La Rosa’s Garden: Bonsai — living art

By Frank La Rosa

Frank La Rosa

Garden size is relative. That is why the cultivation of bonsai can relate to any garden. Bonsai is the microcosm of gardening. The Japanese apply bonsai techniques to most varieties of trees, even to their street trees that are often tucked away in tiny public gardens in the hearts of their great cities.

The word bonsai comes from the Chinese word penjing which means tray tree. The Japanese equivalent is bonsai—basin plant. Bonsai (for the singular and plural and the art form) is the growing of trees and plants in pots. Even succulents are now popular as bonsai.

For me, and for many other gardeners, growing bonsai is an opportunity to hone and develop horticultural skills that can be implemented in the macrocosmic garden. I have a few trees of not too tall a height that I have pruned and trained as large bonsai. This is a wise practice for small urban gardens in which a monster sycamore or eucalyptus can take over everything. The very old “Little Emperor” pine in the Self Realization Fellowship Garden in Encinitas is a fine example of what call be named “larger bonsai.” It is relatively small, does not dominate, and is in stunning good taste as a center piece.

With bonsai the beginnings are the plant, the ceramic pot, good earth, and a discriminating eye, all very necessary to the garden at large.

In our clime, oaks, olives, pines, junipers, bougainvilleas, and pyracanthas make excellent bonsai.

I begin by visiting nurseries searching for those one gallon plants that have been neglected. They are dwarfed, have broken branches, and are of interesting shape. They have shape but not form (there is a difference). They may have what the Japanese term “inspired” shape.

Study each plant’s personality. Observe what can be achieved. Gradually clip out small branches to enhance the plant’s inherent form. Ken Norman’s “Encyclopedia of Bonsai” presents beautiful photographs and pruning suggestions.

Winter months are best for transplanting the semi-trained bonsai to appropriate containers—I say “appropriate” because the choice of the pot is as much of bonsai art as is the tree itself. Look for the tasteful pot that enhances rather than dominates the plant, unlike the over dressed at public events.

Loosen the roots and trim them back, prune the tap root a bit, and place the modified root mass into a well-drained pot. Add good soil and tamp it in evenly.

Place you artistic creation in moderate sun and water it thoroughly and regularly. Even here on the coast I must water my bonsai daily because one hot, windy day might kill them.

Walter Anderson’s, among other nurseries, sells young bonsai plants, tools, and pots, and they even sell a few starter bonsai for about twenty dollars.

But actually, I love the quest to spot a neglected plant with character that will make a future bonsai — like the artist who finds that special piece of stone possessing the soul of a beautiful sculpture!

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Posted by admin on Mar 25, 2011. Filed under Columns, Editorial Columns, La Rosa's Garden, Outdoors. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

1 Comment for “La Rosa’s Garden: Bonsai — living art”

  1. Mark

    I am a bonsai enthusiast. I try to grow them with some success on the east coast outside Philadelphia. I took a class by a master bonsai grower over 30 years ago and he would start each class with this mantra: bonsai. A plant in a container. A containerized plant. I’ve tried to keep that in mind as they grow and I shape and choose pots and trim and pinch and enjoy. I believe the key is to enjoy the plant as it grows and I have accepted the Chinese attitude of doing little pruning and shaping and let the plant find its own way.

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