A beginners guide to bonsai

There is a special allure for many people in the subtle but powerful impact of an expertly tended bonsai. Once you’ve experienced the almost mystical aura of an ancient bonsai like the 500-year-old miniature pine tree that is now an official National Treasure of Japan it’s unlikely you’ll ever forget it, but pursuing this particular art is not for the frivolous.

With scores of clubs and organisations that have sprung up over the past few decades, there is a wealth of information and advice for anyone who falls under the spell of the bonsai mystique and wishes to try his or her hand at creating this unique form of artwork. The best suggestion is to start out with a simple project; don’t expect to create a dazzling bonsai without getting deeply involved in the process.

For beginners and for those who have very limited outdoor space, an indoor project might be the ticket. Bonsaiplants has some great tips for anyone trying it on for the first time, and having a project right at your fingertips may be a little easier to manage than one that requires dealing with weather variations. A gardenia, for example, grows well indoors and can be trained into a lovely bonsai in less than three years. A lemon or orange bonsai tree grown from a seed takes more like ten years.

A beginning bonsai grower in the UK can find all sorts of help to get started; the internet is a valuable resource but hands-on classes are highly recommended, preferably taught by someone with years of experience and scads of patience. Some of the many clubs are led by ‘old-timers’ with strong grounding in the traditional methods, and if you’re serious about learning the art you need to find one of those.

In the words of one long-time bonsai enthusiast, Tony Tickle, “. . . there is no substitute for going to an exhibition of top class trees . . .” and discussing them with the artists who developed them. There is also, he says, no substitute for “. . .working in three dimensions on a living tree, understanding its unique traits, horticultural requirements particular to your location and actually sharing ideas.” Bonsai is just not an art you can fully absorb from books – it literally takes years of practice.