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Is Bonsai for Me? Get a Handle on the Hobby

May 31, 2020Beginners, General

Woman and bonsai tree

Is the hobby of bonsai for me? You may ask yourself this question because you are interested in the pursuit but hesitant to try it. In truth, most people can learn the skills needed to practice bonsai. In this article, we’ll review information about what the hobby involves and some characteristics of those who successfully practice it.

A Brief History of Bonsai

Bonsai is the ancient Japanese art of growing miniaturized trees in shallow containers. The practice seeks to evoke a scaled-down vision of a full-size tree as it might be found in nature.

Originating in China about two thousand years ago, the practice known as “penjing” or “penzai” made its way to Japan around the 12thcentury. The Japanese refined and defined the practice, setting the standards to which most bonsai enthusiasts aspire today.  In fact, the word “bonsai” is Japanese and translates to “plant in tray.” During the 19th century, the practice began to gain followers outside of Asia, and today it is practiced worldwide. 

The Chinese practice of penjing is similar to bonsai in that it involves miniature trees planted in shallow containers. Although bonsai typically focuses on a singular tree, in penjing, the focus is usually on a landscape. One or several trees are elements of the landscape, which can include rocks, small plants, figurines and other features.

What Does Bonsai Involve?

You’re probably wondering what the practice involves, how to get started, and whether you would enjoy it.  Let’s start by exploring the first two questions. 

Bonsai hobbyists learn to style, train and care for trees that are housed in special pots designed for the hobby. As mentioned earlier, the goal of the practice is to achieve a miniature tree with traits resembling a mature tree found in nature.

Getting Started

The hobbyist often starts with plants that have either never been trained as bonsai or with plants called “pre-bonsai” that have received some degree of cultivation and training from a young age.  Untrained stock can be purchased at an ordinary nursery or garden center, repurposed from landscaping plants that are no longer desired, or collected from the wild.  Pre-bonsai are generally purchased from a specialty retailer. 

Styling & Root Care

Upon adding a new plant to the collection, the bonsai practitioner evaluates it with a discerning eye and decides upon the style he or she will try to achieve with the plant.  The practice recognizes specific styles which mimic growth patterns of trees found in nature. The hobbyist prunes the tree and often wires and shapes some of its branches to begin to achieve the desired style.   

The bonsai enthusiast styles the tree above the ground, but also devotes attention to the roots of the tree.  The plant requires a compact and concentrated root system in order to survive in the small, and usually shallow, pots used in the practice.  To achieve this, the hobbyist periodically prunes the tree’s roots to encourage development of a finer root system. The more compact the root ball, the easier it is to achieve the proper balance between pot and tree.  

The hobbyist also needs to keep trees healthy with routine watering and monitoring for issues with insects and disease.

Tools & Supplies

As with most hobbies, the practice of bonsai involves specific tools and gear. However, those starting out can get by with just a few items and acquire more as they grow their collection and gain experience.  Specialized tools, soils, and pots for the trees are basics for getting started, as are the trees themselves. Guidance for beginners is also essential, whether it be a book, this website, or the advice of an experienced practitioner. 

Three Characteristics of Successful Bonsai Hobbyists

So now that you know a little bit about what is involved, you may be wondering if bonsai is something you might enjoy.  It’s fair to say that people who are enthusiastic practitioners have at least three characteristics in common. Let’s explore them.

Bonsai Hobbyists Enjoy Nurturing Plants

If you already successfully garden or keep houseplants, the practice of bonsai would be a natural extension of your current talents and would help you develop additional skills specific to the hobby. 

Not a gardener?  No worries!  Even if you’ve never tried or had much luck growing plants, you can still be successful in bonsai as long as you have interest and willingness to learn. There are plenty of resources that can help, including this site!

Although bonsai do have some unique care requirements, don’t let that scare you.  After all, hobbies are something we choose to devote time to in order to learn and practice. You can expect to gain knowledge and skill over time. Plus, properly caring for each individual tree is not much more time-consuming than caring for other containerized plants. 

Bonsai Hobbyists Exercise Their Creativity.  

The practice of bonsai is an art as much as it is a hobby. Practitioners make numerous pruning, potting and styling decisions that influence the look, growth and health of the plants they are training. 

Bonsai is no different than most pursuits that involve creativity.  As a beginning hobbyist, you need to first concentrate on learning and practicing the basics. Then, as your knowledge and skills grow, you will become more confident and creative in your approach to decisions involving the styling and care of your trees.

Some quick advice to those who might doubt their creativity and their potential aptitude for the hobby.  Don’t doubt yourself! Research has proven that every person – yes, everyone! – has some degree of creativity. Each person is creative in his or her own unique way, but sometimes that creativity simply goes unrecognized. Whether your particular creative bent will lead you to favor more classical styles or those that are more avant-garde, there is a place for both and everything in between in the world of bonsai. 

Bonsai Hobbyists Are Patient.  

“Is it full-grown?” The question came from a gentleman who had joined me in admiring a Japanese maple at a local bonsai exhibit. The maple was a beauty, standing around 18” high and resplendent in full summer leaf. It displayed the fine branch ramification and miniaturized leaves typical of bonsai that have been in training for years. Its thick trunk and surface roots leant an aged appearance to the tree. It was easy to see why this casual attendee might assume the tree was a “full-grown” miniature.

Entranced by the beauty and perfection of the maple before us, I softly and wistfully responded, “They are never full-grown.”

Works in Progress

One of the most important concepts for someone considering this hobby to recognize and embrace is that the process of turning an ordinary plant into a bonsai is a long-term proposition.  A bonsai is always a work in progress, never “finished” or “full-grown”.  Like any living thing, it evolves over the course of its life in response to its environment and the attentions of the person caring for it. 

While it takes patience and time to develop a bonsai, don’t let the “never finished” aspect bother you. The key is to enjoy the plant just as it is at any point in time, celebrating the progress you have made, while contemplating other steps you might take make it even better.

Like many others, I find that the forced patience of practicing bonsai is actually good for the soul.  Living in the fast pace of today’s frenetic world can drain our energy and focus. Caring for our charges forces us to slow down – way, way down! It allows us to pay attention to details that we would normally not notice. This brings some much-needed balance to our daily lives.  I like to think of this as the “Zen” of bonsai!

In Summary . . .

Bonsai is a fulfilling hobby with a rich history that almost anyone can practice successfully. It involves using certain specialized tools and learning some specific practices that most people can master without difficulty. Bonsai is a great way to learn about plants and their care, exercise your innate creativity and put a little Zen in your life. 

Ready to Start?

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