiring and patience it can be accomplished.

To remove obstacles from growth in this direction, it’s important that the tree and pot be placed near the edge of a table or bench so the trunk can hang below the horizontal. Also, since the trunk will be on the side and below, it’s important to use a heavy pot for stability.

As the trunk is encouraged to grow in the downward U-shape, branches should be trained to sprout horizontally to give the tree a full appearance. Planting directly in the center, not near the edge of the pot, is standard practice.

Often the tree will be trained to grow up and over, rather than simply over the edge. This gives a flow to the look and is accompanied by a tip that resides directly above the center. Branches should be trimmed to create a ‘stair-step’ pattern to complement the cascade and give it a ‘meandering river’ look.

Since the trunk and several branches will reside below the pot, extra care is required to ensure that all receive adequate water and nutrients. Foliar feeding (applying fertilizer solution by spraying leaves or needles, which is then absorbed by the foliage) is recommended.

Han-Kengai (Semi-cascade)

Another style, han-kengai (semi-cascade) is often categorized separately. In this case, the cascade projects over the horizontal plane at the base of the pot, but neither the trunk nor branches grow below that level. In the semi-cascade style, the tip remains above the level of the ‘ground’.

The category is not sharply defined, since some han-kengai will have portions that are below ‘ground level’, while others will project out horizontally. In either case they retain the curving trunk style common to both the kengai and han-kengai styles.

As with any style, using the proper species for your envisioned design is imperative. Fortunately in the case of the kengai and han-kengai, many will serve. Junipers are a popular choice, but flowering cherry trees are also used. Even cedars are used, where the flexible wood makes them an accommodating partner in the project. Some flowering species are used, such as chrysanthemums. ‘Weeping’ species are also good choices, such as willows.

As with the kengai, it’s important to ensure that the slow-moving nutrients make it to the tips. Foliar feeding is easily accomplished but needs to be done regularly as part of the watering and feeding practice.

Dec 24

Bonsai Basic Styles, Part II

Shakan (Slanting)

Shakan (Slanting) Bonsai

Shakan (Slanting) Bonsai

Japanese bonsai artists have developed many intricate and detailed forms of bonsai, in which each element is positioned just so. This is evident in the shakan, or slanting, style.

As the name suggests, the trunk is slanted, usually at a moderately steep angle, mid-way between an upright and a cascade style. The slant will be anywhere from 30 degrees to as much as 75 degrees.

The lowest branch is made to point away from the direction of the trunk, lending a visual balance important to the bonsai artist.

Full-sized trees in nature acquire these characteristics as the result of early development in an environment where wind has a tendency to blow more in one direction than another. Another key factor is the amount of shade present above the young tree.

Contributing to the effect is gravity acting on a trunk weaker in one direction than another. The shape of the ground holding the tree and the location and amount of water also influence the outcome, though to a lesser degree.

All these factors can be emulated by the bonsai artist.

As with any bonsai training, it’s best to start with a species or instance that is amenable to the style. Luckily for the bonsai artist, many trees will experience a natural slant to some degree. Bringing this out to a more pronounced state is simply a matter of training and patience.

The trunk, though slanted will be straight rather than curved. Of course, as with all bonsai artistry, within this apparently rigid classification there is much variation. Bonsai, though a disciplined art always finds room for the artist’s individual interpretation.

Even so, care should be taken to keep the result in balance. Longer branches should be distributed away from the slant, shorter branches in the same direction. Longer roots should be encouraged away from the slant, again for balance.

Within the style there are several sub-types, such as dai-shakan and chu-shakan. Each sub-type refers to the direction in which the branches are trained relative to the angle of the trunk. In the chu-shakan style, for example, the branch is trained back toward the trunk. Dai-shakan, by contrast, spreads the branches away from the trunk.

Conifers, such as White Pine, make good ‘modeling clay’ for this style. In order to display them to best advantage, they should be planted in the center of a rectangular pot.

Dec 24

Bonsai Basic Styles, Part I

Moyogi (Informal Upright) Bonsai

Moyogi (Informal Upright) Bonsai

Over the centuries the artists of bonsai have developed hundreds of unique styles. But within this complexity there are a few that form the basis of most of the variations.

Chokkan (Formal Upright)

The simplest, but still exquisitely beautiful, is the chokkan or formal upright. Though still a miniature, this style most resembles the full grown tree. The form is erect and partly symmetrical, roughly classic Christmas-tree shaped, but sometimes with a rounded crown.

Branches are approximately horizontal and the lowest pair are frequently trained to point toward the viewer, with a third pointing away at a level between the two in front.

Though the chokkan is more regular than other styles, it need not be planted directly in the center of the pot. Visual variety can be achieved by planting a third from one end, either left or right as you face the tree.

Smaller branches nearer the base should be trimmed off, and others should be balanced around the trunk. The first branch starts at about one-third up the total height of the trunk.

Remember that to achieve the right result, you must have a good beginning. That starts with selection of the proper species. A tree that, left unmodified, would naturally grow straight is the best choice.

One of the less difficult styles to achieve – no bonsai is easy to train – it nevertheless can exhibit significant variations. Using different species, such as Larch, or Pine, or Spruce can result in distinct looks.

Moyogi (Informal Upright)

The moyogi shares many similarities with the chokkan, but vertical and horizontal regularity is altered. The moyogi is less even in appearance, but to the bonsai enthusiast no less beautiful than its more symmetrical brother.

Branches are trained in the same manner, but the top is modified to bend slightly toward the viewer. The trunk may also be slanted, but not curved, slightly.

Slanting can be achieved by training, or by selecting a type with a natural tendency to veer from the vertical. Check similar instances of a species from the top looking down to detect deviations from the vertical.

