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 Basic Bonsai 

A
step‐by‐step
lesson
in
creating
your
first
 Bonsai

 
 
 
 



Make A Bonsai Creating your first bonsai is not as hard as you may think. In this section we will take you through four stages. • Selecting suitable stock to work with. • Selecting a suitable style for your tree and creating it. • Potting soils and wiring your tree. • Care and maintenance of your new bonsai. If you follow these steps in progressive order you should end up with a passable tree that will only improve with age. Don’t be upset if it is not up to show standard on your first attempt, you will learn all the basic techniques in this exercise and the more you look at trees the more expert you will become. I still have the first tree I made although it has been through several incarnations and restyles and if I were doing it from start it would probably be quite different, but it still holds sentimental value. So start at stage one and return to this page until you have completed stage four. I have picked up a Juniper procumbens from our local plant store to give you a photo demonstration of each step as well as having the written instructions


Selecting Bonsai Stock    

Bonsai is a process not a plant, there are no magic properties in the tree, no genetic engineering or dwarfing hormones so selecting-trees from your local nursery or garden centre is just fine. It is possible to bonsai almost any tree, although some are more suitable than others. Once you gain confidence you can experiment with different plants but for this exercise select a plant from the following list. Try to find one that grows well in your area and is easily obtainable, this will mean you have a wider group to choose from. Don't be put off by the Latin names, the Latin names are the same worldwide and if you take this list to your nursery they will point you in the right direction. Juniperus procumbens Juniperus procumbens 'Nana' Juniperus chinensis. (Chinese Juniper) Chamaecyparis obtusa (Hinoki Cypress) Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Squarrosa' Serissa Gardenia radicans Acer palmatum (Japanese Maple) Ulmus parvifolia (Chinese Elm) Celtis Crataegus (Hawthorn) Cotoneaster. small leaved varieties Liquidamber Zelkova serrata. (Japanese grey bark elm) From this list I find the Juniperus procumbens 'Nana' and Ulmus parviflora both make excellent bonsai and are easy first trees, but again select a tree that grows well in gardens in your area and is easily obtainable. People new to bonsai tend to look for trees that have been left in the pot too long or are distorted in some way; these trees are invariably stressed or diseased and are to be avoided. A bonsai is not a deformed tree; it is a styled natural looking tree, always-select healthy fresh stock (Good stock good tree). Secondly, don't forfeit health and structure for an extra few years of age, start with a tree that is small enough for you to manage easily. Print this List and take it with you to the nursery and try to fulfil each point as best you can.


The plant should have a definite trunk line, which is wider at the base and tapers to the top. There must be low branches and they should be healthy. The first and thickest must be about one third of the way up the trunk. This doesn't mean you can't trim small branches off below this or reduce the height of your finished tree. There must be plenty of branches on the tree. This will give you a good selection to choose from in your design and allow for foliage removal to compensate for root removal. Remove the weeds and top layer of soil to check the main set of roots. These are invariably a few centimetres below the soil level, small feeder roots may grow up but you are looking for the thick main roots that come from the trunk. Make sure they are evenly spaced and healthy. (You may have to have someone keep watch while you bash away at the top of the soil.) If you have selected a variety from the list, the leaves should be small and in proportion but for future reference take a look, it's no good starting with a tree with large leaves, they will be difficult to change and rarely look right. Even with nursery stock there may be some variance in leaf size if grown from seed so have a look. Again the variety list is ok but when looking at other trees they should have the ability to shoot from any position on the trunk and branches, if you are unsure ask. Try hard to meet all these requirements if you can, it doesn't have to be perfect though. Some of the plants I originally could see no future for are now amongst my favourites.

The thing is, there is no right and wrong, it's your tree and if you think it looks right it probably is.


My Juniper procumbens 'Nana' 
 
 


I know it's tempting just to look at the pictures and not read the text and while this is a great way to learn, please take the time to read the text above before moving on to the next stage.


