Bonsai – fascinating small plants, the cultivation of which quickly turns from a hobby into a passion. But not everyone enjoys dealing with the secrets of caring for and pruning a bonsai. If you plan on getting into it, you should definitely learn a little about the basics of bonsai cultivation. After reading this article you will know a little more about whether a bonsai is really right for you.

The bonsai culture

A bonsai is not just a tiny tree. A bonsai is garden art, a very old variety of garden art developed in Asia. It doesn’t just “shrink trees” by any means, but limits growth with artistic expertise in such a way that shrubs and trees thrive in the smallest of spaces and in tiny bowls, where they can then be shaped from an aesthetic point of view.

Such a small work of art does not arise by itself. The most important basis for dealing with bonsai cultivation is probably the question of whether you have recognized the requirements and take them seriously. Working with bonsai is an intense, time-consuming and laborious hobby. They immerse themselves in a strange world of aesthetic and temporal dimensions. It quite often requires a concentration that we tend not to give our hobbies.

The Asians consider bonsai as living beings, which is basically not alien to us. According to Western understanding, too, plants are living beings; as eukaryotes (living beings with a cell nucleus), they are even on a par with animals. In the Asian culture, however, there is also the fact that, according to the Far Eastern religions, every living being, including plants, is involved in an eternal cycle of rebirth. Until the creature was able to reach such a spiritual maturity in a particularly long life that it can enter Nirvana. For a real bonsai gardener, it is therefore of great interest that his plant reaches as old as possible with optimal care.

A bonsai is therefore not a disposable item. Many of these plants can live for more than a century. The occupation with the bonsai should probably only be started by people who expressly want a contemplative moment when working with the plants.

Peculiarities of bonsai care

At the same time, this first of these peculiarities explains the decisive difference between bonsai and “normal ornamental plants”: the characteristic feature of a bonsai is the culture in a limited root space. The tray intentionally contains only a very small volume of soil because this limits the root growth of the selected plants. If a bonsai has very little space available to form new roots, it needs much more intensive fertilization than a normally growing plant, which can get the nutrients it needs from the soil to develop the desired growth under the given conditions . However, too much fertilizer should not be given either, as the little bit of soil under the plant would quickly become salty.

A traditional bonsai is cultivated in a soil mixture, which means that watering must be very carefully dosed in terms of quantity. On the one hand, only very little water can be stored in the small pots with their small soil volume, on the other hand, any excess water can hardly be caught, which, however, quickly causes the roots of the bonsai to rot. This balance can be maintained somewhat more easily when using modern mineral substrate mixtures, which are therefore being used more and more in bonsai culture.

Then the location of the bonsai also plays a bigger role than you are used to from your ornamental plants. Because here, too, it’s all about the subtleties – if a bonsai is a little too dark, it will develop too many extension shoots, long thin shoots that quickly make further targeted design impossible. Other bonsai have very specific light needs and they are much less willing to compromise here than a regular sized ornamental.

The next big difference to “normal ornamental plants” is the vigilance required when caring for bonsai in relation to pest infestation and diseases: While the “normal gardener” often only reacts when the plant is already clearly damaged by disease or small animal infestation, a Bonsai are unlikely to recover from such a late reaction – any infestation and loss of leaves or even entire branches is much more noticeable on these tiny sized trees, which are designed in great detail than on a larger plant. It is therefore one of the most important basics of bonsai care that the gardener notices and fights undesirable developments very quickly.

By pruning to bonsai

A bonsai is not “born” as such, it is not a special plant. The bonsai pine would grow into a regular pine if the gardener did not use his formative power. Only regular pruning ensures that the bonsai shows its dwarfism.

To do this, the root is first treated in a special way: If a plant wants to develop a taproot, it is removed. In this way, a branching of the root ball is initiated from the outset, which should grow into a root base that is as even as possible.

The plant itself is also traditionally shaped by constant pruning, and the branches are forced into a specific shape by being stretched with palm fiber cords. Today, tension wires are mostly used for this purpose, this process is called wiring. Individual twigs, branches or the trunk itself are wrapped in a spiral with a special aluminum wire or copper wire. This is then carefully bent into the shape in which the growth should develop.

When it comes to cutting measures, a distinction is made between a basic cut and a leaf cut. With the basic cut, also known as the maintenance cut, all shoots that exceed the framework of the desired overall shape are cut away. The leaf cut serves a different purpose. It is there to even out the growth balance by giving the plant the illusion of an “artificial autumn” in which the leaves are becoming fewer and fewer. The pruning of the leaves is mainly used to bring about miniature growth in fast-growing zones. After leaf pruning, the tree continues to thrive, but now produces shoots with smaller leaves. In any case, that is the goal and happens in most cases. In addition, leaf pruning promotes very fine branching of the small tree.

