Bonsai Lessons for Beginners

Part 15 of a series by Eugene Howell

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Ficus BonsaiIn the previous post we began the discussion of how to start a bonsai by first identifying where the front of your new bonsai will be. The front of a bonsai tree is defined as the side of the tree you want to have facing the viewer when your finished bonsai is on display. By determining where the front is, you’ll then be able to perform the tree’s first styling. We learned that the root flair gives the first indication of where the front may be. We also learned that if the roots don’t fulfill this mission then we next look at the trunk. In today’s bonsai lessons for beginners, we’ll find out how the trunk can help us find the front the bonsai tree.

The characteristic that most people observe first about a bonsai tree is the trunk’s movement, meaning the trunk’s curves and twists. Observe your tree from all sides and decide which view provides the most interesting curves and twists. This will likely turn out to be the front, but there are a few more considerations that need to be made before the final decision such as large unsightly scars or if there’s any reverse taper which is always unwanted in a bonsai. If your tree has any of these you may need to select a different front that helps to hide those blemishes.
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How To Start A Bonsai Tree

Part 14 of a series by Eugene Howell

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Bonsai ExpoYou’re a newcomer to bonsai, you’ve joined a club and attend meetings, you’ve looked through bonsai books and magazines, you’ve even attended bonsai demonstrations and yet despite all of this, when you look at your tree you don’t have the slightest idea where to begin or how to style it. Added to this is the fear that whatever you do might be wrong and may ruin it.

But things are not as bad as they seem and the art of bonsai is meant to be an enjoyment rather than a stressful anxiety. The first thing you need to get over is fear. Almost any mistake can be corrected with time and planning. There are obvious exceptions to that statement, but assuming you have a tree that’s merely a pre-bonsai there’s no need to worry about ruining it when it isn’t yet even a finished bonsai.
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Bonsai Pot Selection

Part 13 of a series by Eugene Howell

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Bonsai Pot SelectionBonsai pots come in so many shapes and sizes that it can sometimes be difficult to decide which pot to put your tree in. This is particularly true for people who are new to the art of bonsai. Some of the factors in bonsai pot selection are obvious, such as selecting a pot capable of holding the volume of roots your tree has. But there are several very important artistic considerations in bonsai pot selection that have been handed down through generations of experience and expertise from Japanese bonsai masters. By applying these rules you can have a bonsai tree that’s perfectly complimented by the pot it sits in.

First of all, there is a bonsai rule concerning the relationship of the size of the pot to the size of the tree. Therefore, you should always style and shape the tree first before selecting the proper sized pot.
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Bonsai Forest

Part 12 of a series by Eugene Howell

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Bonsai ForestTrees live a long time and many of us don’t have 30 or 40 years to wait for a seedling to grow into an impressive bonsai. For those who do, they may not have the patience to wait that long. Fortunately, in the art of bonsai, there are ways to shortcut the process. One of those ways is to create a bonsai forest. One of those ways is to create a forest planting. Typically a bonsai forest will use much younger trees that are not nearly as well developed as a single planted bonsai.

A bonsai forest is frequently set on a natural slab of stone rather than in a bonsai pot. This arrangement often leads the novice to have two questions: “How do I keep the trees in place on a natural slab?” and “How do I prevent the soil from washing over the side when I water it?”
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Bonsai Ramification

Part 11 of a series by Eugene Howell

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Dwarf Procumbeus Juniper One of the techniques that beginning bonsai artists find hard to understand is how to develop leaf pads. Questions concerning this come up more than any other when we work with newcomers to the hobby. So let’s take the time to discuss a couple of the key points in developing bonsai ramification since this is key to having good leaf pads.

