The art and practice of bonsai cultivation can rejuvenate the mind and body, as well as the home.
The ancient tradition of bonsai traces its origins back thousands of years to Japan. Bon translates to tray or low-sided pot, and sai to plantings. In the simplest terms, bonsai are small container gardens of miniature trees, which range from large-leafed Asian ficus to needled juniper. Although the art of bonsai may seem expensive and painstaking, Tyson Lee Nguyen of Orlando’s Bonsai Paradise (bonsaiparadise.com) compares the practice to raising a pet—only less expensive, easier, and just as rewarding.
Benefits of bonsai
“When you take care of your bonsai, it’s beautiful and happy,” Nguyen says. “When you don’t, the plant is sad. You can have fun with it because you give it personality.” Nguyen, who teaches martial arts in addition to cultivating bonsai, says bonsai gardens are great resources for stress reduction as their maintenance combines key aspects of martial arts such as mindfulness and focus.
Past and present
Bonsai are often considered living heirlooms; their lifespans can stretch more than 200 years. Traditionally passed from one generation to the next in Asian cultures, bonsai trees continually grow and change through the years. Each new caretaker has the opportunity to contribute his or her own creative vision and personality to the artistry of the living sculpture.
Learn More About Bonsai
Choosing your plant
Small bonsai trees are called “pre-bonsai” and are one to five years old. They typically range from $30-$70. After five years of growth, they become “finished bonsai” and usually start at $100. Trees that are 20 years and older are known as “specimen bonsai” and can cost upward of $1,000. Bonsai with bigger trunks are more valued. “It’s the opposite of people,” Nguyen says. “The older and wider the tree gets, the more beautiful and valuable it becomes.” Indoor trees have larger leaves to catch more light. They include the succulent jade, artificial light-loving Ming aralia, wispy ponytail palm, and the leafy Asian ficus and Fukien tea. Outdoor trees like the piney juniper, flowering bougainvillea and desert rose, and the fruit-bearing Barbados Cherry need more water and sun. “Junipers are your more typical bonsai-looking plants, but you have to keep them moist,” says Kim Hanberry of City Oasis (mycityoasisorlando.com). “They’re not for beginners. If you let them dry out, they’re gone.” Both Nguyen and Hanberry emphasize that you can’t ignore your bonsai. Outdoor plants need to be watered every day because their small root system easily dries out in the heat of the day.
Picking the location
Bonsai prefer morning light; Central Florida’s intense afternoon sun can be too hot for them. In fact, bonsai are so heat sensitive, says Hanberry, that you may want to choose a spot in the shade or out of direct afternoon sunlight. If you choose to keep your bonsai indoors, she suggests placing it by a large window or a bright interior light. You can even use a grow lamp. Regardless, Hanberry says, bonsai are known for acclimating to their surroundings.
Getting the right material
Bonsai need soil that is loose enough for water to flow right through it. Good bonsai soil contains mixtures of sand, volcanic rock, clay, perlite and pine bark. In order for the soil to drain properly, the containers need to have at least two large holes in the bottom. According to Nguyen, good drainage is a matter of life and death for bonsai because the tree roots can rot if they sit in constantly wet soil. Any container can house your bonsai if it has proper drainage, but traditional bonsai containers are shallow and either round or square. “Bonsai comes from a time when people thought the Earth was square,” Nguyen says. “Square containers represent Earth, and round represent heaven.”
Care and maintenance
Bonsai have two seasons: dormant and growing. The growing season lasts from spring through summer and necessitates pruning. Depending on the species of bonsai, you can let it grow out a bit before pruning it into the shape you want. Dormant season—fall and winter—is the time to trim the roots. This practice keeps the plant stunted and attractive. You also can get creative by using bonsai wire to force the branches in the direction you want them to grow or adding ornaments to your bonsai like miniature houses, bridges, rocks or statues. “I lose track of time when I’m with my bonsai,” Nguyen says. “They’re like art. If you do a great job, you get a great reward.”