To achieve a slant that tilts away from the viewer, plant or train in the pot so that the roots move forward, to the front of the pot. This can be encouraged by wiring and selective watering that favors the front of the container. As the trunk slants backward the roots will point ahead naturally as the tree attempts to maximize its support.

Moyogi, like the chokkan, generally have full crowns with branches that start about one-third up the trunk. Deciduous species, such as the Japanese Maple, or beeches, are naturally well-suited to this style. Some fruit trees, such as Pomegranate or Crab Apple, may also serve the purpose.

All bonsai, regardless of style, require much patience and care over many years in order to achieve health and longevity. But these two styles are the least difficult to attain and may serve as a good beginning for the novice.

Oct 24

Bonsai Pruning, The Primary Art

trimming bonsai treeSince bonsai are grown from ordinary, not dwarf, species, their small size is primarily the result of pruning, both branches and roots.

Though much learning and experience is required for proper soil preparation, watering and other needed skills, no other aspect is so critical for making the bonsai more than just a small tree. It’s the key to making it a fine work of art.

Before even pulling the shears from the drawer, it’s best to start with a conception of the final goal desired. Hand-sketching or gardening software can be a big help here. Create a vision, on paper or monitor of what you want the final result to look like. Then you can begin to develop the proper techniques.

‘Finger pruning’ is at the top of the list of skills needed. For Junipers and Cedars and other conifers, this involves pinching new growth off wherever shaping and eliminating is carried out. Simple in theory, just support the tree or branch with one hand and take the new growth between your thumb and forefinger in the other. Remove with a sharp twist, but avoid pulling on the branch or tree.

It will take some practice to be comfortable with the technique. Rather than damage a valued bonsai, gain some familiarity first by performing it on a small bush. Once you can remove the growth cleanly without tugging on the plant, you’re ready to use it on your bonsai.

For deciduous trees, such as Maples, the Chinese Elm or others, scissor tip pruning is best. Trim the new shoots back to your imagined point based on the sketch. Leaf pruning or defoliation is also common for some deciduous trees and bushes, such as a ficus. Carried out in mid-summer, you simply remove half of the leaves with a pair of fine scissors. Leave the stems intact.

Pruning leaves and branches is carried out primarily to shape the final result to the desired look. Root pruning, which should be carried out in concert with a branch pruning regimen, affects the basic health of the tree.

Pruning branches and leaves will affect root growth. Fewer leaves and branches means less for the root system to supply with water and nutrients. Heavy branch pruning will slow the growth of the root system.

Nevertheless, roots should be examined at least every two years. Depending on the age and species, and the size of the pot, roots can be become root bound. Though roots will naturally curve somewhat inside the soil, when they encounter a hard obstacle such as the side of the pot, they curve inward. Eventually they have nowhere else to go as more roots occupy the available space.

Before that happens, they should be trimmed with very sharp scissors. Trim back existing roots to about two-thirds their current length, eliminating a few younger and a few older roots. Be sure to leave ample number and length. Re-pot into a larger pot for larger and older trees.

Proper pruning times are dependent on species, but you can take the full-sized species as a guideline. Some are pruned at the start of growing season to stunt growth, others at the end in order to leave less prior to the dormant period.

Dec 24

Bonsai Wiring Made Easier: Preparation

Bonsai Wiring

Bonsai Wiring

Wiring is the practice of wrapping aluminum or copper wire around the bonsai trunk or branches to shape the tree. Training bonsai is never easy, but it can be made easier by proper preparation and execution. Here are some basic guidelines.


Pruning a bonsai is a selective process that helps determine the number and position of branches and leaves. But to affect the overall shape, wiring is needed. This practice is critical to achieving the balance and form needed to make the bonsai into a completed work of art.

By wrapping the trunk and branches with wire of the right length and thickness in the correct way, the basic bonsai style is created. No wrapping at all results in a formal upright (chokkan), for example, while to create the cascade (kengai) requires extensive wiring over many months or longer.

Since wiring puts stress along a trunk or branch, it’s essential to exercise extreme caution and patience during the process. The alternative can easily result in a cracked branch, or worse, a cracked trunk and a dead tree. Also, it’s possible to wrap too tightly or at the wrong season. The result will be scarring that can kill the tree or create damage taking months or years to heal.


Begin with a sketch or computer drawing capturing your vision of the final result. It doesn’t have to be final, but you should have an image in mind as your goal. Unless your goal is to only produce a small effect on one or two branches, start at the trunk, then move to larger branches, doing the smallest branches last.

Before wrapping the intended tree, practice. Start with a simple wooden pole or small ordinary tree branch, just to get the feel of the wire and develop the dexterity to hold the branch and wrap at the same time. Once you’re comfortable holding the branch with one hand and wrapping with the other, without bending or tugging anything but the wrapped part, you can move to the bonsai tree.


Selecting the proper month to begin can be complex. Different species begin and end their growing and dormant phases at slightly different dates. The amount of growth during a given month also varies by type of tree.

Some deciduous (leafy) trees are more delicate in the spring, when their growing season begins and sap begins to flow. Caution dictates waiting until later when the sap flow is lower. Summer is preferred.

Waiting too long, however will result in lost growing activity, which helps shape the result. Pine wired in autumn, by comparison, can easily experience scarring if the wire isn’t checked every couple of weeks.

Wiring in winter is possible, but because of low or no growth during this period will require extra time and patience.

Scarring occurs when wire is wrapped too tightly and/or left on too long and bark begins to grow around the wire. It can take years, sometimes forever, for scarring to heal. An ounce of prevention is worth ten tons of cure, in this case.

To minimize sap flow, wire when the tree has been slightly dried. Too dry and you risk cracking a branch. Too wet and sap flow creates branch pressure, also encouraging cracks.

Wiring, like every other bonsai practice is a delicate balance requiring learning, patience and practice.

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