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By Trey Pitsenberger, co-owner Golden Gecko

Imagine a tree that is two hundred years old, with its gnarled branches displaying the venerability of its age, and its only twelve inches tall. This is bonsai. Bonsai translated to English means ‘planted in a tray’. In Japan bonsai is considered an art form. The great masters of bonsai are as gifted and talented as artists of paint, sculpture, and other art forms. Their creations can be worth thousands of dollars and displayed at shows just as you would display the finest artwork. Some of the bonsai creations can be hundreds of years old, passed down through the generations. Like a great painting, you and I may not be able to produce a masterpiece, but we can still take up the art and make satisfying creations to enjoy.

The plants used for bonsai are many. You should first decide if you would like an evergreen, like a pine, or a deciduous plant, like a maple. The best way to start a bonsai is to purchase a starter plant from the nursery. Some garden shops sell special bonsai starts in two or four inch pots. These are young plants that will take a little time to grow into what you might consider a bonsai. Sometimes the lonely plant that otherwise might not warrant attention makes a perfect bonsai. While normally you would not purchase a root bound plant with a broken branch, or a twisted trunk, it just might make the perfect bonsai.

Once you bring your plant home take it out of the pot. Do your work in the shade to prevent the roots from drying out. Trim back the rootball by about a third. Put the plant in a container that is slightly smaller than the one it was purchased in. Let it grow, until the next replanting season. You will then thin out the roots even more, and transfer it into it shallow bonsai container. When you work in this gradual way, you’ll be able to get the root system down to size with out a lot of shock to the plant. It is not absolutely necessary to take the extra year to prepare the plant for placing in the bonsai container. American culture wants results now, and it is possible to take the plant and place it into the bonsai container for instant effect.

When planting into a bonsai container that has been used before, make sure to clean the pot with chlorine bleach to kill any disease that might be left over from earlier plantings. The container should have drainage holes inch wide or larger. The holes are covered with 1/8 to inch wire or plastic mesh to keep the soil from escaping. When filling the pot you can use a special bonsai mix that allows the plants to get the moisture they need, while preventing constantly wet soil that could cause the plant to rot. I like to use Master Nursery Cactus Mix, since it provides good drainage, allowing daily watering if necessary.

Once you have removed 1/3 of the roots, place the plant in your container. Usually the plant should be placed off center to create a natural look. You might also want to angle the trunk to make it even look more natural, and windswept. Fill the container with your potting mix, making sure to work the soil down around the roots so no air pockets remain. A chopstick is very useful for this. The top of the soil should be about inch from the top of the container. If you would like to add moss to the bonsai it is best collected from a dark, damp area, like by a stream or river. Keep it moist after collecting, and place on the soil surface of the bonsai. Do not use moss purchased in flats, like Irish or Scotch moss, as these will start to climb up the trunk of the plant.

While there are bonsai that are made from houseplants, most are plants that naturally grow outside, and thus should be kept outside most of the time. You can bring the bonsai in to the house for about a week, to show it off, but it should be taken back outside, and placed in a lightly shaded area to grow. You will need to water about once a day, during the summer and fall. Do not let the bonsai dry out completely, yet we don’t want it kept soggy. You will soon learn just how much your bonsai plants need watering.

These are just the very basics of bonsai. I hope it will encourage you to try this ancient garden technique. Your local garden center usually has someone who is versed in the basics of this art, and would be happy to get you started on what can develop into a lifelong hobby.

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