Do you like gardens, but your small living space keeps you from having a garden? Well, container gardening can give you a wide variety of ideas to turn your condo’s or apartment’s balcony or small outdoor space into a lush green space.
One great idea for a container garden which can add some beauty to your outdoor space is the ancient Japanese art of bonsai. What is bonsai? Bonsai is basically a small miniaturization of trees. The Japanese often used the art of bonsai to create and adorn the porches of their houses with small trees and shaping them into organic and free flowing forms.
What is bonsai? Bonsai is actually a Japanese word meaning “good luck” or “success,” and the art of bonsai is dwarfing trees and having them in decorative ceramic containers, which in ancient Japan were used as symbols of good luck or success and a good and fruitful life.
Typically, when people bonsai trees, they are planting them in special pots which have a variety of shapes and sizes and are specifically designed to restrict the growth of the tree, in effect creating a dwarf of its original species.
Interesting facts of the art of bonsai trees are that, though, the art of bonsai trees is associated with the Japanese, and the Japanese have truly mastered this beautiful art, the Japanese are not the only Asian culture who bonsai trees. Believe it or not, the art of bonsai actually originated in China and the Chinese often associate this art with Zen Buddhism and it is believed that the art of cultivating a bonsai tree can be “therapeutic” for the cultivator.
A traditional bonsai tree
As you can see, in the image above, this bonsai is truly an example of how a rather large tree can be dwarfed and manipulated to have such an exotic shape. In its natural setting, this tree could possible be 30 or 40 feet tall.
Selecting your tree is just as important as where you want to place your bonsai. Creating your own bonsai will take a few years as trees do grow slowly. Some people, who have a huge mountain of patients, will start their bonsais from seeds, but if you want to go that route, you will need to know what the different seeds are and how to properly place them into growth medium and what are the proper conditions to grow them. See the graphic below to see some common tree seeds.
Several examples of different tree seeds
In the three images above are the seeds of typical trees which are bonsai trees. The first graphic is a variety of maple seeds. All maples have seeds which have a helicopter-like blade attached to the seed, allowing it to gently land on the ground. On a windy day, these seeds are able to be carried long distances, reproducing maples far away from the location of the mother tree.
The second graphic is a typical acorn without its cap. Acorns are seeds of oak trees. Oaks come in different varieties and in their natural state they can grow rather large, up to almost 200 feet.
The third graphic is the typical seed of a coniferous, or evergreen. Evergreens are probably the best trees to bonsai for beginners. Evergreens are very hardy trees and can handle a lot more punishment than deciduous trees, trees which go dormant and shed their leaves during the winter.
My biggest caveat about starting a bonsai by seed is patients. You need a lot of it. It can take several months for the seeds to germinate and then it can take up to two to five years for the seedling to become a sapling. A sapling is when the tree starts to develop its woody trunk and becomes to be taller than one inch. It could take the tree at least six to seven years to simply grow to three feet.
Nurseries are probably the best place to go to find the right tree to bonsai, though there are some bonsai stores which have the expertise on bonsai, but bonsai specialty stores may not be everywhere.
When going to a nursery, you want to look for rather young trees, those which are about a year old. Ideally, you should look for a tree that is no taller than a foot. The reason is that trees grow and the object is to dwarf the tree. You need to take into account that when you are planting the tree, you will need to manipulate how the tree will grow and how you want the branches to be shaped.
The sapling of an evergreen
The sapling shown in the photo above is about the ideal size of sapling you want when starting to bonsai. This evergreen is about six inches tall and is a good starting size. In a year to a year and a half, this sapling will be close to one foot. You want to try to keep your bonsai trees to grow no taller than three feet.
Light, climate, and area are all important when choosing a tree to bonsai. This is why a nursery is the best place to look for saplings. Furthermore, when you go to a nursery, they tend to have a rather large variety of both evergreens and coniferous trees and many nurseries also have knowledgeable sales reps who can explain to you how much light, whether the tree can be dwarfed for bonsai purposes, etc.
Inside or outside location is also critical when choosing the right bonsai. If you choose to have your bonsai trees inside, then you might be able to bonsai some tropical or subtropical trees, however, again light is very important. When outside, for a small balcony container garden, you might be better off with a variety of evergreen, as these trees are typically from northern climates and can handle freezing temperatures. Maples, if you have enough room on your balcony or small patio of your condo or apartment, are a good candidate for bonsai. The best types of maples for bonsai are the Japanese maples, and there are many hybrids of those in most nurseries. Some of these Japanese maples have lace-like leaves which a deep purple color in the summer and bright red or orange in the fall. The verdis variety of Japanese maple also has lace-like leaves, but with a bright emerald green in the summer and a fiery orange in the fall. Maples will shed their leaves in the winter and usually start budding them out in late April to early May
When inside, bonsai can be done with a variety of different tropical or subtropical plants, as the ambient temperature inside most dwellings or offices tend to be consistent and are usually above 65 degrees Fahrenheit.
Some tropical and subtropical trees which are popular bonsai include the ficus (rubber tree), japonica plant, evergreens, and sometimes citrus trees.
Cultivating and shaping bonsai trees needs to be done for at least the first year or two with the sapling. The key is to shape the tree to stunt its growth. You want to first pot your sapling in a medium to large ceramic pot, which you can get in different shapes. Some of the most popular bonsai pots include round ball shaped ceramic pots and small shallow flat rectangular pots which sit on legs, giving your bonsai that oriental look.
As your sapling grows, you can get special wire which is coated with a plastic or rubber coat which you can wrap around young branches and then bend the branch in the desired shape. As seen below, you can also use some thick gauge electric wire from the hardware store, but it should be flat and it must not be too pliable. The idea of wrapping the branch in wire is to form something like a cast, which you can bend and keep in the desired position. In some cases, you may have to tie some of the branches to get the desired shape. If the sapling is rather young, you might even be able to shape the trunk to make it curvy and organic.
In some cases, you might want to clip some of the branches. Clipping undesired branches also helps in dwarfing the tree. One evergreen which works extremely well with bonsai is the Japanese yu. You may have seen yus as bushes which are clipped in cubes or balls, and even as hedges. This is because a yu is actually a tree and if you can get a yu sapling, the creativity can be endless. Yus also dwarf nicely.
Example how wire wrapping branches can help shape your bonsai
Ideas for bonsai gardens are many. You can also get books on bonsai and how to arrange your bonsai garden. Below are some photos which show some perfect bonsai gardens which you can easily incorporate in your apartment, condo, or office.
A typical balcony turned bonsai garden