 
 


This is a Juniper procumbens 'Nana' probably one of the most popular first bonsai plants. Very popular with the so called Mallsai producers as they look good even if no thought goes into its creation. A little bit of care and training will produce a great tree that will improve with time. This tree is in a PB 8 bag (plastic bag size 8) and cost NZ$8.00 to buy.


 
 
 



Here is another view of the plant in the background with a completed tree that was made two months previous at a demonstration at Totara Waters. This is an idea of what I hope this tree will look like when complete. Notice the tree to be worked on is on a banding wheel, this is a revolving wheel. It helps but is not necessary when you are first starting out. They can be purchased from any pottery craft supplier, or you can make one out of an old revolving office chair or the like.


 
 
 
 
 
 



I chose this plant because of the interesting bend in the trunk and the abundance of branches that start quite low on the tree. I have also had a dig in the soil and found the main roots don't start until quite deep, which will give me a longer trunk to work with. Juniper procumbens 'Nana' naturally grows as a ground cover and in most cases some wiring will be required. 
 



Styling Your Trees 


After you have selected your tree take some time to look at it. All bonsai have a front and a back, see if you can decide which side will become your front. There are five basic bonsai styling techniques. Your tree will fit into one of these categories.

Formal upright or chokkan 
 



 
 
 
 
 
 
 



Informal Upright or Moyogi  


 
 
 
 



Slanting or shankkan 


 
 
 



Cascade or kengi


 



Semi-Cascade
 



Step 1 Remove weeds and the surface soil so you can see where the main roots for your tree start. If your plant is in a black pb bag, cut the top of the bag away, this will allow you to see how much trunk you have before the first branch. Step 2 Take a sharp pair of pointed scissors and remove any dead wood or old leaves. Then remove any leaves growing from the bottom of the branches. Step 3 Stop and look. Have you decided which side will be the front yet? The front should have the first main branch growing about 1/3 of the way up your tree to the left or right. Try to find a branch that fits this description that will narrow your angles down to two. From the front of your tree you should be able to see a lot of the trunk but still have branches at the back to give depth. (Remember you can remove branches to achieve this.) You should not have roots or branches coming straight out at you from the front of the tree. No two trees are alike and all are unlikely to fit this description perfectly but keep all these factors in mind when deciding. Step 4 Choose the branches you wish to use in your design. It is common for beginners to retain too much foliage, remember you want your plant to look like a tree not a manicured shrub. The gaps between the foliage are just as important as the foliage itself. The first branch is 1/3 of the way up your tree to the left or right and the next branch should be slightly above and out to the other side. Avoid if possible branches that are opposite and at the same height. This is called a bar branch and is undesirable. The third branch should be at the back and slightly higher again. Follow this pattern as best you can up your tree. When you have chosen which branches will remain, remove all the unwanted branches. The basic shape of your tree should be triangular. It can be any shaped triangle but must conform to that basic shape. Lightly trim your remaining branches so they are longer at the base of the tree and shorter towards the top. You should now have the basic outline of your tree.


My Juniper procumbens 'Nana' 
 



 
 


This plant would be fine for several of the above styles, including informal upright, slanting, cascade and semi cascade. I have chosen to train it in an informal upright style, using that curve in the trunk.


 



If your plant is in a PB bag you can cut and roll down the top to expose the roots. Quite often the main roots start well below the surface of the soil. The structure of the surface roots of your bonsai can be an attractive feature so it is important to find where the main roots start. If your plant is in a plastic bucket or hard pot you may have to remove it from the pot at this stage. If you do you will have to take extra care not to let the roots dry out while you are working on them. A small spray bottle filled with water to mist the exposed roots every so often will help with this.


Carefully remove the soil from around the roots until you find a thicker set at the trunk. This will usually be quite obvious and is even more pronounced on cutting grown stock. I am using an old wool-bailing hook that I found in a second hand shop, vicious looking tool. You can use a bent fork, chopstick, bent piece of wire or you can buy Bonsai root hooks if you like. On smaller trees like this the soil will fall away easily. Remember if you have removed you tree from the pot keep the remaining roots damp.


