Gardening Tips: For Stunning Bonsai, Go Back To Its Roots | gardening tips
IIt’s always fascinating to me that human cultures tend to interpret nature in such radically different ways. Here in the UK, much of our gardening aesthetic is firmly fixed on the flowers (the greater the number of petals and the more dazzling their colour, the better). But in some East Asian societies, the focus is on the amazing architecture of the parts of plants we don’t usually see: the roots.
In Japan, a technique called nearai shows plants that have been removed from their containers and the soil carefully rinsed specifically to reveal and accentuate their root structure. In the related practice of bonsai, one of the most revered schools is the “root on rock” style, where skilled horticulturists spend years trying to imitate the way the roots of rugged mountain trees twist and turn. massive boulders, using specially selected stones and a multitude of ingenious techniques.
This style changed drastically when it hit Bali and Hawaii, using jungle species, such as strangler figs, which produce masses of aerial roots. I love the magical structure and shape of “Fuku bonsai” or “Hawaiian bonsai”, which looks like something straight out of the The jungle Book crossed with Angkor Wat. These fast-growing tropical species will produce that effect quickly, and getting started couldn’t be easier, even for those living in less than idyllic climates.
There are really only two simple rules. First, only a few species produce these amazing root twists and tassels, the most common of which are tropical figs. I am particularly a fan of ficus ‘Natasja’, a strangler fig cultivar whose unusually small leaves really help create a convincing sense of scale. The little leaves arboreal schefflera is another ideal candidate. These fast-growing species are some of the most affordable bonsai – you can buy one for under £20 at any good garden center or (when closed) online.
Wondering why you never see these specimens for sale covered in roots? Well, here’s the second rule: they only produce them in extremely wet conditions. We’re talking at least 80% humidity (your average living room might be 40% or less). But all you need to do this is a plastic bell or, in a pinch, even a clear, overturned plastic bucket. Simply place your little bonsai on a large tray or dish, spray it generously with water, then pop the bell and place it in a bright spot.
In as little as a week you will start to see tiny white roots emerging all over the branches and trunks. In a few months, these will create beautiful flowing stilts and buttresses. During this time the cover can be removed approximately once a week for watering, pruning or training, just give the plant a generous stream of water after opening and before closing. Once these turn brown and woody, your miniature Angkor Wat will no longer need the bell at all, turning a standard small bog tree into a true wonder of nature.
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