1Becoming a BonsaiHow do they do that?As the Assistant Curator of Collections at the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum, I get asked this question alot. Many think that it requires years of study and a Ph.D. in botany to create a bonsai; or maybe there are secrettechniques used to keep them small. But the truth is, by following a few basic principles, anyone can create abonsai.Please join me as I show you how to transform a young crapemyrtle into a bonsai.Aarin Packard became fascinated with bonsai as a child. He began to practice bonsai in 2000, after two friendsgot bonsai as Christmas gifts. He earned a master’s degree in museum studies with an emphasis in exhibitionsand collections care. In addition to his experience with the bonsai collections at the National Arboretum, Aarinhas had the privilege of studying with bonsai teachers from across the country.Section 1: The bonsai within
2Can I find the bonsai within?The first, and most important, step in creating a bonsai is to find the bonsai within. To do this one must keep inmind what a bonsai is: A bonsai is supposed to resemble a tree in nature, evoke great age, and be a thing ofbeauty. I spend time studying the plant I want to make into a bonsai, while thinking about different types oftrees I have seen in nature. This helps me to decide how I will style the tree. When I look at my crapemyrtle, Iam reminded of a large oak tree growing in an open field. Once I’ve decided how I want the tree to look, I moveon to finding its best side.Key Concepts• The goal of every bonsai is to resemble a tree in nature.• A bonsai should have the impression of great age.• The shape of a bonsai should have a pleasingly balanced form.Since bonsai trees are to look natural, it’s important to observe how trees grow in the wild. Studying the shapesand forms of trees in different environments can help you in creating bonsai.Section 2: How do I choose the front?The next step in creating a bonsai is choosing the best side of the tree, which is called the front. The front willbe the side that features the best attributes of the tree. Choosing the front is very important because it willinfluence how the tree is pruned and wired.
3Key Concepts• Every bonsai has a side that it is meant to be viewed from—this is called the front.• Finding the best side takes time as you must study the tree from different sides and angles.• Choosing the front will influence all other decisions, such as pruning and wiring.Side A Side B Side CFinding the best side of my crapemyrtle may take some time. I begin by looking at the tree from different sidesand angles, observing its surface roots, trunk, and branches. I try to imagine trees I have seen growing in natureand how I might us this plant to re-create some of their qualities in miniature. At the same time, I use myclippers to remove any dead leaves or branches, which also helps to reveal the bonsai within.Tree roots in natureAs a tree grows older, surface roots become more prominent and beautiful. A good bonsai should reflect thischaracteristic. Surface roots are important because they help create a sense of age and stability. When decidingon the front, the plant’s surface roots should be considered first since they are most difficult to change. Ninetimes out of ten, the side with the best surface roots will be the front.[Sections 2 (close-up of roots)]
4This side has well-developed surface roots and a wide buttress or trunk flare.Features and FlawsNow that the tree has been cleaned out, its features and flaws become more apparent. The most notable flaw inthis specimen is the lack of surface roots on one side. Ideally surface roots should radiate from the trunk on allsides like we see in nature.A thick trunk is another good feature on any bonsai because it represents age and maturity. Fortunately, the sideshowing the trunk’s thickness is the same side with the most surface roots; therefore, the front was determinedfor me by the tree—I just had to find it.Perhaps the best advice for finding the best side of a new bonsai comes from bonsai master John Naka: “If youcan’t find the front of your tree, find the back—the front is on the other side.”Section 3: Pruning
5How do I know what to prune?The bonsai artist creates the shape and form of a bonsai tree primarily through pruning. The initial pruning isimportant because it sets the foundation for the future structure of the tree. The goal of pruning is to eliminatebranches that look unnatural or have other faults. Faulty branches are branches that obscure a bonsai’s featuresor disrupt the overall feeling of natural harmony. If you are ever unsure about cutting a branch, it’s a good ideato wait. You can always cut it off later.Key Concepts• Pruning creates and maintains the size and shape of the bonsai.• Faulty branches that detract from the bonsai must be removed.• Pruning keeps the tree healthy by allowing more light and air into the plant.Object: Wire treesSection 3 Faulty Branch key text
6One of Japan’s well-known bonsai masters, Toshio Kawamoto (1917- 2006), created these wire bonsai to teachthe principles of pruning. He painted the branches that should be pruned white, which helped his studentsvisualize what the tree would look like before and after pruning. All white branches are considered faulty forvarious reasons. I have identified a few of them for you.*Wire trees donated to the U.S. National Arboretum by Toshio Kawamoto.Section 3 Object: Pruning shears, branch cutter, concave cutter.Pruning shears are the most basic tool used in bonsai. It is important that they are kept sharp and clean.These tools, called branch cutters and concave cutters, have round blades. Their cuts leave concave wounds.Section 3: Cutting branch AUsing my knowledge of faulty branches, I look at my crapemyrtle to see what branches should be eliminated. Isee two large branches that need to be removed. Branch A is an eye-poking branch, so I remove it because itcomes straight out toward the viewer. I use a branch cutter to make the cut at the base of the branch.
