THE ART OF BONSAI
By Trey Pitsenberger, co-owner
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
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
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.