By Ebony Andrews, Chief Plant Expert, Flowers Across Melbourne
Growing your own bonsai is a rewarding and ancient artform that involves taking ordinary trees and growing them in pots to restrict their growth.
The aim of a bonsai artist is to care for and curate these trees in such a way that they look like a miniature version of their larger cousins. Outsiders may call it a hobby, but bonsai enthusiasts will tell you it is art. But unlike a sculpture or painting, a bonsai tree is never finished.
What you need
Thinking of getting a bonsai is much like getting a new pet: it's important to research what you'll need and exactly what you're committing to before you bring it home. A bonsai requires daily attention and it can take months or even years of painstaking care to go from regular tree to bonsai.
Basic equipment you'll need includes concave pruners, bud scissors, wire, wire cutters, knob cutters, root hooks, root cutters, a watering can and chopsticks (for bare rooting, see below).
You can spend a lot or a little on these tools but if you're new to the practice it may be wise to get a cheaper starter kit while you're still learning.
Of course, you'll also need a tree. If you're lucky you may know someone who can give you a clipping for free, but the cost of a bonsai can range up to hundreds to thousands of dollars. How much you decide to spend will depend on your level of interest and your financial situation, but there is a bonsai to suit every budget.
How to choose a bonsai
The most logical thing you can do is buy a tree that is indigenous to your local area – or at least an introduced species that grows prolifically. That way you can be sure it will suit your climate and you won't be fighting an uphill battle.
It's also important to understand you can't always grow your bonsai inside. Most trees need a period of dormancy to survive and thrive, and this period is often triggered by cold weather – something trees won't experience if you keep them indoors. Being kept inside can also inhibit natural light, and many trees will also struggle with heating and air conditioning.
Caring for your bonsai
Trimming is only a small percentage of the care your bonsai needs, and many people accidentally kill their tree because they don't know how to care for it. These tips will help you to keep your bonsai alive and thriving.
It's crucial to ensure your bonsai is getting enough water, but overwatering can also be fatal. If too much water gets trapped in your pot, the roots will rot and your tree will die. Research the water requirements for your type of tree and then keep a close eye on yours as you learn the optimum amount of water by trial and error.
The right soil
Using the right soil is crucial, with specialised bonsai soil classified according to its type and texture. The classification you'll require for your bonsai will depend on the size of your pot and the type of tree you have. Do your research or ask a specialist for advice specific to your requirements.
Repotting your bonsai
Every bonsai artist needs to know how to repot, so make sure you learn this skill. Your tree's roots will grow outward seeking nutrients, and as they begin to crowd your pot, it's important to repot before they become too dense and thick to get the nutrients your tree needs.
Even the best soil doesn't last forever. You'll need to replace your bonsai's soil around once every five years. This practice is called bare rooting. A delicate hand is required as you remove the bonsai from its pot and carefully remove the soil from its roots, traditionally with a pair of chopsticks.
Trees that grow in the wild can source their nutrients from a broad area of ground through their stretched-out root system, but bonsais need fertiliser to fill the shortfall of living in a tiny pot. Fertiliser is not a one-size-fits-all solution, so research the right type of fertiliser for your species of tree. It's also important not to overfeed your bonsai because this can damage the roots.
Taking care of your bonsai means checking it for pests regularly. Ants, aphids, caterpillars, earthworms and other insects can all wreak havoc on your tree so inspect your bonsai once a week or so, and deal with pests as soon as you see them to minimise damage.
Check your pot regularly for weeds and remove them as soon as possible. Weeds will compete with your bonsai for water and nutrients.
Styling your bonsai
Styling your bonsai is the fun part – it is literally bending the tree to your will. Styling is an ongoing activity you'll be doing as long as you and/or the tree live, and the best way to get an idea of what the tree should look like is to study your tree in nature. See how it naturally grows and bends, and work with its strengths to create a beautiful miniature version.
Usually, you would style from the trunk first, and work your way out along the branches. You can use bonsai wire to help guide the branches in the direction you want, and then prune the tree back so it looks just right. Don't forget to remove the wire as the tree grows so it doesn't do any damage.
Every tree is different, and part of the joy and art of bonsai is learning what works for your specific tree, as well as expressing yourself in the way you guide your bonsai to grow. Remember to give your bonsai plenty of attention and watch it carefully as you learn what works and what doesn't, and it will give you many years of beauty and joy.
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