Bonsai is a gardening practice from Japan which translates to “planted in a container.” With proper pruning, the result is a miniaturized form of the original plant. The small containers used in Bonsai gardening limit the amount of water, nutrients and space for the roots and above ground growth to expand. This technique can be used successfully with almost all perennial trees or shrubs that have woody stems. There are some species that are easier to maintain as a bonsai and are therefore recommended for beginners.
Junipers (Juniperus) are among the most popular for bonsai. This is a genus of hardy evergreens that enable novices to explore training and maintenance techniques with reduced risk of catastrophic failure. Junipers live outdoors year-round but when winter temperatures drop below 15 degrees Fahrenheit, they need some protection. Water only when the soil feels dry to the touch. For pruning, consider the desired silhouette shape. Shoots that grow beyond this shape can be snipped but use caution not to remove all the new growth at one time or the tree will become weak.
Another popular bonsai specimen is the genus ficus (Ficus). Contrary to the juniper, ficus is an indoor species. During the summer, ficus can thrive outdoors as they prefer high humidity and plenty of sunlight. To develop a thick trunk, do not prune the tree for the first two years. Then prune the branches back to just a few leaves to obtain the common tree shape. Leaves of a bonsai ficus may grow to the natural size, so you may choose to prune the leaves to obtain a miniature version. Ficus branches can easily be grafted to create interesting designs by tying the branches together. As the tree grows the branches will fuse together.
Azalea (Rhododendron) is technically a shrub but is a popular bonsai specimen because of the profuse flowering and ease of care. Azaleas can endure the summers outdoors but prefer some shade during the heat of the day. During the flowering season, protect your azalea from the rain and intense sunlight to prolong the bloom. Bring azalea bonsais indoors for the winter. Azaleas will suffer from soil that is too dry, so regular watering is necessary using caution not to leave the soil over-saturated. Rainwater or filtered tap water are ideal for azaleas. Pruning should be done at the base of the branches to achieve the shape you desire. It is best to prune azaleas as soon as flowering has stopped.
Regular fertilization is recommended for bonsai plants due to the limits of soil and naturally available nutrients. Follow recommendations based on the species you are growing. Wiring is another maintenance option common for bonsai trees. This is not required but can be helpful for shaping the plant as desired.
Bonsai plants need to be repotted periodically with fresh soil. Depending on the species you are growing the soil needs will vary. Azaleas perform best with a specific soil for that species. Bonsai soil is appropriate for ficus and junipers.
If successful, a mature bonsai tree will resemble the full-size version found in nature in a miniature form. This art form takes years of attention to detail and patience. Records claim some of the oldest bonsai specimens have been tended to for over 800 years. Bonsai is a hobby that can allow generations of gardeners to pass along advice and treasured plants for many years to come.
Cynthia Domenghini is an instructor and coordinator for K-State’s horticultural therapy online certificate program.