Bonsai is the art of growing dwarf trees and shrubs from seedlings or rooted cuttings. It requires careful training, pruning and container restriction. The latter gives bonsai its name as it translates as ‘tray cultivation’. This is a fun and beautiful way of cultivating plants on a miniature scale. Shohin is a Japanese small bonsai that is between 6 – 8 inches.
Bonsai began in China, though most believe that Japan has this honour and indeed, many of the leading masters are Japanese. The art of miniaturising trees in China is known as penjing, or pensai. This style of gardening has a rich history, and there are styles within the style of Bonsai.
The watering regime, pruning and pinching out mean that these plants are certainly not easy maintenance but the rewards are great. There are many ways of beginning a bonsai collection. Perhaps the easiest for a beginner is to buy a plant from a reputable nursery or specialist bonsai centre. However before you do so, it is well worth finding out more about bonsai.
Start your own Bonsai collection
Most trees and shrubs can be grown as outdoor bonsai. The act of restricting growth causes the leaves to become reduced in size. The pruning techniques for Bonsai are specific to the individual species of tree. Naturally small-leaved plants such as azaleas lend themselves most readily to bonsai, but bear in mind that their leaves will become smaller still. Scot’s pine (Pinus sylvestris), larch (Larix sp.), Cercis sp, maidenhair tree (Ginkgo sp.), Lonicera nitida, yew (Taxus baccata) and Japanese maple (Acer sp.) are all good for starting your collection off.
Trees for your home
Indoor bonsai are rather like houseplants. They are usually tropical or semi-tropical species and require lots of light, constant temperature and humidity, along with regular watering (as for outdoor bonsai). Depending on the species, some will lose a few old leaves in the spring to make way for some new ones; others will lose leaves in autumn/winter. Plants regularly used are Chinese elm (Ulmus parvifolia), silver jade plant (Crassula arborescens), weeping fig (Ficus benjamina), celtis (Celtis bungeana) and olive (Olea europaea).
In the clouds ‘Niwaki’
Cloud pruning is a Japanese method of training trees and shrubs into shapes resembling clouds. It is known as ‘Niwaki’, the translation of which is ‘garden tree’. The style is said to depict the distilled essence of the tree. This type of pruning does not have to be used in solely Japanese-style gardens; it can be used as a feature in gardens of many different styles.
Crafting your own clouds
You can start off with any size plant. However, there are a couple of things to consider:
Cost: small plants will generally cost less and allow for more artistic licensing. Larger plants will be more expensive yet save many years of waiting for the plant to get to the desired height.
Rate of growth: slow-growing species will take longer to reach a mature size so it might be worth buying a larger specimen or choosing another variety if time is a problem.
Plants that are cloud pruned can look very much like bonsai trees. The only difference between niwaki and bonsai is that bonsai are grown in containers and niwaki are grown in the ground. The size of the plant has nothing to do with the naming, it is purely from how it is grown. Both subjects are highly prized art forms with Japanese gardeners taking years to be qualified in this specialised area.