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Beginning Bonsai Tips and Tricks for Beginners

Updated on February 29, 2020
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an upright bonsai with red flowers
an upright bonsai with red flowers
an upright bonsai with red flowers

The Japanese word bonsai and it's Chinese counterpart penzai are literally translated to 'tray plant.' An art form, and also widely accepted as a spiritual practice, the art of bonsai involves the planting and careful cultivation of dwarf versions of plants and trees and configuring them in a fashion that is both aesthetically pleasing and perhaps even holding some purpose.

Bonsai plants are typically grown from cuttings or seeds, but can also be grown using young or naturally small trees and planting them into containers. The categories that bonsai come in are:

  • Miniature bonsai - any dwarf plant less than six inches in height
  • Small bonsai - these range from six to 12 inches tall
  • Medium bonsai - a little taller at 13 to 24 inches
  • Large bonsai - any dwarf plant that is over 24 inches tall

Vital to bonsai horticulture is the shape and attitude of the trunk, which can come in the following styles:

Cascade style bonsai are manicured to lean out from the soil line and spread downward over the edge of the tray or container they are planted in. The branches and greenery lay out and dangle. One off-shoot of this style is called semi-cascade, and in this style the apex of the plant reaches down around the center of the bonsai pot or tray below the soil line.

Formal Upright bonsai are the most classic form of bonsai and dictates the differences for other styles. The trunk remains perfectly straight and perpendicular to the container, narrowing upward to form a point at the tallest area of the plant.

Informal Upright bonsai differ in that their trunks are curved, otherwise following the patterning and positioning of the formal upright style.

Slant bonsai feature a leaning trunk where the apex of the trunk leans either to the left or the right of the trunk base, yet still above the soil line.

Bonsai: The Art Form

That's right, bonsai is primarily an art form. True bonsai (even that store-bought Wal-mart bonsai crap) is the product of hours and hours, days and days, sometimes years and years of painstaking work from a horticultural artist. It is an act of patience, and is an art that everyone can perform.

There is great symbolism in bonsai, various flowers and trees carrying with their bonsai a certain meaning. For instance, to bonsai a pine tree is to create a work of living art representative of a healthy and happy old age. Such a plant would be a lovely gift for a parent or grandparent.

Your First Bonsai

Your first bonsai project may be inexpensive, or it may be costly. It may be simple, or it may be extravagant. Your initial foray into the world of bonsai should always be meaningful, enjoyable, and even if met with failure, be experienced with introspection. As you begin your planting, take time to consider what of yourself you are putting into your bonsai. What your hopes, desires, and wishes are for the plant matter throughout the process of planting, pruning, shaping and cultivating your various effects.

For more assistance in your bonsai project, please see Patty Inglish's hub regarding bonsai, the link for which is found in my links section below titled "The Giant That is Bonsai."

Pictures of Bonsai trees

Chinese vs. Japanese Bonsai

The Chinese version of 'tray plant' art is called Penzai, from which the Japanese word Bonzai came, and the two styles of bonsai are very different from one another.

Penzai are purposefully given the appearance of wild growth, a concept referred to as "breaking free" - growth is inspired outward and the tray or pot the plant is set in tends toward more wild, flamboyant, or colorful designs.

Bonsai in the Japanese sense are more restrained in design, controlled, cleanly grown and pruned, with trays or pots that are neutral in color and design.


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