Bonsai trees

by James Alexander-Sinclair

The world of gardening overflows with obsessions, such as giant vegetables, lawns, compost, cacti and many others.

Bonsai trees on displayThe world of gardening overflows with obsessions, such as giant vegetables, lawns, compost, cacti and many others.

One of the most extreme gardening obsessions is the art of bonsai. I was always a bit dismissive of this particular obsession until I interviewed an expert about seven or eight years ago. Up until that moment my only experience had been gathered from the 1989 film The Karate Kid, where Mr Miyagi, as well as being a karate expert and gardener, had a collection of bonsai trees that he tended to using an array of specialist tools. (He also wore a rising sun headband to add to the stereotype).

The basic premise of bonsai is to reduce the size of the tree while still maintaining the shape of the mature specimen. I always thought this was achieved by training a young tree for many, many years. Actually it is simpler to dig up a larger tree and slowly reduce its size, sculpting its branches until it's roots fit into a shallow dish. The most remarkable story I heard (though I'm sure there are many others) was of a Chinese juniper 1.5m tall and 3.5m wide growing in a small, overcrowded garden. Over a period of years it was dug up, pruned and replanted until it fitted into a pot. The whole process took about a quarter of a century and is far from over.

The art began about four thousand years ago in China, where it was known as Penjing. Originally it was much more exotic: tree shapes were based on coiled serpents and raging dragons. The Japanese took it further, using the art as something spiritual. Originally it was confined to temples but by the Eighteenth Century it had become more widespread. Today there are thousands of bonsai enthusiasts all over the world.

Any tree can become a bonsai - except palm trees because they have no branches. It's not a complicated hobby, mysticism, strange tools and exotic outfits are purely optional. Just remember you're dealing with miniature trees not house plants; like trees they need cold winters, air, water and sunshine to thrive.

For more information you could try the Federation of British Bonsai Societies.

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Talkback: Bonsai trees
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Gardeners' World Web User 17/06/2008 at 10:01

I'm sorry but I just think bonsai is cruel. It's one thing to train a tress from a seedling, but to dig one up and gradually reduce its size by trimming its roots? The amount of time spent butchering these trees could be much better spent actually doing some good, like planting flowers for wildlife.

Gardeners' World Web User 22/06/2008 at 19:56

I am highly vexed by the article on Bonsai, it does not explain the art of bonsai in its true form properly and leaves the art open to ill informed prejudice comments like those of Elsie. The art of bonsai is not cruel and many examples of 'naturally occuring' bonsai can be seen in the wild, by keeping a tree in a pot and caring for it as a bonsai, it is kept in peak condition and very far from cruel, would Elsie not prune a privet or a rose bush? I am trained in horticulture and have been a bonsai enthusiast for over a decade now, so I feel I am speaking from a position of strength. Regarding comments of growing wild flowers instead; I grow organic, my bonsai trees are organic, i have a veg patch, my garden is wildlife friendly and full of flowers from borage and blue poppys to alpines, oh and i have a wildlife pond too. So I would suggest that Elsie and gardeners world research a subject properly before making rude and naive comment.

Gardeners' World Web User 23/06/2008 at 21:38

Hi Adam. I am sure that you would agree that it is difficult to cover a subject as large as Bonsai in a short blog entry. As I say in the article, I am very keen on Bonsai and very much enjoy my occasional conversations with growers and enthusiasts.

Elsie is stating a view that is perhaps a bit extreme and anthropomorphic but also one that many people have when first confronted with a Bonsai tree.

It is not cruel but sometimes can seem a bit weird. However, on closer examination these trees are spectacularly beautiful in their own, idiosyncratic way. One also has to admire the dedication and skill of those gardeners who spend so much time and expend so much care on their creation.

Gardeners' World Web User 20/05/2009 at 20:50

I think the art of Bonsai should be shown on Gardeners World so other people can find out what is involved in looking after them. Bonsai are ideal for people who have limited space.

Gardeners' World Web User 24/06/2010 at 18:44

i would like to see a segment of gardeners world on Bonsai tree, it is something i am currently reserching with a view to buying one,(hopefully at Tatton park), I am awaiting 2 books on the subject one of which was written by Jon Ardle who i'm led to believe worked at Wisley for the RHS. Adam you sound as if you have enjoyed and been succesful with this form of art. I hope I am as succesful with my attempts.

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