The art of bonsai: imitating the shape and scale of a mature tree

Bonsai is an ancient art form dating back over a thousand years. The trees themselves can live for a long time – between 200 and 300 years – while there are even vines grown using much older bonsai techniques.

“Bonsai means ‘planting in containers'”, explains bonsai specialist Martin Mueller. Thus a bonsai is a tree sculpted by human hands and planted in a tray or container. But bonsai master Werner Busch points out that not all potted trees are bonsai.

“The shrub should mimic the shape and scale of a mature tree in the wild,” he says. Growth is restricted and redirected, and the branches shaped so that the tree changes accordingly.

“Wood plants, whether broadleaved or coniferous, are shaped by techniques such as pruning and wiring,” says Mueller.

The art of bonsai is to make a tree look like an adult tree, but in miniature. — Jan Woitas/dpa

Busch says there are two approaches to shaping bonsai trees: “You plant a woody-stemmed cutting, trimming and pruning the sapling regularly. It is necessary to plan at least 10 years before obtaining a visible result.

Alternatively, you can also work a partially grown source plant from a nursery. “They are kept small, sometimes forming a thick trunk,” says Busch. Conifers such as pines, junipers, spruces, larches and yews are the preferred species, according to Mueller, while for deciduous trees, elms and beeches are often shaped.

The list of garden tools needed for bonsai is quite short: a pair of pointed and sharp bonsai shears for thin branches, a concave knife for thicker branches, wire cutters and a mini rake. Anodized aluminum wire of various thicknesses is required for wiring. Besides pruning, wiring is one of the most important techniques for shaping bonsai trees.

“The young branches are gently wrapped and positioned with the aluminum wire,” explains Busch. The older a tree, the more horizontally the branches stand as their own weight pulls them down. The thread can be used to imitate the image of the old tree.

Young shoots are cut with the bonsai shears to stimulate branching, while a concave knife is used to prune thicker branches. This way the pruning heals faster and the cut is not visible.

“This is very important when it comes to the value of a bonsai: interventions in growth must remain invisible”, emphasizes the bonsai teacher.

The supply of nutrients is also important. Busch advises the use of organic fertilizers outdoors. “Nutrients are released evenly and absorbed accordingly,” says the expert.

Some tree species are grown outdoors year-round, which means location is important. While beeches and hornbeams prefer partial shade, pines, larches and apple trees like the sun.

Once a bonsai has its shape, the main care required is the supply of water and nutrients. Especially in hot weather, it may even be necessary to water your bonsai twice a day. – dpa/Dorothée Waechter

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