Bonsai are shaped by trimming the branches or by wiring them into new positions.
You are dealing with living things, and you must be respectful of that. You will kill trees. This is a sad fact of the activity, especially as you start out.
Commit yourself to understanding why every tree dies and what can be done to prevent it. Learn from your mistakes and do your best to prevent them in the future.
Every tree is different. Learn to care for a few different types of plants, and grow your collection from there.
How to Begin
Remove the tree from the plastic pot by turning the pot upside down, tapping the bottom, and letting the tree slide out into your hand. The soil should not be too dry, so that the root ball remains intact.
Gently scrape away the topsoil around the base of the tree, to expose the lower trunk (about one quarter to one half inch). Try not to break too many surface roots. First thing is to look at the roots of the tree and check to see if it gives the appearance of a strong foundation.
Cut off the bottom third of the soil and roots, and flatten out the remaining root mass. Prepare the bonsai pot by placing a piece of screen over each drainage hole, and pour a layer of potting soil into the bottom of the pot.
Place the tree in the pot, pour in the remaining soil, and pack it firmly. Finally, submerge the bonsai, pot and all, in water, up to the base of the trunk, and let it sit in the water for a few minutes.
Interesting Visual Effects
In bonsai, the rule of thirds states that the first (lowest and biggest) branch should be at about one third of the total height of the tree.
It is the trunk that gives the tree its visual strength and every effort should be made to have at least the bottom two-thirds of the height clear of branches at the front of the tree.
Next is checking the trunk. The shape of the trunk will determine the style you choose. In almost all cases, however, a thick base, which tapers gradually and gently to a thin apex, will make for a nice tree. Which style you prefer will depend on the movement of the trunk.
Look at the branching pattern. The lower branches should be thick while the upper ones should be thin. The branches should be laid out like the spokes of a wheel with some going to the back. This will give the tree depth when you look at it. No two branches should leave the trunk at the same level.
The handlebar effect is unnatural looking and, if left, will cause the trunk to swell at their level causing an ugly bulge in the trunk line.
If your tree has such a fault you should, if a deciduous tree, remove one of the branches entirely. Try to avoid having branches spaced evenly down the trunk. Reduce the distance between the branches as you go toward the top of the tree.
Finally examine the plant to see if it is healthy. Be sure not to wire so tightly that you cut into the bark, or so loosely that you do not have support. Minor wire marks can sometimes add interest and show that the tree has been trained, giving branches character after several years.
However, major wire marks are very ugly. To hide any marks that look unnatural you can strategically place foliage at intervals in front of the trunk, so that the trunk line is not completely visible.
It may be ten years (or longer) before your plant will actually be a bonsai. Don’t be discouraged by this, but think of it as part of the experience.
Perhaps most importantly, understand that when you put a tree in a pot you are committing yourself to the care of that tree. You cannot simply ignore it or it will die. Bonsai is a responsibility as well as a hobby. If you practice it with care and patience, the rewards are tremendous.
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