The art of bonsai: Mimicking the shape and scale of a full-grown tree

A bonsai tree can in principle live as long as a tree growing in nature – hundreds of years. — Jan Woitas/dpa

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 according to bonsai techniques that are significantly older.

“Bonsai means ‘tray planting’, ” explains bonsai specialist Martin Mueller. So a bonsai tree is a tree sculpted by human hands and planted in a tray or a container. But bonsai master Werner Busch points out that not every potted tree is a bonsai.

“The shrub should mimic the shape and scale of a full-grown tree in nature,” he says. Growth is restricted and redirected, and the branches shaped so the tree transforms accordingly.

“Woody plants, either deciduous or coniferous, are shaped by techniques such as pruning and wiring, ” explains Mueller.

The art of bonsai consists of making a tree resemble a full-grown one, but in miniature. — Jan Woitas/dpa

Busch says there are two approaches to shaping bonsai trees: “You plant a woody-stemmed cutting, regularly pruning and trimming the young tree. You need to plan at least 10 years before you get a visible result.”

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

The list of gardening tools needed for bonsai is quite short: a pair of pointed, sharp bonsai shears for thin branches, a concave cutter for thicker branches, wire cutters and a mini rake. Anodised aluminium wire in various thicknesses is required for wiring. Besides the trimming, wiring is one of the most important techniques for shaping bonsai trees.

“The young branches are gently wrapped and positioned with the aluminium wire, ” says Busch. The older a tree is, the more the branches stand horizontally because their own weight pulls them down. The wire can be used to mimic the image of the old tree.

Young shoots are cut back with the bonsai shears to stimulate branching, while a concave cutter is used to prune back 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 tree: The interventions in the growth should remain invisible, ” emphasises the bonsai teacher.

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

Certain tree species are grown outdoors year-round, which means that location matters. 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 water and nutrient supply. Especially in warmer weather, it may even be necessary to water your bonsai tree twice a day. – dpa/Dorothee Waechter

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