You can see from the amount of bag that is rolled down how much soil has been removed before the true roots were found. This is a large amount and probably more than usual. If you are unsure don't worry you can always bring them up on the next repot or they may become clearer when you come to plant your tree in your Bonsai pot.


Trim away the small exposed roots. This will allow you to see the full extent of the trunk you have to work with. Stand back and examine your tree, try to imagine the finished bonsai. If you still cannot see the finished tree in your minds eye don't be discouraged, I often change direction half way through. At least try to determine the best front for your tree. Have a look at step 3 above.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 



This shows the front of my tree as I see it at this stage. 
 
 
 
 To enhance the branch placement you may use wire. This is not always necessary but it can improve a tree quickly and dramatically. See Stage 3 wiring and potting for more help with this.


Wiring is sometimes seen as another form of bonsai torture for these little trees but it is really no different to staking or espaliering fruit trees. The wire is only on for a short time; long enough to set the branch in the new position and then it is removed. It is quite possible to create a perfectly acceptable tree without wiring using a clip and grow technique but the use of wire speeds up the whole process and allows you more flexibility in your design.   The wire used is a soft copper or aluminium; try to get wire that is about one third the thickness of the branch to be bent. Wire stripped from electrical cable is perfectly adequate but if you can't find any, you may have to contact your local bonsai nursery. The trick with wiring is to make sure that one end is anchored properly; you can achieve this by pushing one end into the soil if bending the trunk or wiring two branches at the same time. Practice on a branch you have removed or on a near by tree before you start on your tree. The turns of the wire should be kept at an angle of 45 degrees and quite firm against the branch, be careful not to tear the bark or worse, snap your branch. Go slowly and keep it tidy, people will be looking at it for a few months before you can remove it. The length of time you leave it on will vary depending on the type of tree and the time of the year. Keep a close eye on it and when it starts to look too tight, cut it off. If the branch springs back, it will need rewiring. Don't leave the wire so long that it cuts grooves into the bark. With your tree all wired and roughly to the shape you require its time to pot. The pot is an important part of the whole bonsai process it can make or break your design. Use a proper bonsai pot they should have quite large drainage holes and some kind of feet to lift the base off the ground. As well as these two horticultural requirements this is a piece of art you're creating so the pot should be part of your overall design. This is a new bonsai and as such still has some maturing to do don't try to put it in too small a pot. It will continue growing and you can always down size once some new root is established.


My Juniper procumbens 'Nana' 
 



 
 


With the front of your tree decided upon you can start trimming away any parts that are not part of your finished Bonsai. Easier said that done. If you do it in small stages it becomes clearer as you go along, start by removing anything that is diseased or dead. If you have picked your tree carefully there should be very little to do here. Then move on to removing anything that is growing down from the bottom of a branch. Don't remove any branches until this is done, it will thin out your tree and allow you to see the branch placement more clearly. Remove any small growth coming directly from the trunk and anything that you are obviously not going to use in your final design.


   

  If you are going to wire your tree now is the time. I have seen trees that have just been planted into a bonsai pot and then someone tries to wire them, they usually end up out of the pot or at least wrenched about in their new soil. While Bonsai wire is softened it can still take a bit of effort to bend some of the thicker wires so it is best to do it while you can move your tree around without damaging newly developing roots. If you intend to clip and grow your new tree without wire move on to potting now. Make sure the wire is about 1/3 the thickness of the branch to be bent. Anchor one end of the wire either in the soil or around another branch. Twist around the branch at a 45 degree angle or as close as possible. Wiring can take time and practice, keep it neat people will be looking at it for at least a month or so.


The wire allows you to stand the tree up. The basic shape of the tree can be seen now.


     

With the basic wiring completed, the rest of the tree can be thinned and unwanted branches removed. After this, fine wiring can be carried out. I would recommend this is left until a later date. There is no rush with the basic shape of your tree established it may be prudent to allow it to recover and give yourself time to look at your tree and refine it in your mind.