When it comes to basic pruning measures, regularity is particularly important. Only with constant pruning will the bonsai branch out sufficiently filigree and form nice, dense leaf cushions. However, regularity does not mean that you always have to cut your bonsai with scissors. Rather, it is about cutting off the right amounts at the right intervals. Prune too often, stimulate growth too little to grow a well stocked bonsai. The time of year and the age of the removed branches also matter. Stronger budding is to be expected in spring, and when pruning into perennial wood, dormant buds are particularly encouraged to bud. This promotes renewal from the center of the treetop and is desirable because the bonsai grows stronger and healthier overall.

There are many other subtleties that need to be considered, e.g. For example, when cutting leaves, the stalk should never be removed when a bud is visible – if this bud later sprout as desired, the stalk will fall off on its own anyway, but before that it could interfere with the sprout of the bud.

Debarking of branches or parts of a trunk, which causes artificial aging, and various grafting techniques that add branches to the small tree and obtain the exact shape that is desired are used as special finishing measures. This happens through copulation (joining two branches of the same strength), flattening (sometimes several scions attach to a thick base) or goat’s foot grafting (particularly stable form of flattening through wedge-shaped incisions).

Bonsai formation should be learned

Even pruning a bonsai is anything but uncomplicated, and it is not uncommon for an inexperienced gardener to need all his courage before he dares to “bend” his plant even a little. The grafting of the bonsai is even more complicated, it is not enough to simply tie the rootstock and grafting rice together. On the contrary: you need an opposite bud at the cutting point on both branches. The two parts must be fixed to each other. However, you must not use every material for this, and if the interfaces are not sealed properly, you will quickly catch germs.

The hesitation before the first cut in particular has led to a very special kind of “bonsai culture” in areas where a bonsai specialist doesn’t usually live next door: Again and again one sees somewhat strange plants in Western households, which once when bonsai started, but are now happily growing in all directions. You can save yourself that if you attend a bonsai workshop before purchasing a bonsai, where you will learn the basics about care and pruning.

The bonsai check

With or without a “bonsai course” – at some point the time has come when you have to decide on a plant. In principle, any woody plant can be grown as a bonsai, but it is definitely advisable for a beginner to first purchase a bonsai that is rather easy to form and care for. This should also be so cut-compatible and robust that minor mistakes in trimming and care do not immediately lead to a “total loss”. Answering the following questions will help with the selection:

  • Should it be a bonsai that is cultivated indoors?
  • Or should/may your bonsai also be set up and cared for in the garden?
  • Is there a location in the apartment with enough light but without direct sun from the south?
  • Can you provide a location with adequate humidity?
  • Could a bonsai in the garden get a location in midsummer where it is not exposed to the blazing sun?
  • Do you have a suitable overwintering place for such a bonsai (frost-free and bright – conservatory, garage, stairwell or similar)?

Depending on the result, there is a clear tendency towards indoor or outdoor bonsai, which means that very different plants are available for purchase. Indoor bonsai grown indoors are grown from plant varieties native to warmer climates. Incidentally, “indoor” bonsai is misleading, even an indoor bonsai likes to wander outdoors in summer. For outdoor bonsai, on the other hand, only a plant that originally grows in a temperate climate zone can be grown.

Bonsai strains for beginners

1. Indoor-Bonsais:

  • Crassula ovata, Geldbaum:
    • Extremely compatible with cuts
    • can stand in the same (bright) place all year round
    • pour little
    • easy to propagate and inexpensive
  • Ficus mircrocarpa or retusa, Chinese fig
    • Fast-growing and tolerant of pruning, suitable for many forms
    • quickly forms a very bonsai-typical trunk
    • easy propagation by cuttings
  • Olea europea, Olivenbaum
    • Best bonsai for indoor keeping only
    • withstands dry heating air with temperatures of up to 20 degrees if it gets enough light
  • Portulacaria afra, jade tree or elephant bush
    • Similar properties and care to the related money tree
  • Ficus benjamina, birch fig, small-leaved variety
    • Like the Chinese fig, easy to care for and good for trying out different shapes

2. Outdoor-Bonsais:

  • Ulmus, Ulme
    • Several species (field elm, wych elm, Dutch elm) can easily be trained into hardy bonsai
  • Carpinus betulus, Hainbuche
    • Grateful plants, also as bonsai
    • Mistakes can usually be corrected quickly
  • Acer, maple
    • In many species (field maple, ash maple, fire maple, Japanese maple) quite easy to care for and to design as bonsai
  • Larix, larch
    • several species (European larch, Japanese larch) good for growing bonsai
  • Taxus, Eibe
    • Great bonsai for your first own design
    • Due to the hard wood, it is well suited for deadwood designs that suggest considerable age

If you are longing for a hobby that will calm you down in our hectic everyday life, working with bonsai is an excellent idea. If you start with a beginner bonsai in a relaxed manner, you will achieve beautiful results without much effort.

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