Bonsai Progress cont’d

A few weeks ago, I attended a Tropical Bonsai Workshop at Chicago Botanic Garden. A month had passed since the Beginning Fundamentals class ended, and my job since then had been to keep the ficus outdoors and make sure it was well-watered and fertilized. Over the weeks, I trimmed the larger leaves to encourage back-budding (the growth of leaves on the bare areas behind the main clusters), and fed both liquid and slow-release fertilizer. No more little fruits presented themselves, but a number of small leaves did burst forth. Theses leaves remained small, which was a good sign. That meant the tree was receiving enough sun.

The good news is that the instructor felt that given the amount of back-budding and new leaf growth, this tree had turned the corner. He had mentioned repotting towards the end of last month’s class, but felt it wasn’t necessary for now. Instead, he had me remove all the wiring–I was surprised to see that in only four weeks the branches had grown so that the wire had started to press into the wood, leaving shallow grooves behind.

After I removed the wire, the instructor trimmed back several of the branches to the point where new leaves had budded and begun to form offshoot branches. For now, the tree appears less full, but eventually the new branches will fill out and more back budding, I hope, will occur. The goal is for the interior branches to fill out, and for more branches to grow, leading to the formation of a small, “tight” tree.

My ficus, several months on


Here’s how my tree looks now. The branches are shorter, and have been turned upward by the wiring.





My ficus, post-wiring.


For purposes of comparison, here’s a shot taken just after it was wired, in mid-June. The larger leaves were still in place, and the back-budding had yet to start. To be honest, I felt it looked okay. But it wasn’t considered good bonsai form as it was too “leggy” and the leaves were too big. It didn’t look like a real tree.



A ficus from the May show/Midwest Bonsai Society. Note the shorter branches and smaller leaves.




Here’s a ficus I saw at a recent display at the CBG. The goal is to develop a tree that looks full-size, with proportional leaves and branches. My tree still has a ways to go.

What’s next? Well, I signed up for a Fall/Winter Preparation and Storage workshop in September. When fall temperatures settle in, I will have to bring the ficus indoors because it’s a tropical tree. But I will have to provide it decent lighting so the leaves don’t grow oversized, which means acquiring a lamp of some sort. I confess that when I started all this, I didn’t expect it to be this complicated. My goal had been to learn to care for the single tree I had. But now I have three additional trees, a small spruce and two mulberry saplings, that I am considering making into bonsai, and they will need to be developed and cared for just as diligently.

What have I gotten myself into?


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 Progress cont’d — 7 Comments

    • My indoor natural light is actually pretty lousy except for the south-facing French doors in the dining room. I have a 3-shelf cart parked in front of one of the doors that holds most of my plants–the African violets, a croton, a palm.

      I will likely have to get a special indoor light for the ficus.

  1. Sounds like you’ve gotten into a fun new hobby to me. I think it sounds very interesting, if I had decent indoor lighting, I would be tempted to give it a shot.

    • The Mid-America Bonsai Exhibition is in a couple of weeks, and I really will need to restrain myself. I could use some tools, a couple of nice pots….

  2. I may call on you for advice. I ended up with a bonsai after going to our credit union’s annual meeting last fall — one of those “the person with the sticker under their plate gets the centerpiece” things. I’ve kept it alive — it’s in a sunny window — but I don’t really know how to do anything but water it.

    • Well, the first task will be to find out what type of tree (or shrub) it is: evergreen, tropical, etc

      I will dig through my notes to find out which books my instructor suggested, if you wish. Meanwhile, a botanical garden in your area may have a bonsai person, as may a larger nursery or garden store. There may even be a bonsai organization that can offer some advice. I can offer basic advice, but am inclined toward contacting someone in your area for specifics because the weather/sun/etc will dictate care, feeding, wintering over, etc. I may suggest keeping a tree inside when, given your weather and the type of tree, it may need to be outside as much as possible.

      Like I said, it turned out to be more complicated than I expected.

      • I had better start by figuring out what kind of tree it is. It looks like a deciduous tree of some kind, but it didn’t lose its leaves over the winter, nor is it going brown in the summer (as some trees do here in the Bay Area in response to our dry summers). We have a Mediterranean climate — it almost never freezes and rarely gets hotter than 85 — and we get a lot of sun in our apartment. There’s no place to put it outside.

        So far I’m keeping it alive, which, given that at the best of times I’m a half-assed gardener, is a victory. My best outcome as a gardener was to buy a small cherry tree for my yard in DC. I did nothing but water it and it grew into a beautiful tree that bloomed every spring and occasionally had to be trimmed because it hung over the neighbor’s fence. I’m really best at things that are just stuck in the ground.

        I’ll take a picture of it and find out what it is. And come back for more advice along the way.