Bonsai Beginnings

Bonsai originated in China around 700AD, and was introduced in Japan about 400 years later. The Chinese term for the art, “Penjing,” and the Japanese word “bonsai” have the same general meaning, “tree in a tray/container.”

I recently became interested in learning more about bonsai because, well, I have one. It’s a ficus, which I received almost 14 years ago. All during that time, I treated it like a houseplant, watering it when the soil seemed dry, or because a week had passed since last I did it. I fed it regular plant food, and while I sometimes thought that I should be doing other things more specific to bonsai like trimming or moving to a larger pot, I didn’t because I feared damaging the tree.

Then several years ago, I left the tree outside in the first chill of autumn. Ficus, as it turns out, are tropical/semi-tropical and aren’t meant to be exposed to 30-degree temperatures. Leaves browned and fell off, and the main branches died. I thought the tree a goner, but I kept caring for it, and over the last several years was rewarded as branches redeveloped and leaves returned. However, the branches were thin and haphazard—the tree had lost its shape. I wasn’t sure what to do next, and while I knew I could get information from books or You Tube videos, I do better with hands-on training. So, I decided to enroll in a six-week Bonsai Fundamentals class offered at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

My little ficus

Bonsai can be bought in final form, as my ficus was. They can also be purchased from nurseries, either as regular-size plants that can be trimmed down or as “pre-bonsai” that are already the right size but require shaping and training. They can also be made from “collected” plants or cuttings ranging from saplings to trees that are hundreds of years old. I liked that idea, so when a friend gave me a basket of shrubs and ground cover that included two errant mulberry saplings, I decided to try to develop them as well.

A ficus from the Midwest Bonsai Society May exhibit. Note smaller, fuller leaves and thicker branches.

So, over the last several weeks I’ve attended a bonsai show at the CBG, bought a few basic tools including shears for trimming leaves and thin branches, a root hook to clean dirt from root balls, and aluminum wire for training branches and securing trees in pots. Special wire cutters are available, but for now I’ll use a regular pair from the household toolbox. My goals are to learn how to maintain the ficus and nurse the mulberries. Developing a tree or shrub is not a project for the impatient. Repotting, wiring, and extensive trimming are all stressors, and therefore shouldn’t be done at the same time or even in the same year unless the tree is in desperate straits and you have nothing to lose. This means I have a couple of long-term projects ahead. I’m looking forward to the challenge.


About Kristine Smith

Kristine Smith is the author of the Jani Kilian series and a number of SF and fantasy short stories, and is a winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. She worked as a pharmaceutical process development scientist for 26 years, but now writes full-time. She also writes supernatural thrillers under the name Alex Gordon. Check out her BVC bookshelf


Bonsai Beginnings — 5 Comments

    • Learning patience is right! I tend to be an impatient person who skips too many intermediate steps because I want to see the finished product. There’s no skipping steps with bonsai. I didn’t even touch upon blending your own soil mixes–clays, lava rock, minimal organic material–and fertilizing. There really is a lot to learn.

  1. You have me thinking about a friend who loves doing bonsai (or did until he had a young son–I haven’t asked him lately if he’s still working on his trees) and also a short story that appeared in the same F&SF issue as one of my shorts–about a young man with witch sense teaching in Japan who tangles with local powers.

    While there he rescues a bonsai. From what I’ve heard, you should not rescue a bonsai–the shock of no longer being protected in certain ways might kill the plant? But it was an interesting story.

    Keep us posted!