January 13, 2023

Small but Mighty

No form of plant growing fascinates more than the slow-going bonsai.

Bonsai plants are best placed on tables, benches or plinths to admire their finer details.

Reducing trees that would normally tower and spread in their natural environment to instantly recognisable tiny facsimiles is what makes bonsai so irresistibly fascinating.

Translated from Japanese, bonsai means “planted in a container”, although the style and form of plants in these containers are vastly different to our conventional ‘potted plants’.

Steeped in tradition, the ancient art of bonsai is a testament of our ability to manipulate nature.

For thousands of years, bonsai masters across Japan, Korea and China have honed the skill of horticultural miniaturisation and over the eons, these practices and techniques have spread across the globe.

South Australia has a thriving bonsai community. Visitors to the Royal Adelaide Show’s Horticultural Pavilion are constantly drawn to the ever-popular bonsai displays by the South Australian Bonsai Society.

The Society has been the go-to organisation for anyone looking to start their bonsai journey.

President, Matt Sharp, is an enthusiastic bonsai grower and knowledge sharer, with a backyard full of these very special plants to prove his prowess.

Matt, like many South Australians, has discovered the calming and ancient tradition of growing bonsai plants.

Matt’s interest in bonsai was ignited in his early 20s after being besotted by a number of stunning specimens at his local garden centre.

Many people are drawn to bonsai to help provide balance to their modern lives. Life lived at a hurried pace and a need for immediate gratification are gladly traded for meditative pursuit and intricate horticulture.

More akin to a pet than a plant, there is a lot of planning and time spent on a bonsai.

Every tree has its own personality and say in how it is styled and presented with some trees best wild, others refined, dramatic or serene.

Unlike a topiary, where plants are trimmed into geometric or identifiable shapes, Matt is quick to note that bonsai is all about creating a tree that looks aged and natural, albeit in a much-reduced size.

Trimming and reducing leaf mass, wiring stems to create layered branching and constant care are part of the bonsai grower’s DNA.

Plant selection is a major factor in bonsai success. There are a surprising number of trees and shrubs that respond well to dwarfing.

Deciduous trees such as Chinese elm, trident maples and desert ash make excellent specimens.

In particular, the desert ash’s rough and textured bark creates the illusion of age in even young bonsai plants.

Port Jackson figs are a standout evergreen and one of the most frequently grown bonsai. Always popular for first timers, these also make stunning large bonsai specimens too. Though not a tree, South African small leaved jade or dwarf jade can be trimmed into shape and develops an excellent trunk and branch structure.

It’s a top choice for those starting out as jade plants are especially forgiving if you miss a watering or two.

Other traditionally-grown bonsai species are pine trees and junipers. Pines need a little more care with trimming of their needles.

Junipers are somewhat easier to care for and with two types of foliage, needle-like, and scale-like across a range of tree options, you can understand why this evergreen conifer is so popular.

Olives wreak havoc in our native bushlands by outgrowing local species, however this Mediterranean import is perfect when grown in the confined space of a bonsai pot. Its thicket of leaves and gnarled stems produce a perfect bonsai specimen.

Relatively new to the bonsai plant palette are Australian natives.

Unlike traditionally-grown exotic species with hundreds and hundreds of years of experience in developing and refining growing techniques, a new horizon in selection and adaptation of our local flora is emerging, helping to provide a rich source of bonsai potentials.

The beautiful melaleuca’s papery bark coupled with their small leaves makes them a particularly effective bonsai. Kunzea, callistemon and tea tree are also excellent performers.

River red gum require a more experienced hand to establish the distinctive mottled stout trunk and rounded open canopy. Even in a miniature form they are a majestic tree.

One of Matt’s favourites is the callitris or native pine. Widespread in low rainfall areas of the state, this stately tree grows up to 15 metres. Its broad conical shape and bushy habit translates extremely well in a bonsai form.

Garden centres are always a ready source of plants for those looking to get started.

Chance seedlings of desert ash or olive can often be discovered in a home garden or street verge.

A callitris or native pine

Dig carefully, trying to leave the roots undamaged. State regulations prohibit the removal of plants in our bushland, so look but don’t take.

Choosing your bonsai container can be quite a task. The pot is like the frame of a picture, so it is very important the plant and pot match.

There are many shapes and sizes to select from plus a number of “rules” about which type of pot best matches a tree.

A rectangular pot’s length is usually two thirds the tree’s height, while a round or square pot width is around one third tree height.

Keep your bonsai outdoors; exposure to the elements is good as it advances a plant’s weathering by developing crags and crevices and that much sought-after aged look.

Give them plenty of sun – at least six hours per day.

Protection from drying north winds and extreme heat is always welcome. Best to cover with white shade cloth or move to shaded spots when the temperature spikes.

Maintenance is the key to successful bonsai. Without constant trimming, plants revert to their natural growth habit and quickly bush out.

Most deciduous varieties need cutting every few weeks during the growing season, while olives and junipers can do with once a month.

Coupled with regular watering and fertilising, the more time spent with a plant, the better understanding of its particular horticultural needs.

To avoid becoming rootbound, plants should be removed from their container every few years, excess roots trimmed, and growing mix replaced.

The cycle of repotting means a plant can remain in its original pot for its entire life.

Bonsai are best placed on benches, tables or plinths to better admire the trunk, branching, leaf structure and other fine details.

Growing bonsai requires a lot of planning, this also includes succession planning. Given that most bonsai plants have extensive lifespans, Matt and many growers seriously contemplate how their bonsai will be handed down to become living legacies for future generations.

The South Australian Bonsai Society is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in discovering more about the growing and care of amazing bonsai.

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