Bonsai Beginner – Bewitched and Bewildered
I try not to consider my self a bonsai beginner or anything but an admirer. Being an avid gardener, I’m always checking on my plants’ well being. Are they flourishing? Are they happy? One of the ways I know plants are happy is how big they are getting. If a plant just sits there, I know I have to do something. When I plant a tree, I watch it grow with great anticipation, imagining myself lying in its shadow in my hammock, reading a garden book. So it’s a little confusing to me that people want to keep their trees small, so small that they live in pots for hundreds of years.
My husband is such a man. He caught the bug years ago, joined the local bonsai society and, as a bonsai beginner, bought at least 30 tree saplings, along with a few ready-made bonsais. He planted the saplings in two rows of pots around my pond to fatten up, and a few years later we had our own little woodland tunnel the kids could run through and hide in! Those particular trees never became bonsais in the true sense of the word, although ‘bonsai’ literally means ‘tree in a pot.’
The art of bonsai is based on the windswept, stunted trees you see on exposed mountainsides, struggling to grow in the wind, twisted into gorgeous shapes like Han-kengai (semi cascade) or Fukinagashi (windswept) or Shakan (slanting); or trees that grow in dense forests and have to fight for food and light, like Bunjingi which only has a canopy right at the top.
A very brief history
Despite its Japanese name, the culture of growing trees in pots began in China so medicinal trees could be carted from one region to another. The herbalists who grew them always had a steady supply of fresh leaves. Then the art of bonsai became fashionable among the rich elite. The fad spread to Japan and Korea for various reasons, and then across the world.
For some reason, bonsais appeal to the controlling instinct in men. The club Lionel belonged to was mainly comprised of men, although their star member was a woman called Trish who created the most stunning landscapes with multiple trees and scale models of mountains and villages.
My brother in law came over when Lionel was trimming his bonsais and was filled with enthusiasm to become a bonsai beginner. I got an irate call from my sister a couple of hours later. Stewart had taken an axe to their pretty (and prolific) guava tree, intent on turning it into a bonsai. Alas, the poor tree was ruined and Stew’s enthusiasm quickly evaporated when he realized he would have to get the roots out of the ground and into a pot.
Romantic and mysterious
There’s a certain allure surrounding bonsai trees, even if I’m undecided about growing them myself. They’re romantic and mysterious and speak of fairy tales and mythical creatures. Our friend Martin, a well-known hairdresser in Harare, had the most spectacular collection of bonsai trees in his garden, using his flamboyant hair cutting skills on them to great effect. His biggest and best was a baobab tree, about two feet high and almost as wide, complete with cream of tartar pods.
The interesting thing about bonsai trees is that, although their leaves get smaller due to constant pruning, their flowers and seedpods seldom do. It’s almost as if they’re staying true to their roots, determined to send full sized seeds out into the world.
So bonsai growers will usually choose small flowered trees so that the tree doesn’t look weird come blooming time. Larger bonsai trees can get away with larger flowers and sometimes growers deliberately go for the strange effect of full sized blossoms on miniature trees.
Owning one or two bonsai trees is rather delightful. Our daughter gave Lionel his first bonsai in a new land for his birthday last year. It’s a Juniper which she bought on Highway One from a man in a mini van in Southern California. It now sits on our veranda, a tiny version of the twisted, tortured trees growing in California. To tend it, Lionel has a couple of dental instruments, mini rakes and a tiny shovel.
Getting caught up in the addiction
The challenge comes when you build up a sizable bonsai collection. The trees have to be trimmed each spring; many must be repotted and when you have fifty trees, it becomes a bit unwieldy. Volunteers have to be called in to help with the trimming and repotting or the collection starts to look haggard and unkempt. Many bonsai beginners abandon their poor trees after a couple of seasons.
Having started with one, we now have three bonsai trees after a friend, another instant enthusiast caught up in a bonsai moment at the very same mini van, dropped off his newly acquired trees for me to look after, having had them for one week! I water them and admire them in my courtyard, but I’m resisting the charms of bonsai keeping. I’ll hand that responsibility on to Lionel and keep on urging my own potted trees – a lemon and a fig – to reach for the sky.
Here’s a video from Bonsai Empire showing some gorgeous trees . Growing these little beauties can become addictive, but before you venture into the world of bonsai, check out this ebook, Bonsai Gardening Secrets, to help you get started. I’ve put up links to this and other useful gardening ebooks in the side bar so take a look.
If that got you all enthusiastic, I found an interesting list of good trees for bonsai for you to have a look at.
Enjoy your gardening adventures and don’t forget your sunscreen.
By the way, here is a link to a list of gopher resistant plants: http://www.groundcoversandgardening.com/gopher resistant plants.
If you want to buy plants that deer probably won’t eat, look here.
Oh, and please comment below or share this post if you like it. Thanks!