The Japanese word bon-sai literally translates to ‘planted in a container’, and this peaceful and attractive art form is the practice of training tree seedlings into attractive miniature shapes. Bonsai has been around for over a thousand years, originating in China and being reinterpreted in Zen buddhism. Buying your own bonsai tree is an easy way to bring this practice into your home, but it can be pricey and the good news is, with a bit of motivation you can easily train your own bonsai in your garden.
Bonsai trees aren’t specific types of dwarf plants, but rather tree cuttings that have been cultivated and trained under certain conditions to maintain their tiny size and interesting shape. It’s great fun to grow your own bonsai from a seedling, and you can really get creative with the size and shape. You can grow them from seed, or dig up a self-sown tree seedling from your garden. Oak, hawthorn, and traditionally eastern plants like Gingko biloba or Acers work beautifully. It usually takes a few years for a tree seedling to really take hold – but patience is a virtue, and it’s well worth the wait!
You will need:
- Tree or shrub seedling
- 4-5 inch pot
- Potting compost
- Secateurs (or you can get real bonsai shears!)
- Shallow bonsai pot
- Copper garden wire
Plant out your seedling in the 4-5inch pot containing potting compost, for example John Innes No 1. Potting compost has a carefully balanced blend of nutrients in to make sure that young plants have everything they need to grow healthily. It may take up to two years for the seedling to grow sturdy enough to re-pot, so keep it well watered in warmer weather.
Up to two years later at the start of the growing season (usually March), you can remove the plant from its pot. Gently shake the old soil from the roots, and use your secateurs to trim the roots back to about half their size. You can now re-plant the seedling into your bonsai pot, again using potting compost.
Now, you can think about the shape you’d like your bonsai tree to take. Use your secateurs to trim back about a third to half of the shoots, aiming for a craggy, natural shape. Don’t be afraid that the tree looks lopsided – these tend to be the most attractive forms for bonsai. Some good rules to follow include avoiding two branches that grow at the same height on the trunk, or if there are disproportionately thick branches at the top of the tree.
As the new shoots grow and firm up, use your copper wire to wind around and bend them, creating an interesting shape to draw the eye. You can really get creative here; there are specific bonsai shapes that exist which you can look to for inspiration, but it’s nice to work freehand too. Leave the wires around the shoots until they have set in position, then make sure to remove it so it doesn’t scar the branches as they grow.
During the growing season, make sure you water daily, and as the weather gets hotter you may need to water twice daily as the shallow pots tend to dry out quickly. In the summertime, use a well-diluted liquid feed every 3-4 weeks. Keep the plants out of direct sunlight and wind, as this will make them dry out faster. After a few years, the tree may be ready for re-potting to stop it from becoming pot-bound. In winter it’s best to bring them inside if possible, or stand them in a greenhouse or well-lit shed.