The practice of growing miniature trees has been around for thousands of years and is thought to have originated in China. The Japanese gave it the name bonsai, which means ‘plant in a tray’, but it’s so much more than that. Bonsai is about observing how nature affects plants, then re-creating it on a small scale. To learn this ancient art, follow these tips and grow your own tiny marvel.
How to get started
Bonsai specialist nurseries are a great place to start. They have lots of helpful information and many offer classes, too. But the basic ingredients for a simple bonsai set-up are also readily available from your local nursery.
There’s a wide range of trees and shrubs that can be used as subjects for bonsai, including evergreens, conifers, deciduous, flowering, fruiting and even Australian native plants. When you’re just learning this craft, the easiest plants to bonsai include conifers, Japanese maples, Australian fig trees such as the Moreton Bay fig, Camellia sasanqua and Bambino bougainvilleas.
The trick is to look for a baby plant that has an interesting form to begin with – a twisted trunk, bent branches, fascinating bark or even a naturally dwarfed shape. You may find that a pot-bound plant is a suitable starting point. Small leaves and fine-textured foliage also work especially well for beautiful bonsai.
You'll need a potting plan
Drainage is important for your plant and the holes in bonsai pots are quite big to allow for it. First, cut several mesh squares to pop over the holes to stop soil falling through, then place a small mound of bonsai soil in the base of the container.
Remove your plant from its nursery pot and shake, or tease the roots with a fork, to remove a little excess soil. Trim off about a third of the roots – just enough so it will fit into its new container. Carefully set the plant into the pot, as desired. If you’re after a more natural look, you can position it off to the side a bit.
Bonsai plants are top-heavy so need a little help to stay upright. The trick is to secure the plant to the pot using bonsai wire. To do this, take a long length of wire and loop it over the root ball of the plant, then down through the drainage holes of the pot, firmly tying it off underneath.
Fill the container with bonsai potting mix almost to the edges, compacting it with your fingers or a chopstick. Spray the potting mix with water until it feels good and moist. Next, top it off with gravel or fine pebbles, filling into the edges to hold the soil in place. Alternatively, for a natural look, you can use moss – just ensure you press it down firmly.
Tip! Moss helps keep the soil moist and looks natural mounded around the base of a bonsai. To collect your own, look for it growing in shady damp spots and simply lift it up with a spatula.
How do I grow them?
Bonsai like sheltered spots away from hot, drying winds, so a semi-shaded patio is ideal. You can bring them indoors for temporary display, but only for a day or two because they’re naturally outdoor plants.
At, or before, planting time, you can use wire to shape the trunk of your bonsai to create a windswept look or an S-bend. To do this, push one end of the wire into the soil and wind it around the trunk and side branches. Trim off excess wire at the top and gently bend the bonsai into shape.
Pinch back any new leggy shoots that will appear in spring. You can also trim branches to expose the trunk and reduce the thinner branches or excess leaves.
Bonsai need to be kept moist, so use a mist spray every day in summer and every two to three days in the cooler months. Add a tiny sprinkle of slow-release fertiliser to the soil in spring and gently water in.