How do I grow a Bonsai?

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The question "How do I grow a bonsai" raises two related concerns that have some overlap.

One question has to do with horticulture, and the second has to do with art: which is really hard to teach from a website, but can be assisted by knowing the "Rules of Bonsai", These have been developed over many years to help quantify why they make an attractive tree, but are by no means the be all and end of Bonsai. The artist should be aware of them, but they need not be religiously adhered to, as that may lead to quite boring "Cookie Cutter" Bonsai and stifle the artists flair and unique style.

Now addressing the horticultural aspects, there are 2 main methods to grow / create a Bonsai

  • Start small by growing from seed or cutting
  • Start with a large collected tree and reduce it to a manageable size.

Both methods are similar in that you grow / select / train the trunk, then grow branching ( on trees that do not backbud, you will keep the branches from a young tree or collected stump). Once the primary branching is in place, then you can build upon them to create the Ramified branching and tertiary tips and foliage growth that gives the trees the aged look.

The process to create Bonsai is a slow one no matter what the path chosen, and cannot be rushed or overly hurried. To create a true Bonsai, will take a minimum of 5 - 10 years and many will be longer than that to attain show quality

Develop the Trunk and Nebari

The first things that needs to be created are the trunk of the tree, and the roots

A good bonsai will usually have a trunk that, (unless a Broom or Formal Upright style), leaves the ground at an angle. This gives an impression of age, and dynamic movement is started that will give the tree interest once it has complete its developed.

the Trunk will have several features including

  • visual weight to the tree ot give the impression of an old tree. generally the trunk will have a width (across the Nebari) to height ration of between 1:6 - 1:12.
  • good taper where the base of the trunk is quite thick and have good mature bark covering it which will enhance the aged look af the tree, and then tapering to a much smaller dimension in the upper sections
  • nice movement and changes of direction. This movement could be gentle curves, or sharp bends, depending on the the variety of tree and the final tree style you wish to obtain.
  • The trunk my split low down to make a multi trunk tree or have branches emerging higher up and these will generally be on the outside of the bends and curves.
  • The roots will form a radiating pattern out from the base of the [trunk] and the spreading roots are called [Nebari]
  • The roots will be equally spaced around the tree and of equal size.
  • They will ,be tapering and diverging into smaller roots as they get further out from the tree, (similar to the ramification of the branches).

if Growing from seedling

After you have selected your stock tree, you need to grow and develop the trunk.

Plant your seedling or small tree in larger than "grow pot", or in the ground to allow it to grow on rapidly as possible. Fertilise it often to make sure the tree pushes on as fast as possible to shorten the time to develop the trunk and put on girth.

It is imperative that during the years you develop the trunk,

  • ensure that you incorporate several changes of direction to give nice movement to the trunkline.
  • The trunk must taper from the base up to the apex of the tree. Each section of trunk between branches needs to smaller diameter than the section below. The amount of taper can vary along with the style of tree, but the should be relatively constant between each section of the trunk
  • maintain and improve the roots of the tree to create a well structured Nebari. The roots should radiate out from the trunk base and all be equally sized and tapering as they extend.

Every year or 2 (depending on development rate and species), repot, root prune to untangle / train roots to create a well formed Nebari. Every year ( or more often if needed), perform a trunk chop to create taper between each section of trunk, and apply wire to the tree to create movement in the trunk as it grows. It is much harder (or sometimes impossible), to bend trunks and branches after they have lignified so it is best to do it while the tree is in early development if possible.

  • With a deciduous tree, once you are satisfied with trunk size and features, you then can start to grow and develop the branches. On a deciduous tree you can remove most of the branches if they are to large for the trunk, and regrow them from new in the ideal locations. Usually this will be the outside of the trunk bends, and at the junctions of each section. This will provide the structure of the tree to support the foliage and terminal growth in the final design. Over several years you will grow branches and periodically cut them back to build the ramification and structure.
  • For Pines and Junipers, they raely back bud on old wood so you must have
  • Finally the foliage can be developed to provide the outline of the tree and you will have to work on this aspect each season to reduce the leaf size and foliage density.

Many people will plant a young tree in the ground to create a much larger tree than can be done in a pot in the same time frame. The result will be a larger size tree but still with young immature bark for the size of the tree. Only time can make bark look old.

This is a time consuming process, but hopefully will result in a nicely styled tree which is finally ready for a Bonsai pot. See this page Container selection for some ideas and guidelines for selecting a Bonsai Pot for your tree

if reducing a large collected tree for Bonsai

  • The other method commonly used to grow a Bonsai, is to collect an old specimen (Yamadori) from the bush with appropriate approval, or from a garden or other private property. You can purchase a larger specimen tree from a nursery. The larger tree is then cut the tree down to a stump and the Bonsai developed from there over a period of a few years using the process outlined above.

With this stock tree, usually most roots, foliage and branches must be removed, leaving just the structure of the tree and pot up and allow 1 or 2 years to recover health and vigour. The tree can be then regrown similar to the process outlined above.

Depending on the quality of the initial stock this may be a longer route to a finished Bonsai, than growing your own material. See this wiki page for info on How to chop a trunk down to create taper as well

Check this Great thread out about Ground Growing Trees for Bonsai