The Very Basics
Bonsai is the Japanese term for a tree in a tray. Bonsai can be planted in ceramic pots or on stones. Landscape style bonsai are generally called Penjing, which is also the Chinese term for bonsai. Bonkai is an older term for landscape plantings.
There are five basic styles in bonsai: Formal Upright, Informal Upright, Slant, Semi-cascade and Full cascade. These describe the angle of the trunk relative to the soil surface; there are many variations to each style.
Bonsai are typically grown outdoors, with few exceptions. They can be brought inside for short periods of time, the duration of which depends on the time of year and type of tree. In cold climates during winter (sub-32 degree weather) bonsai must be protected from harsh conditions and in most cases the rootball should not be allowed to freeze. Some tropical species of bonsai can live indoors year round with proper light exposure and care.
Bonsai have to be repotted and have their roots pruned once every 1-5 years.
Bonsai are dwarfed by pruning and careful maintenance of the growth of the roots and the leaves or needles. They are not dwarfed by lack of water, fertilizer or light; the lack of these necessary components of plant life will weaken the tree and eventually lead to its death. In bonsai the artist generally strives to keep the plant in the healthiest possible state in order to maintain balance and create the most beautiful image possible.
Bonsai are not a special variety of plant. Although in some cases genetic dwarfs are used for bonsai, in general, if a bonsai is planted in the ground it will eventually grow into a full size tree or plant.
Some bonsai have dead portions either on the trunk or in the branches. Dead sections are meant to imitate what happens in harsh natural environments. Dead portions on the trunk are called Shari, dead branches or twigs are called Jin.
Bonsai are planted in pots in soil that promotes good drainage; this soil is made up mostly of inorganic material such as lava rock, decomposed granite, horticultural pumice, akadama (a Japanese clay) and similar components.
Bonsai are watered almost every day when planted in proper soil, sometimes two or three times per day depending on weather conditions and the size of the pot. Over- or under-watering are the two most common causes of death in bonsai. Bonsai soil makes it very difficult to over-water a tree thus watering is done more frequently to ensure it does not dry out.
Want to learn about bonsai in a hands-on setting? BSSF offers basics classes. Check the upcoming meetings page or the home page for announcements.