Our tree ready for a pot



Step 1 Mix four parts potting mix that you can obtain from your nursery with one part small sharp stone. This improves drainage and helps the roots to divide. You can in some places buy a ready made Bonsai mix.

Step 2 Remove your tree from its existing pot and check the roots, look for bugs or rot. Loosen the soil with a root hook or a bent fork. Tease out the roots and remove any large thick roots. People seem to think the tap root is important at this stage, if you are working on nursery stock you are unlikely to find one they will only be present on seed grown stock and usually die when they hit the bottom of the pot anyway. The tap root is for anchoring the tree to the ground and has little to do with feeding the plant so if perchance it is there remove it. Only remove as much root as needed to fit into your new pot.

Step 3 Place small pieces of mesh over the holes in your pot, this stops soil coming out and bugs moving in. Fill the bottom of the pot with a layer of soil and place your plant on top, try to place it off centre and towards the back if possible. Pack soil around the plant, you may need to use a twig or chop stick to push soil around the roots.

Step 4 Cover the soil with a fine stone, the stone used in your soil mix would be fine. This looks nice and stops the water washing the soil away.

Step 5 Watering. A good method for this first watering is to immerse the entire pot in water until all the soil is covered leave it there until the bubbles stop. This makes sure that all the gaps in the soil are filled and no roots are left to dry out.


To prepare your pot, place the mesh over the drainage holes. Don't try to use a very small pot. Keep the pot quite large for a new Bonsai. This tree has not had time to produce the fine feeder roots that are required to keep a bonsai healthy in a small pot. If you wish to reduce the size of you pot you can do it on your next repot in a years time.


Trim off any excess roots. Roots to remove would be damaged roots or very thick roots that may prevent the tree being potted. Don't go over board, retain as much root as possible.


Pot
your
tree.
The
tree
is
usually
placed
slightly
off
center
in
the
pot
to
give
the
tree
 balance.
If
the
tree
looks
like
it
is
going
to
pull
the
pot
over
it
is
probably
not
placed
 correctly.
How
to
pot
is
in
the
yellow
boxes
above
or
follow
the
link
below
to
go
to
a
photo
 demonstration.

 
 Repotting
your
tree
 
 Bonsai Care and Maintenance




Care of bonsai can be very simple or you can spend hours rewiring and changing your trees, you will know how long you have but basic care is as follows. Just a reminder Bonsai trees are out door plants I know the temptation after creating this thing of beauty and placing it in such a nice pot is to bring it inside and look at it. Don't it will kill it or at best make it weak and unhealthy. The best you can do is treat it as you would a vase of flowers and bring it in when you have guests or need a center piece on your dinner table but don't leave it indoors for more than two or three days at a time. Your new tree will need a little bit of special care for a short time. 
 Place it in a shady spot out of the wind Keep it well watered but not in a puddle Don't be tempted to feed your plant there will be plenty of nutrients in the new soil and feeding may damage the newly developing roots. Your tree will last for at least a year in the pot it's in without repotting and at least 6 months without feeding. You may need to feed it through spring and summer after this period Any liquid food will be ok mix it about half the recommended rate but use it more regularly as the frequent watering and the shallow pot leaches fertilizer quite fast. Repotting should be carried out in early spring, the plant should be carefully removed from its pot and about one third of the soil and root is removed. The plant can then be replaced in the same pot with fresh soil. This repotting helps feed and keep your tree healthy, repotting promotes new feeder roots and is not the reason for the trees diminutive size. There are two things that I can't stress enough and have been the cause of the death of so many trees Grow them outdoors even when its cold or wet Keep the soil moist don't let it dry out in between watering some of the roots that feed your plant may be as small as one cell thick kill them kill the tree. Find a reliable person to look after you plants when you take that summer holiday.    

My Juniper procumbens 'Nana' 
 



The finished tree just awaiting time to complete its development 



Basic Bonsai