In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
Winner of the 2002 Ben Oki International Design Award. (Photo courtesy of Bonsai Clubs International)
The art of Bonsai is a hobby enjoyed by a select few gardeners, although it seems to have gone out of favor in the past decade. I greatly admire the patience it takes to cultivate this ancient hobby and encourage anybody who has the space to try growing at least one in their garden.
Bonsai appeared first in China somewhere in the third century, B.C. Japanese monks picked it up and perfected it into an art. Cultivating, training, and caring for miniature plants is a time-consuming, but rewarding hobby.
The objective of bonsai is to create a miniature tree, or landscape, which takes on the aspect of nature. Sometimes the desired effect is age, and trunks are wired and twisted to give the appearance of great antiquity. One old gardener, who worked for the city of Oakland, cultivated bonsai trees as a hobby for over 40 years. When he passed on to that great garden in the sky, his collection of miniature trees was worth over $250,000.
There is no such thing as an instant bonsai. It takes time for the branches to develop into a mature-looking tree. Bonsai is a practice in patience.
Starting a Bonsai
You can start your own collection of bonsai by going to your local nursery and buying a young tree. They cost between five and twenty dollars, depending on variety. Cedars (Cedrus) are an excellent choice for beginning bonsai gardeners. They have flexible branches that don't easily break. Maples (Acer japonica) make wonderful bonsai specimens, especially those with colored bark, such as the Coral Bark Maple (Acer Palmatum 'Sango Kaku').
Fruit trees make excellent bonsai specimens. I once saw a miniature peach tree that could have been a gift fit for a king. Pomegranate (Punica grantatum) eventually produce full-sized fruit, given the proper care. The leaves, trunks, roots, and branches will stay small, but the fruit will grow to full size on all fruit-bearing trees when grown as bonsai.
In nature, older branches tend to sag and droop. Branches on young trees tend to grow upward. To make a young tree appear older than it is, young, flexible limbs are wired and then gently bent into a downward direction. Wiring does not hurt the tree unless you bend the branch too far and it breaks. If this happens, wrap it tightly with floral tape and place the tree into a large container so the roots can grow and the tree has a chance to heal.
Caring for a Bonsai
Bonsai trees tend to dry out quickly because the pots are small in comparison to the foliage. You will need to check the soil frequently and may need to water as often as twice daily during hot weather.
Regular garden tools will suffice, until you become addicted. Once the bug bites, you can spend a fortune on dedicated bonsai tools.
Fertilizer your Bonsai during the active growing season. Cottonseed meal is an excellent source of nitrogen for miniature trees and has the added benefit of improving the soil texture. It's also organic and naturally slow-releasing.
There are dedicated bonsai clubs where members are proud to show off their handiwork. Central Park, located on El Camino and 5th Street in the City of San Mateo, has an excellent collection of bonsai trees in their beautiful Japanese garden, which is open to the public. Hakone Gardens in Saratoga also has a fine collection.
There is a reason this hobby has been around for so long. It is a living art form that can be passed down from generation to generation. It's not unusual to see bonsai trees that have been cultivated for over one hundred years in the same pot, or at least they look that way!
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