Branching out into the art of bonsai

By Kay Montgomery Time of article published Jan 3, 2014

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Cape Town - Bonsai is an art form in which you train a small tree in a pot to look like a full-grown tree in nature. The branches must be trimmed so that an imaginary bird can fly through the branches with ease.

That’s how top bonsai expert Errol Rubin describes the art, which he says can never be compared to a painting or a sculpture, “as a bonsai can never be a finished work of art as it continues to live and grow”.

Tony Bent, of the Cape Bonsai Kai, adds that it is not enough only to admire the beauty the bonsai. You also gain something fundamental – “an awareness of evolution and growth, that we are all bound together”.


As there are different levels of attainment and enjoyment with other art forms, so too in bonsai.

“A bonsaiist is not bound by rules but adheres to them, while being fascinated by new and different concepts,” says Bent.

“He is aware of the discipline of growing with the environment, accepting or rejecting new ideas and techniques.


“The art of bonsai is full of tradition, and getting to grips with rules, guidelines, techniques and horticultural principles is daunting. Watching demonstrations and listening to lectures gives one a theoretical background but, as all gardeners know, there is nothing like getting your hands dirty to get a feel of your creation.”


All bonsaiists express their creativity through a tree.

The challenges to creativity are limited by the plant material used, the composition of the tree and pot, as well as rules governing bonsai growing.

So what makes a bonsai special?

Experts maintain that there is a great deal of artistic flair involved in developing each bonsai.

Through pruning and training, each bonsai can become a work of beauty which can be cherished, judged and admired.

“In the past, bonsaiists were traditionally biased towards using exotic plants to create this beauty,” says Bent.

But times have changed, and today you can find a host of indigenous bonsai that include acacia, buddleja, bauhinia, celtis, coleonema, crassula, dalbergia, diospyros, erythrina (coral tree), ficus, galpinia, wild olive, yellowwood and even schotia.

Tips for beginners:

Bonsai are favourite gifts for the festive season. If you receive a bonsai this summer, appreciate that there is no trick to growing a healthy bonsai.

The trees simply need love, tender care and about five minutes of your time every day. The most important thing to remember is that bonsai trees are not indoor plants, and should not be treated as such.


Here are a few basic rules for bonsai beginners:

l Water: Most bonsai trees do not like wet roots. However, bonsais grow in very small pots and therefore the soil needs to be watered every day. Make sure the water drains away from the bottom of the pot, and does not collect in a drip tray, as this will cause root damage. A good bonsai pot should have drainage holes to allow the excess moisture to drain away.

l Position: Some tropical trees, like Ficus benjimina, do not mind growing on brightly lit patios, but most trees, such as the maple, white stinkwood and acacia, need a lot of light and grow better in a position where they receive direct sunlight for some of the day. Try to place your bonsai in an east-facing position outside to allow the tree to catch the morning sunlight.

l Pruning: Once watering and position are sorted out, your tree will grow healthily and send out new shoots. The tree will start changing its shape and you will have to start removing the new growth in order to keep the tree in proportion.

l Where do you cut the branch or new shoot? A healthy tree develops new shoots continuously. They appear on the branch at the base of the leaf. To maintain the correct shape for your bonsai, any shoots that grow upward or downward need to be removed. Only side-growing shoots are retained. Cut these back to two (sets of) leaves when new shoots have hardened.

l Fertiliser: Always feed regularly with a liquid fertiliser, and over-dilute rather than making the fertiliser too strong. Concentrated fertiliser can damage the roots and kill your tree. - Weekend Argus

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