7Section 3: Cutting branch BBranch B is too low on the trunk; by removing it the trunk becomes more prominent. Notice how the branchcutter has left a concave wound in the trunk. This will heal faster than a flat cut.Section 3: Branch A&BBranches A and B are the first of many faulty branches that I will remove.After pruning)]With the initial pruning finished, the tree has more space between the branches. Now it is easier to see thebranches—this is important for the next step, wiring.
8Section 4: WiringHow else can I change the shape?Wiring is another technique that helps to refine the shape of the tree. Wire allows the artist to change the shapeof the trunk and branches into more interesting forms. Once in position, the tree will adjust to the new shapeover time. Wire cannot be left on indefinitely. As the tree grows, the wire must be removed and re-applied toprevent damage to the bark. A bonsai will need to be re-wired many times as it develops over the years.• A bonsai’s shape can be changed through wiring.• Wiring allows you to bend branches into more interesting shapes.• Wire must be removed before it damages the bark.Objects: Naka wire gauge plaque and Bonsai Techniques bookJohn Naka (1914-2004), one of the greatest and most beloved American bonsai masters of the 20thcentury,taught countless students throughout the world the art of bonsai. He consolidated his teachings into two books,Bonsai Techniques and Bonsai Techniques II. In them he uses his sketches to illustrate bonsai techniques,including wiring. He used this plaque to show his students the different types and gauges of bonsai wire.
9*Wire gauge plaque donated to the U.S. National Arboretum by John Naka.Section 4: Object - wire cutterSnub-nosed wire cutters are designed so they do not damage the bark when cutting wire off the tree.Section 4: Object - pliersPliers are very helpful when working with heavier gauges of wire that are difficult to bend and twist. You willalso see how they are used during the potting process.Have you ever noticed how older trees have branches that are angled downward? This is the result of gravitycontinually pulling down on the branches over time. I have seen old oak trees whose lower branches actuallytouch the ground. I will mimic this natural phenomenon to make my bonsai appear older.When beginning to wire a bonsai, I start from the bottom and work my up. By pulling the lower branches downfirst, I will have enough room to bring down the branches above them. Guy wires can also pull branches down,but will be addressed later since they are put on last.
10I apply the wire at a 45-degree angle, which is best for holding the branch in place. I wire branches from thethickest end to the thinnest, and if possible, I wire two branches with one piece of wire. This causes each branchto act as an anchor for the other.Section 5: How do I pot the tree?Potting a bonsai involves soil, a pot, and the tree. Bonsai soil must have good drainage, yet be able to retainmoisture. A proper bonsai pot not only enhances the beauty of the tree, but also provides sufficient space for thetrees roots. Before a bonsai goes into its special container, its roots must be pruned. As the tree grows, theroots fill the container, and the soil breaks down. That is why most bonsai will have to be repotted every 2 to 3years throughout their lives.Key Concepts• Repotting every 2 to 3 years is essential for the health of the tree.The soil must drain well, yet hold moisture.Roots are combed out and cut back by one-third to one-half.Section 5: Object - Crapemyrtle PotSection 5: Object - Types of soilChoosing the SoilBonsai soil needs good drainage so that air and water may flow freely through it. If water does not drain freely,the trees roots may begin to rot. At the same time, the soil must retain sufficient moisture to prevent the rootsfrom drying out. I used equal parts of a baked clay from Japan called akadama, which has good drainage andretains moisture, and lightweight aggregate, which increases drainage.
