Altitude, lack of water, poor soil and swampy conditions are all things with which the gardener is familiar, and which influence the size of the plants we have in our garden.
The dwarf pomegranate, the dwarf bamboo and the dwarf golden apple are good examples of plants which have evolved to take account of their natural state thousands of years ago, or which have been selected or developed by man to make harvesting or marketing easier. The dwarfing rootstocks used for apple trees are a good example.
Pruning is also a means of restricting the growth of particularly attractive plants to fit them in certain situations by pruning the roots and also the branches, but there is also a very interesting group of plants which are kept dwarf by cultural techniques of pruning and training originating in China over 2000 years ago, and perfected by the Japanese at least 700 years ago and probably much longer. I came across ‘bonsai‘ trees decades ago in Birmingham, England, when a friend bought some and asked me for help in training and pruning them. I hadn‘t got any idea, so the pair of us did some research into their cultivation, and in all honestly even this didn‘t increase our knowledge a great deal. What we wanted was practical instruction. And where from? Japan of course.
It would be nice to tell you that we came across a gardener who was the world‘s leading expert in bonsai growing who lived in Japan, but the fact is that help came from a very different (and highly unlikely) source. Someone right here in England! Quite where he got his information from, God only knows, but we went to see this source of expertise on the outskirts of Burnley and received the basic guidelines. It was like a laying on of hands, and from a man who might himself might have been fashioned in the same way as his collection – small and ancient, gnarled and twisted, but with a kind of rough beauty that often dwells with people who have spent a lifetime wracked in toil.
One of the first things to appreciate is the range of trees that can be grown as bonsai. Quite a few conifers such as cedars, junipers, spruce and pines, many deciduous trees like the maple, birch, beech and oak, and many fruiting trees like plum, cherry, quince, apricot and orange (in fact many of the citrus) and flowering trees like camellia, azalea (properly called the deciduous rhododendron) and wisteria. All these and many more lend themselves to this kind of growing.
The basic growing rules are simple enough to follow. Good light in a window or patio, but not of course, direct sun through the glass or you‘ll cook them. Bonsai must be kept moist all the time and misting the tops with a syringe is highly beneficial. My mining friend used to have a fine layer of sphagnum moss on the surface of his trays as an indicator of water needs.
When the right amount of water was being received the moss remained green, but when the plants started drying out the moss started to turn from green to a slightly dry looking pale green. Once water was applied it revived to its natural green colour. As a general rule water bonsai thoroughly every day if you grow it outside on the patio where it might dry out more quickly because of breeze, and thoroughly every other day if it is kept inside the house.
Getting a really good balance is all important and the whole point of growing them. In China over 2000 years ago if the Emperor on visiting the various provinces came across really great scenery he would have it reproduced in miniature in the imperial garden in Beijing. These scenes were eventually copied in a shallow tray and the shape of the tree chosen and the way they were trained became the art it is today.
The rule for pruning the tops is simple enough. New shoots are pinched back when they appear, but the roots are only pruned once a year and trimmed. The shape of the bonsai is usually influenced by wire in the early stages but to avoid too much restriction and damage to the bark it should not be kept on for more than three or four months.
Bonsai grow slowly, and do not need to receive too much nutrition. Slow release fertilizers are undoubtedly the best ones to use, and should be applied no more regularly than say once every three weeks to a month.
Bonsai take years of skill to get to the point of sale, so good plants are not cheap. But then no work of art is. It just increases its value.
Until next week may your God go with you wherever you may be.