As I’ve been visiting different bonsai clubs this year, I’ve had the opportunity to meet a lot of enthusiasts who are relatively new to bonsai. This has led me to think about the tips, techniques and areas of study that would be relevant for someone starting out in bonsai.
What I’ve come up with is a list of ten things for beginners to work on.
Nine are easy; one is hard. All ten require work.
The idea is to provide a starting point for anyone who wants to create beautiful bonsai or come to a workshop prepared to learn more. With this knowledge, you can keep your trees healthy for years.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll cover each item on the list, beginning with the most fundamental topics and progressing to more technical ones.
Do note that simply reading these posts will not make your trees better. Learning how to care for and work on your trees and then applying that knowledge will.
Identifying an appropriate environment for your bonsai
Last week a friend asked if he could grow white pines in San Francisco. It was a good question, and I didn’t have a good answer. I know that white pines that have been grafted onto black pines do well, and I know that only some white pine varieties do well in the Bay Area – possibly because we lack the cold temperatures that trigger winter dormancy. What I didn’t know is anyone with a lot of experience growing white pines in San Francisco.
White pine bonsai at Taisho-en
This led me to do some research about where white pines thrive – in general, up in the mountains where winter is cold.
White pines growing on a rock outcropping in Japan
I also called and wrote several people that lived in or worked on bonsai in San Francisco to see if they had experience with the variety.
The short answer is that I’ve heard mixed reviews about whether white pines can grow well in San Francisco.
The point in sharing this story is that no matter how much bonsai know-how one has, it’s no good if one’s trees aren’t well suited to their environment.
How can you determine the best environment for your bonsai? That’s where the research comes in.
The easiest starting point is to check with a friend or nurseryman who has direct experience with the variety in your climate. Local bonsai clubs are an ideal resource for this.
Online searches can also yield great results. I frequently consult Wikipedia, commercial, and university websites when researching how and where plants grow. Bonsai and other plant-related forums are also worth consulting (ask.bonsaitonight.com is one example).
White pine in the workshop at Aichi-en
If you’re not already familiar with the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map, now’s a great time to become acquainted as many plant resources refer to these zones.
One note of caution about the zone map – potted plants may not be as hardy as their counterparts growing in the ground. Because bonsai grow in containers, the roots are often exposed to much colder temperatures than they would be were they planted in the ground.
Once you’ve determined whether or not a given tree is a good fit for your climate, it’s important to determine how much sun it needs and how much exposure to wind it can tolerate.
Most of my conifers grow year-round in full sun. In summer, I use 30% shade cloth to shelter deciduous varieties like stewartia and Japanese maple.
I’ve come to this approach through years of experiments and consultation with local bonsai enthusiasts, yet I still move trees around the garden every year in an effort to provide the best conditions for each tree.
White pine in the garden at Daiju-en
That’s it for the first item on the list: how to identify an appropriate environment for your bonsai. It’s not hard work, but finding answer to this question can require some effort. Most items on the list will be similar in this regard.
Next up: How to evaluate water needs
(Article updated 12/7/16 in light of Brian Shindler’s comment that white pines haven’t done well in San Francisco. The original version suggested that white pines could grow, albeit slowly, in San Francisco.)
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