11Object: Yuji’s Soil Sieves]Yuji Yoshimura (1921-1997), one of the West’s earliest and most influential bonsai masters, must have siftedcountless bags of soil with these sifters, which he owned. Sifting soils is an important step in repotting bonsai.Sifting helps to separate soil into different sizes, which are used for different sized bonsai. Also, if the soil is notsifted, the dust in the soil will inhibit water draining freely through the pot.*Sifter donated to the U.S. National Arboretum by John Romano.Choosing a PotNot until I plant my tree in a pot will it receive the title of bonsai—after all, bonsai means “tree in a pot!”Choosing the right bonsai pot is like choosing the frame for a picture. It should harmonize with the tree whilenot drawing attention to itself. This makes the relationship between the tree and the pot very important.
12These images from John Naka’s Bonsai Techniques show how to determine the correct pot size. The length ofthe pot should be two-thirds the tree’s height. The depth should be equal to the width of the trunk. By choosinga pot with correct length and depth, you automatically have the correct width because the potter has made thecontainer proportional.Section 5: Object - Training Pot]My crapemyrtle is going into a “training pot” to help the tree get used to life in a small container. I will repotthe tree in its “final” container once it has become established. Training pots are slightly larger than what isconsidered ideal so that the transition will be less stressful to the tree. I think this pot, despite its larger size,harmonizes with the tree.Section 5: Object: Small Pot with screen and wireI prepare the pot beforehand by adding wires to secure the tree to the pot and putting plastic screens over thedrainage holes to keep soil from washing out. I use thicker wire to make anchor points so that guy wires can beadded later. The anchor wires hook on the lip of the drainage hole and go up through the soil.[Section 5: Object - Root rake, scissors, root cutters, tamper, pliers, chopstick]My crapemyrtle has been growing in its nursery pot for a while. In order for it to fit it in the pot I have chosen, Iwill need to remove almost 75% of the roots. Once I begin repotting, I must work quickly to minimize stress tothe tree.
13Using the root rake, I begin combing out the roots at the bottom of the root ball.As the roots are exposed, I cut them back with sharp scissors so that the cuts are clean. This helps to promotethe development of finer roots, which are important for absorbing water and nutrients.As I get closer to the trunk, I encounter larger roots that will require a root cutter. Large roots take up valuablespace in the pot and need to be removed.I have cut off nearly three-fourths of the roots. This drastic root pruning is only necessary when first placing thetree it in a pot. When I repot in the future, I will only remove half of the roots.
14I secure the tree to the pot with wire so that it does not fall over. I like to use pliers to tighten the wire in the pot.I use a chopstick to work the soil in between the roots to remove any air pockets. Air pockets in the soil can leadto root rot.Once I have worked the soil into the roots, I use a small trowel to lightly tamp the soil. The wires sticking upthrough the soil are anchor points for guy wires. I use guy wires to pull down larger branches that would bedifficult to wire.
15The transformation is complete, and I have a new bonsai. Now that you see how easy creating a bonsai can be, Ihope you will be encouraged to try it for yourself. Turn around and enter the courtyard to see my bonsai!.Those who have visited the exhibit will appreciate how much the tree has grown since Aarin transformed it intoa bonsai last spring. The most notable change is its new pot. The first pot was larger to help the tree transitioninto a small bonsai pot. Once the bonsai adjusted to life in a pot, Aarin could transplant it into an even shallowercontainer, one that was better proportioned for his tree.