Archive for September, 2010

Bonsai for health and patience

September 28, 2010

Before we had children, I took up the art of Bonsai design.

While I am no master compared to those who spend years perfecting it, I have found Bonsai to be a great fatherhood pastime that affords me both peace of mind and lessons in patience.

Bonsai is a much simpler concept than many make it out to be. The process and techniques are a bit involved, but the overall idea is straightforward.

In a nutshell, the whole idea is to make a young, small tree look like an old one. That’s it.

So any tree (or even houseplant) could be fashioned into a Bonsai (literally “tree in a pot”) as long as its characteristics are consistent with Bonsai, which for the most part means small leaves, short node intervals from branch to branch, and a central trunk.

I have grown a good deal of species in various regions including California, Oregon, New York, Massachusetts and Virginia, and by-and-large, most plants (even house plants) follow seasonal rhythms. Even plants that are hardy and green inside all year long, they slow way down in the winter and will go months without putting out any new shoots. I think it comes down to sunlight intensity.

Now – I warn you – I have killed. I have killed many, many trees – all in the name of eventual success. So don’t worry too much with your first go around. If it doesn’t make it, you learn from it. Ask yourself what went wrong and move on to the ext one. Eventually, you’ll get it.

You can start them anytime you want – especially indoor varieties. I tell you though, one of the best varieties to start with is the same shown above, Juniper (Procumbens Nana.) They are cheap, can be found anywhere, and are pretty hardy. But I wouldn’t start one of those till spring, after the last freeze/frost.

When you start a Bonsai, it’s a shock to the tree. You basically strip it from where it was growing happily, move it to a new place across town where it may get a different direction and amount of light and temperature. You yank it out of the only pot it’s ever known, hack away about 1/3 of the roots, 1/3 to 1/2 of the foliage, extract major limbs, wire up the remaining branches, introduce new soil, and finally wire it tightly into a new pot.

It really needs a mild time of year to adjust; not too hot, too cold or too


Trees are pretty resilient, with the urge of live nudging them on. But every individual tree has a breaking point and once it’s had too much and starts to die, it’s hard to bring it back. So probably best to start an outside variety in the mid-spring. You could start an indoor variety anytime, but if your home is dry in the winter, as 99.9 percent of homes are, you’ll want to make a humidity tray.

Keeping in mind the above-mentioned characteristics of an ideal Bonsai, you could take a stroll through a local greenhouse, nursery or garden center and see what’s out there.

Schefflera and Ficus are two common species that make nice indoor Bonsai and are good trainers.

And if you have a nice, sunny, southern-exposure windowsill with a humidity tray, you could even grow a juniper indoors.

There’s really no limit, and few rules are absolute. What kills one tree might make another thrive. I dunno.

The thing to keep in mind is it really, truly is an art – and most serious practitioners devote years to learning it. My interest started in Oregon more than six years ago and I’ve barely scratched the surface. I tried for a long time the hurry-up method, and forced trees too quickly into my vision. They all died soon after. It is a gradual thing that really teaches patience. It’s alot like raising kids really: You may have a clear idea of what you want them to become, but you have to balance it with what they want for themselves. You have to accept the fact that changes take place only gradually. You can guide, and encourage – but not force.

And like kids, who with close care grow into well rounded and healthy people, the same rewarding feeling is offered with Bonsai.

I remember when our first son was just a few years old. With an uber-busy work schedule, and a new baby at home, I needed some “me” time at least once a week, so I joined a Bonsai club. It was mostly older men in their 60’s and 70’s who met for a couple of hours on Sundays. They all shared a love of growing and shaping little trees in pots, and were some of the most cheerful, calm, gentle and understanding people I have ever met. I aspire to be like them when I am an old man. Until then, and with my boys being older now, I’m starting to get them involved with the art.

Drop a line in the comments if you want/need any more info about Bonsai. I’m so happy to share what I’ve picked up along the way – and I can recommend some great books. There is a ton of good info on the Internet too.

Good luck if you go forward with it – and, if you do, please share your successes with us!