Skip to content


March 24, 2011

A few months ago, I was given a gift – The Bonsai Handbook, by David Prescott. I have always been interested in the art of Bonsai, but never took enough interest to actually DO Bonsai. After reading the book, I decided it was about time I made an attempt.

Many of us have had the unfortunate experience of purchasing a Bonsai at some local store only to find little instruction on management with the predictable result of almost immediate death of the poor thing. How finicky can these silly things be, I wondered? I went to the Des Moines Botanical Center and spent a good deal of time studying their rather large collection of Bonsai and, based upon what I read there, and how they had them set up, I thought it must really not be that terribly difficult as long as one pays close attention to the process and tends the plant frequently.

The Bonsai Handbook confirmed my suspicions as I read through it at breakneck pace and discovered that, with a little modification to take into account the severity of Iowa winters, I could more than likely manage to create my own Bonsai. In fact, I knew just the little tree to consider – a small five-year-old Japanese Fern-Leaf Red Maple that had been struggling year after year under the heavy weight of Iowa’s wet winter snows; it was all gnarled and scrawny for its age, but tough as the dickens, and the trunk was about the right diameter.

So, I dug it up and found, to my delight, that this little tree has the most fantastically interesting clump of “nebari“, or large twisted roots at the base of the trunk; it’s these roots that make the trunk particularly interesting artistically, and also enhances the value of the Bonsai.

Fern-Leaf Japanese Red Maple—only about eight inches tall after four years due to struggles with winter snow.

The root structure after washing and removing the dirt from the roots and trimming the long roots away.

A very interesting gnarl of nebari, or large roots to leave exposed upon planting.

I made the decision to go with an oblong shaped pot six inches deep – deeper than is usually used for Bonsai, my reasoning being that the recommended lowest temperature for the Bonsai is 14 degrees F, a temperature significantly higher than the lows one might see here in Iowa of -20 on occasion. Deciduous Bonsai must have a cold winter dormant period, and the only place that will work for any Bonsai I create for outdoor dormancy is in the relative cover against the south side of the house where the pots can be kept warmer than the ambient air temperature. Extra soil will likely prevent root damage from too low temperatures, especially if the pots are heavily mulched for the winter. Furthermore, we often see temps as high as 100 degrees in the summer, a temp so high that even in the shade a poor little Bonsai is likely to need to be watered nearly constantly! I have to take all these factors into consideration when determining the best plan of action; I even used plastic pots instead of ceramic as ceramic usually cracks here with these weather extremes. I hope I’ve done the right things!

So, the next step was to place the tree into the pot before the roots had a chance to dry out. I put a two-inch layer of large stones in the bottom and filled the pot with a combination of garden topsoil and black loam from my garden, mixed with some vermiculite. This is not the usual formula, but again I had to take into account weather conditions here in Iowa, so wrong or right, that’s what I did. I then carefully placed the tree and trimmed the branches, carefully tamping the soil down around the roots and leaving the nebari beautifully exposed. Then I collected red lava stones, white marble stones, and patches of moss growing around my house here and there to finish off the top of the soil.

I then began the process of making it pretty, carefully dividing and poking the moss into the spaces between the nebari and around the base of the trunk, and then finally placing red lava rock on one side and white marble on the other. The tree has branches only on one side, and I decided to take advantage of that fact in the following way: the bright red leaves will be in striking contrast to the white stones underneath the branches, and the red lava stones on the opposite side will balance the red of the leaves hovering over the white stones. The branches will be wired to grow only in one direction to give the impression that the tree is blowing to one side, much like one sees with old trees that have dealt with a prevailing wind all of their lives.

The nebari come to life with the addition of bright green moss!

The final soil covering of moss, lava rock, and white marble. The tree is slightly to one side to allow for the growth of branches to the right only.

A final artistic trim and wiring of some of the branches with copper wire, and the Bonsai is safely ensconced in the conservatory, away from squirrels!

The final step was to artistically trim a few more branches and carefully wire them with copper wire to begin the process of forcing them to grow in the correct direction. Finally, I brought the whole thing inside where it will be safe from varmints as it re-establishes its roots and begins leafing out for spring. I hope it works as well as I imagine!

For the second Bonsai I chose an old Daphne ‘Carol Mackie’, a variegated variety of the Daphne shrub. I have no idea how this will work – since it’s a shrub, and not a tree – but this shrub needed to be removed anyway and I decided to give it a try. It has some really interesting branches and an old, fat trunk with a big swath of dead wood in it extending way up into some of the branches. This dead wood effect, or “shari,” creates a very interesting effect visually. A “jin” is a sharp spike at the top of the main trunk, a characteristic that is particularly nice on pine Bonsai. At any rate, I went through the same process with the Daphne, and also carved out some of the dead wood to make it look like an ancient but miniature giant tree, and then wired the smaller branches extensively to create additional visual interest. If it works, this could be an incredibly beautiful specimen. Daphne bloom in the spring with pale pink, fantastic-smelling clusters of flowers. We’ll see what happens!

Here is the red maple a couple of weeks later, growing like mad. It is usually a very deep purple, but it has less light in the house where I put it for safe keeping. I will put it outside the first week of May.

… and now outside for a few days with some real sun and true color!

And just for fun, a new edition – a Dwarf Japanese Holly. Slow growing with great leaf structure. I used the same technique but a traditional Bonsai soil mix and a more standard pot.

End of May. Great growth and color. The moss is beautiful. A little ceramic man has been added to complete the scene.

From → The Garden

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: