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Bonsai Basics for Beginners

Bonsai originated in China as a hobby of elite members of Chinese society. Japan adopted the practice of growing bonsai from China more than 1,000 years ago. "Bonsai" is a Japanese word that translates to "planted in a tray" in English. These miniature trees sit primly in shallow containers, and they are an enjoyable form of horticultural art that many gardeners like to train into distinctive shapes. The goal of growing bonsai is to shape and mold the tiny tree into a visually pleasing display of your choosing.

Growing bonsai involves cultivating the plant into a miniature tree. This growing process involves careful gardening techniques to keep the tree healthy while encouraging it into the desired form. The frequent pruning, root reduction, and grafting necessary to create a bonsai can cause stress to the tree. Fertilization and maintaining a warm and humid growing environment can help the plant to thrive even when stressed, however. It's common for a gardener to worry that a bonsai is not growing adequately, but often, trees used for bonsai tend to grow very slowly.

Bonsai may be created using either coniferous or deciduous trees or shrubs. The best species for bonsai are plants that will grow successfully in small containers with confined roots and can tolerate significant amounts of pruning during their lifespan. Fig and juniper are two common deciduous tree species that many gardeners choose for bonsai, and Japanese maple and dwarf pomegranate are also often ideal for bonsai. Spruce and yew are two coniferous species that respond well to bonsai growing techniques.

The growing environment of a bonsai is crucial to its overall health and lifespan. Gardeners must monitor the temperature, humidity, sunlight, moisture, and fertilization frequency to care for bonsai correctly. Pruning is also an important element of bonsai care. Trimming makes it possible to keep a bonsai small, and it also helps keep the tree healthy. Gardeners often trim back new growth in the spring and eliminate old growth in the fall. Pruning also ensures the removal of any diseased growth, which could contribute to plant death. After trimming, applying a sealant can be helpful to help the tree recover.

Indoor Environment

Outdoor Environment

Greenhouse Environment

Average Lifespan

Indoor bonsai often live much longer than the projected lifespan of their species due to the extra-attentive care they may receive and their closely controlled living conditions. A well-maintained indoor bonsai may live several human lifespans.

Outdoor bonsai tend to have shorter lifespans than indoor trees because they may not have the same controlled growing environment. Pests and severe weather may shorten an outdoor bonsai's lifespan.

A greenhouse environment can be optimal for bonsai, as long as the temperature and other growing conditions are monitored carefully. In a greenhouse, a bonsai should enjoy a lifespan that is similar to that of indoor bonsai.

Maintenance Tips

Place bonsai in a location with filtered sunlight from the east, west, or south. Bonsai need 12 hours of natural light or artificial light from grow lights per day. Indoor bonsai need constant temperatures ranging between 50 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Bonsai may be moved to an outdoor location in partial shade during the summer months. Setting a bonsai tree on a humidity tray with water helps enhance humidity around the plant. Monitor the soil and water it lightly when it becomes dry. Do not water on a set schedule. Fertilize several times during the active growth cycle of the tree.

Outdoor bonsai need natural sunlight for a few hours every day. If natural humidity is not present, place the bonsai on a humidity tray or mist the leaves several times a day. Monitor soil moisture and water the tree when the soil is dry. Protect the bonsai from extreme temperatures if the species cannot withstand cold or hot weather.

Moving an outdoor bonsai to a greenhouse is ideal for species that cannot tolerate cold temperatures. Monitor greenhouse temperatures to ensure that the structure does not get too warm on sunny days because this could force a bonsai out of dormancy. Dormant bonsai do not need much water, so water infrequently. Move the bonsai back outdoors after the last spring frost.

It takes a lot of attention and work to train, prune, and care for bonsai, but the patience required to grow bonsai successfully is an integral part of the entire process. In fact, many people enjoy the element of calm, focused attention required for this gardening adventure and use their bonsai hobby as a way to cultivate patience and a greater appreciation of nature.

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