Growing bonsai in containers


DIY and how-to

Japanese white pine Bonsai tree in a shallow, round brown ceramic pot.

Growing Bonsai in Containers

The art of bonsai (pronounced bone-SIGH) is much more than just planting a tree in a container – it involves an appreciation of art and nature and especially a love of trees. Growing and creating bonsai is an enjoyable and rewarding experience.

This hobby of growing small trees in pots, originated in China and was perfected by the Japanese. Now bonsais are considered living works of art and showpieces in boardrooms and living rooms.

A few facts about Bonsai

  • Bonsai range in size from a few inches to four feet tall.
  • Any woody perennial plant with small enough leaves can be bonsai, even herbs such as rosemary.
  • Most bonsai are outdoor plants – don’t try to keep them in your living room.
  • It doesn’t matter how old a bonsai is – what matters is how old it looks.
  • The wood, not the leaves, makes a bonsai look old and gives it character. Don’t worry about the leaves – they will grow.
  • Bonsai are planted in clay bonsai pots, which are relatively plain and usually rectangular or oval in shape.
  • After the initial styling and potting, your creation is called “pre-bonsai”or “bonsai in training”. A plant needs to be trained in a pot for several years before it can earn the name “finished bonsai”.

The basic steps in creating bonsai are:

Selecting plant material

Styling which includes – Pruning and Wiring

Potting and Care which includes – Water, Fertilizer and Sunlight

Control of Plant Diseases which includes – Trimming and Winter storage

What trees should I use?

Plants most suitable for bonsai are those which are woody and able to live happily in the Western Cape. Remember that bonsai is all about proportion so large leaves on a small tree will not look right. For this reason you should avoid compound leafed trees or trees that do not reduce their leaf size when grown in pots. (If you are unsure visit either our Kenilworth or Bellville branch of Stodels and ask one of our horticulturists for advice).Trees with naturally rough bark give a wonderful ‘ye olde’ look and the shorter the distance between the leaves the better as these will develop attractive twiggy growth.Wonderful bonsai can be crafted from maples, thorn trees, cedar, white stinkwood, contoneaster, cypress, fig, juniper and small leafed privet.

Buy South African- Indigenous Bonsai

But it is the new and ground breaking use of indigenous trees in South Africa in Bonsai that is the most exciting. In recent years the wild olive, the false olive and the black monkey thorn have been styled into bonsai works of art. The wild olive’s success is partly attributable to its ability to reduce the leaf size, the ageing characteristics of its dark grey, fissured bark and durable wood suitable for sculpting.

Its all about style

Various techniques are used to create the more than 30 styles of bonsai, each of which tells a story of the hardship through which the tree has been. A windswept tree with all the branches on one side or even a tree which has been struck by lightening with a combination of dead and living branches.

The four basic styles are :

  • Formal upright
  • Informal upright
  • Semi-cascade
  • Cascade

Flowers, berries and fruit – your bonsai pot’s your oyster. The good news is that even flowering plants are now used for the art of bonsai. If you are a beginner though, beware of wisteria – they are only for the most experienced experts. Try bougainvilleas and azaleas which are easy for beginners and still make a wonderful display. If berries are your thing, use pomegranates or cotoneaster while the the kumquat, calamondin and crab apple produce gloriously tiny fruit.

Tips on growing flowering bonsai

  • Avoid pruning new growth just for styling as this is where the flowers will appear.
  • In the early stages, the shape of your bonsai is very important so you should sacrifice flowering and fruiting for the time being.
  • If a tree has flowering buds, it will not produce new shoots until the flowers have been fertilized or removed manually.
  • Most trees can cope with the large amount of starch and sugars needed when flowering but the pomegranate may suffer dieback and even lose branches.
  • Be ruthless with Azaleas when the flowers appear – they are still dormant and need to be cut right back as soon as the first flowers start to drop.
  • Trees like firethorn and cotoneaster should only be pruned when the berries on the tree begin to drop – leaving them on will sap the strength of the tree.
  • A special soil mix for flowering bonsai can be used which is a mixture of 50% potting soil and 50% coarse sand or small stones.
  • The ferilizer should have a low nitrogen content and a high potassium and phosphorus content. A deficiency in potassium results in few, poor quality flowers and fruit and susceptibility to disease.

When you buy your first plant from the nursery spend time just looking at it. Think of how a tree looks so that you can work towards an idealized scale mode of a beautiful wild tree. Remember although Bonsai are beautiful, it’s the journey there that is exciting and challenging. Happy gardening and don’t forget to contact one of our horticulturists at our Bellville or Kenilworth branches for some expert advice!