Garden Variety: Bonsai basics

Culturing bonsai takes more than a green thumb: The ancient art requires patience, skill and a keen recognition of nature. Bonsai is worth a try (or several), though, as a properly tended specimen will provide its owner with beauty for a hundred years or more.

Although any plant can become a bonsai specimen, which literally means “plant in a tray,” some are better-suited than others. To begin, decide whether the bonsai will be kept outside or inside. Most commonly available bonsai species are better-suited for an outdoor environment because they require a dormant period and more light than they will receive in a house.

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Bonsai tree

For indoor bonsai, limit species to tropical varieties such as ficus, acacia, olive, Australian brush cherry or something similar. Think along the same lines as you would for plants that would perform well as a houseplant.

For outdoor sites, use species that are suited to the specific climate conditions of your area. In Lawrence, there are many suitable species of junipers, small-leaved azaleas, Japanese maples, boxwoods, pines and others from which to choose.

Bonsai specimens should get their start in a training pot. These are available from bonsai specialty shops and some garden centers. After a solid root system has developed and the plant has been pruned, it may be transplanted into a bonsai pot. Remember that the size of the pot directly affects the maximum size of the plant. Bonsai pots should have large drainage holes with screening to prevent the coarse soil used in the practice from washing out, and the inside walls and bottom of the pots should be unglazed.

Watering is the most important part of bonsai care. Plants are stressed by the tiny containers and limited root systems, although they are necessary to achieve the look. How often plants should be watered is dictated by species, temperature, light exposure and humidity. Most importantly, roots should be kept from completely drying out but also from sitting in saturated soil. Water from the top of the container, allowing the water to completely saturate the soil and drain from the bottom of the pot. Then, empty the saucer and wait to water again until the soil has begun to dry. Water should also be room temperature to avoid shocking the roots.

Shaping and pruning is the fun part and what really makes bonsai. In the ancient Japanese and related Chinese arts, bonsai was meant to mimic nature. Plants that take root amongst rocks or in other areas with limited soil are naturally dwarfed and may twist or exhibit growth habits representative of prevailing winds. Bonsai is meant to reflect this, with each pot being a scene from nature.

One of the oldest living bonsai can be seen at the U.S. National Arboretum. This Japanese white pine is believed to be “in training” since 1625 and survived the bombing of Hiroshima. It was donated to the Arboretum by Masaru Yamaki in 1976 as a testament to peace.

— Jennifer Smith is a former horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension and horticulturist for Lawrence Parks and Recreation. She is the host of “The Garden Show” and has been a gardener since childhood. Send your gardening questions and feedback to Lawrence Living@ljworld.com.

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