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by Bennita Rouleau for the Pulaski Garden Club

The word Bonsai means a small tree in a pot. Is it physical, mental, spiritual? Actually, it can be many things, including an Asian art form, an extreme form of gardening, a path to spiritual enlightenment, or a simple hobby. Bonsai most likely developed in China in the 6th century but was adopted and claimed ownership by the Japanese. Western military men stationed in Japan at the end of WW II had their first introduction to this ancient art form.

Do NOT think of bonsai as a plant stuck into a “plastic” pot. Many of the beautiful trees in Japan are hundreds of years old and have been lovingly cared for by generations of the same family.

There are  4 categories, denoting size, as follows:

Mame  The smallest size up too and around 4 inches

Shohin  Small trees up to and around 10 inches

Kifu      Medium trees up to 14 inches

Chuhin  Medium trees up to 18 inches

Larger trees are called oogata or oomono.

The most frequently used styles include:




Informal upright

Formal upright

Forest or Group

The Japanese would have collected their bonsai by going into the mountains and finding a windswept, knurled tree and dug it up as their starting tree. Since few of us have an opportunity to go searching for a specimen in the wild, we rely on available nursery stock with interesting shape and form.

Do not look for a perfectly formed shrub, rather one that is bent, contorted, or catching your eye.

The shrub should have a heavy trunk (to imitate an ancient tree).

The needles or foliage should be healthy and green and it should display a health root system. Recommend  A SMALL JUNIIPER PROCUMBENS. They are healthy, have interesting shapes and are not expensive

Once you’ve found a tree (shrub) you need to get the proper soil. Bonsai require a course, gravelly soil the provides excellent drainage. You must provide water every day, but your bonsai cannot “sit in water. The roots will rot and your tree will die. You can buy soil mixes on line at Bonsai sites or you can purchase a mix suitable for cacti or succulents.

Next you need a proper pot. You can use a plastic or clay flower pot while your tree is in “training.”  Later on, you may want to invest in a bonsai pot which compliments the shape of your tree. Most of the bonsai sites on line also sell a variety of pots (Caution, they can be very expensive).

Your pot needs to have good (excellent) drainage holes. Cover these with screen wire or plastic screens (also available from online suppliers.)

Gently clean all the dirt off your plant’s roots. I use a metal chop stick to loosen the dirt and expose the roots. Have a bucket of water handy to rinse off the roots. If your tree has a tap root you need to cut it off back to the root ball. Then you need to trim off approximately ¼ to 1/3 of the root mass, leaving the small fine new roots.

Add a mound of soil in your pot and position your tree on top of it so that it is Off Center. You may use some of your wire to secure it to the pot by running a length   of wire around the roots and threw the drainage holes.

Now spread out your tree’s roots so that they fan out evenly round the base of its trunk. Gently pack soil around the roots tamping it down until you have covered the roots and the tree feels secure in your pot. Water it well and let it sit for awhile (several days if possible).

After your tree has settled into your pot, it’s time to give it a close look at how you want it to look in its ”finished state.”  The rule here is:  GO  SLOW! Once you’ve cut off limb it’s GONE. Your aim is to remove excess foliage   so that your tree looks old and weather beaten.

First look to remove any growth that is on the main trunk of your tree. This will help it look less like a “bush” and more like a tree. Look for any limb that does not conform to the image you are creating.

It may need to be wired to another position, or removed. Keep a spray bottle handy and mist your tree frequently. You may want to stop for a day or so and just study your tree. Look for ‘negative spaces” that remain you of an old tree with light shining thru it.

Study picture of bonsai on line and in books. Move your tree around and look at it from all sides. Set it on a table to shelf and look at it from eye level. Get to know your tree before any final trimming. One day you’ll look at it and think “I must remove that one branch and then it’s perfect!”