[Bonsai picture]
[Black pine (Pinus Thumbergii), 120 years old]

Glory of Bonsai

The word bonsai literally translates to "planted in a pot or tray." Though the word is Japanese, the art itself has far deeper roots, so to speak. In many countries where space is at a premium, trees and forests in their natural settings are sometimes rare. In order to experience the feeling of nature and the beauty of trees found in the wild, the art of bonsai was born.

The art of bonsai is the art of imitating the spirit of nature. It has as one of its basic elements the idea of balance, of bringing all the elements of tree growing, of line and form, into an elegant and pleasing effect. The word also carries connotations of patience, since there is no such thing as instant bonsai. Creating the appearance of aging is another of the basic tenets of any good bonsai gardening. Many such bonsai plants take many years to train and grow to achieve the effect intended by the practitioner.

Bonsai has become to most of us a Japanese art of dwarfing trees, of miniaturizing plants to make them easily accessible. This is done by trimming the branches, leaves, trunks and roots to keep them in a compact size and container. But there are many misconceptions about the art of bonsai, not the least of which is its origin.

Nationally recognized bonsai expert [Steve Choi] Steve Choi runs Omiya Bonsai, a bonsai farm in Annapolis, Maryland, where some of his specimens --- many of which have been in his family for generations ---are nearly 200 years old, yet occupy no more space than a large vase of flowers. Choi founded the Chesapeake Bonsai Association, and its members are responsible for some of the magnificent plants that are often on display and comprise some of the collection to be found at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. Choi says the art of bonsai originated even further back in history than is commonly believed, and that Japan is but one of the greatest proponents of the craft.

Whether from China, or Korea or Japan, the important thing to remember about bonsai is that is is meant to evoke the spirit of nature, beauty and ideas. This means that in practicing the art, the outcome will not always be exact miniature replicas of full-grown trees. Rather dwarfed plants will mimic the look of their cousins growing in the wild, whether as a windswept and deformed pine tree growing on the craggy coast of California, or an old oak, upright and alone in a field in Mississippi. Or a cedar growing into a flowing cascade from a rock in central Asia. They will evoke the spirit of what it feels like to stand in those places and admire a particularly old or beautiful or gnarled tree.

There are several different styles of bonsai. The small trees are generally categorized by size, the kind of base the trees have, the trunk size and shape and condition, the number and display of limbs and so forth. The smallest bonsai may be as little as 5 or 6 inches. The largest are generally over 24 inches tall. The shapes of the trees make up the most familiar way of categorizing the trees: "chokkan" or formal upright; "kengai" or cascade; "shakan" or slanting; "moyogi" or informal upright and "han-kengai" or semiscade. But there are numerous other categories ( raft style , broom, forest grove, clump and literati , to name a few) based on other attributes such as trunk size or limb display.

To start a bonsai project, some tools are needed. Having the proper tools will make the difference between total satisfaction with your hobby or total frustration. Finding the plant you want to bonsai is the next important step. After finding a specimen, whether from a nursery or grown in the wild, the novice should pay most attention to the soil. Soil is the most basic and important ingredient for bonsai gardening. It is extremely important that the soil be able to hold moisture while at the same time have the ability to drain quickly. Soils with good sand mixtures or river clay mixtures are often good for bonsai. Watering of the plant is a most crucial factor, and plants should be watered every day in summer, every other day in winter. Watering should consist of making sure to drench the bonsai thoroughly so that water runs out the drainage holes. Bonsai should never be allowed to dry out.

Regardless of the style of your bonsai, pruning and proper trimming are absolutely important to the overall look and health of the trees. This should be done, as a general rule, only when the plant is in a growth phase, usually in the spring. Plants should be wired to better shape the plant to the desired position. This is usually done with copper or aluminum wire which is removed after the bonsai has been trained, usually within 6 to 12 months.

Some experts recommend using only organic fertilizers once a year. Others advise using a weakened solution to fertilize plans once once every motnh. This is because chemical fertilizers may burn the roots and ultimately kill the plant. Many enthusiasts use "tamahi", a mixture which combines ingredients like cottonseed oil, fish oil, chicken manure, bone meal, ash, and rape seed. These fermented organic balls are placed on top of the bonsai soil and slowly dissolve when the plants are watered.

Steve Choi cautions that most households are not the proper place for the growth and health of bonsai. That's because bonsai, like their counterparts in nature, need lots of sunlight and good humidity. The environment of the home, generally, is too cool and dehumidified in summer, too hot and dry in winter. Except in the most frigid regions, most outdoor bonsai should be grown outside with the addition of a coldframe in winter to help prevent damage or death. Where an outdoor environment is not possible, the plants should be grown in a sunny area, preferably a bright window. Avoid direct sunlight. Temperatures should be kept no higher than 70 degrees, and you should avoid placing bonsai on or near hot-air ducts and radiators. To increase humidity, the plants should be misted or situated on pebble trays filled with water. Plants should not sit in the water.

Bonsai may last forever. With proper care and nourishment, they will likely last for many generations and bring evocations of nature to all who gaze upon them for many years to come.

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