Down to Earth is a weekly garden column in The Sandwich Enterprise written by Heritage’s Director of Horticulture, Les Lutz. For the full article with images please visit The Sandwich Enterprise here.
Bonsai combines art and culture to create miniature trees that are awe inspiring. Literally translated, the term bonsai (pronounced bone-sigh), means a tree or plant in a tray or pot. But that definition doesn’t really define this art of growing trees. Dating back for nearly a thousand years, the people of Japan have practiced training, pruning, root-pruning, fertilizing and lovingly caring for bonsai as though they are cherished family members. And they are, with many plants being passed down through many generations and growing for hundreds of years. It’s important to remember that bonsai is a method of training and not a species of tree. Most are species that grow into large trees if left in the ground.
The oldest bonsai that I have ever seen was begun in 1625 and is a Japanese white pine. It’s one of 53 trees given by the people of Japan to the United States in 1975 for the bicentennial. That tree is alive and doing very well at the US National Arboretum in Washington, DC. If you’re in Washington be sure to visit the National Arboretum. The collection is one of the best in the United States.
But how do these trees come to be? I’ve grown my own collection for more than 30 years and can say this is much more than a hobby. First, the trees need almost daily care from April through November. Second, they require pruning and feeding several times annually. Third, they eventually become pot-bound and required root pruning.
Two of my trees are Ginkgo biloba. When I started working with them in 1997 they were each about 15 feet tall and each had a trunk caliper (diameter) of about 3.5 inches. So how did I end up with a tree that is about 30 inches tall and in a container that is only 3 inches deep by 28 inches wide? Lots of pruning, both above and below the ground. In general, trees grow much more slowly in containers, so if you want a tree that has a thick trunk and looks like a mature tree—which is what you are trying to achieve—then you need to start large and work down. If you start with a seedling or a rooted cutting, you will never live to see a mature bonsai.
There are many public bonsai collections that are worth a visit. Locally, the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University has a collection (The Larz Anderson Bonsai Collection). The Brooklyn Botanic Garden in Brooklyn, New York, has a nice collection and if you are heading south be sure to see the collection at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. There are also many suppliers that can help with containers, soil and tools for caring for your trees.