Ramification is the repeated division of branches. As a tree grows in nature, the original branches divide and begin growing secondary branches. These in turn divide to produce third and forth branches, and so it goes until the tree is fully grown and covered with thousands of small twigs. By this time each of the tree’s main branches might themselves be branched six or more times before terminating at the leaves. When one looks at the canopy of a tree in nature, you see tens of thousands of leaves held by thousands of small twigs.
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Meristem Cells

Part 10 of a series by Eugene Howell

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Acer BonsaiTo be a good bonsai artist you must first understand how a tree will respond to what you’re doing. This means you must understand the basic parts and functions of a tree. Superficially this may seem to be an overly simple topic. After all, everyone knows a tree has leaves, branches, a trunk and roots. But don’t be fooled, understanding how these parts respond to pruning, wiring and cutting is a bit more complicated and deserves some discussion.

As I stated in the last post the trunk is made up of five layers. The outside layer is the bark, next is the phloem, and the third is the cambium. What the cambium does is extremely important to the bonsai artist.
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Cambium Layer

Part 9 of a series by Eugene Howell

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Leaning BonsaiTo care for a bonsai tree well, it’s appropriate that we first learn something about how a tree actually works; otherwise we have little ability to understand the true nature of the living thing we’re trying to bend and twist and shape to our desires.

If asked what the major parts of a tree are, what would you answer? As a bonsai artist, if you pause for a moment to think about it, you should come to the conclusion that if you have no understanding of how a tree functions, you won’t know what you need to do to the tree in order to get it to develop into an excellent bonsai. Furthermore, you won’t know how the tree will respond to your actions. This, however, is critical. You must know what to expect from a tree in order to develop it the way you envision the tree as a finished bonsai. The more you know about the basic functioning of a tree, the easier and faster you’ll be able to turn raw material into a beautiful bonsai.
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Bonsai Pests and Diseases

Part 8 of a series by Eugene Howell

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Japanese ZelkovaIn part 7 of this series (linked to at the bottom of this page) we started talking about bonsai pests and diseases. Today we’ll continue the topic of fungus that can adversely affect your bonsai trees.

Although there are many variations in symptoms, if you see black or brown spots begin to develop on a leaf, and if these spots begin to grow in size, you very likely have a fungus problem. With some fungi, these spots will develop along the edges of the leaves and thus look very similar to water stress (this is one of those hard-to-diagnose symptoms). In most cases, however, the spots will appear across the entire leaf surface. If the spots penetrate completely through the leaf, from the top side to the bottom side, your plant definitely has a fungus. Keep in mind, however, that not all fungi produce these symptoms.
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Owen Reich & Fujikawa Bonsai

Owen ReichBGP: Welcome to The Bonsai Garden Podcast, where the object is not to make the tree look like a bonsai, but to make the bonsai look like a tree.

BPG: Owen Reich has a bachelor’s degree in Ornamental Horticulture from the University of Georgia. He recently spent two years in Japan studying bonsai as an apprentice under Keiichi Fujikawa. Today he teaches numerous bonsai workshops and gives bonsai demonstrations. So, Owen, welcome to The Bonsai Garden Podcast.

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Thanks for having me.

BGP: Tell us about your bonsai apprenticeship in Japan. How were you able to make this connection with this bonsai master in Japan?
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Bonsai Diseases

Part 7 of a series by Eugene Howell

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Japanese White Pine Zui-sho pinus parviflora}Many bonsai enthusiasts and gardeners in general, have a tough time diagnosing plant disease and then have trouble deciding how to treat it. The reason may be because there are so many diseases, some of which have unusual or often very subtle symptoms, many of which are similar. So the average bonsai artist looks at a diseased leaf and doesn’t know what the problem may be or how to treat it.

There are three broad categories of bonsai diseases. They are fungus, virus and bacteria. Unfortunately there are no cures for viral and bacterial diseases in plants. But it’s critical that you know and recognize them because it’s very easy to inadvertently spread the disease from bonsai to bonsai as you work on your trees. Learning to recognize plant disease when it occurs will allow you to quarantine the tree away from your other bonsai. Remember to wash your hands thoroughly after handling the diseased tree before working on any other bonsai.
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