Anyone can grow bonsai. Here’s how.

Bonsai portrays in the minds of most horticulturists extremely small trees of considerable age created by a strange secret process. Bonsai is not a strange process but an art form using principles of known horticultural practices, time and patience. The word “bonsai” comes from two Japanese words meaning “pot” and “to plant”. Bonsai began when the Japanese, with a passion for small objects, collected naturally stunted trees from mountainsides and grew them in pots. Although it’s still found in Japan in its purest form, anyone in South Florida can grow a real bonsai, and I’ll tell you how.

The fastest way to enjoy a bonsai tree is to get a plant from a garden center that has already been commercially potted. You can, of course, start from scratch with a stunted plant; it is not for the impatient gardener. The real secret of bonsai is repotting, root pruning and training. These are the methods by which the plant is kept in a healthy and small stunted state in a small space. Now go buy a potted bonsai. You bring it home and you wonder: how do you keep its growth slow?

Slow-growing trees should be repotted every three to four years, medium-fast growing trees every two to three years, and flowering or fruit trees every two years. This is an important process by which plants are kept healthy in a small pot. Clean up old soil, prune dead roots and cut off about 1/8 of live roots and provide new potting soil.

Pruning is done in the same way as for a normal-sized plant. The size is made to shape, maintain size and promote thick growth to provide an attractive frame. Wiring to shape young branches is done by wrapping copper wire around it and winding the branches into the desired shape until they have hardened enough to stay in such a position without support.

Each bonsai will have individual watering needs. Some potted soils dry out faster than others and various mediums will have different water holding capacities. Apply the water until it comes out of the drainage holes in the bottom of the pot.

Bonsai trees are prone to the same pests and diseases that attack normal plants, but with bonsai trees they tend to be more serious. Spray the plant at the first signs of pests and disease using normal pesticides and disease controls.

Weeds, dead leaves and debris must be kept out of the pot or they will damage or kill the plant.

Use a complete 20-20-20 soluble fertilizer at about half the rate recommended on the label directions about once a month.

Bonsai are miniature plants that are not necessarily houseplants. Most can be grown outdoors. Bonsai of species that normally grow in full sun should also be grown in full sun but sheltered from wind and rain.

If you are becoming or are a serious bonsai grower, you may want to visit the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Delray Beach where there is an excellent display of bonsai, some plants 50+ years old. In addition, in the gift shop, you can buy an excellent book “Miniature Bonsai” by Teritoshi Iwai. This is a fascinating guide on how to grow super-mini bonsai trees. Although the plants are extremely small, growing them is a complete gardening challenge! Why not try it?

Stan Davidson is a master gardener from Palm Beach County who lives in Boynton Beach.

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