Bonsai - an art between heaven and earth

The art of bonsai - roughly translated as "tray planting" in Japanese - is an ancient way of having a plant or tree to grow to your artistic design, usually small. It came from China through Japan, and these days is found around much of America.

So how does one create a bonsai?

First, you need a plant. Bill Ferguson, who recently gave a lecture and demonstration on bonsai at the Greenhouse Garden Center, suggests almost any plant - bush or tree - with small leaves. In Japan, varieties of pine, azalea, camellia, bamboo and plum are most often used. But there is no hard rule on selection.

You like a plant, use it, he said.

The five basic bonsai styles are formal upright, informal upright, slanting (or windswept), semi-cascade and cascade, all self-explanatory. You need to match the style to the natural shape of the plant: Pines don't work for spreading formats (cascade); nor azalea or camellia, for example, for upright.

The tree and the pot or tray form a single matching unit in which the shape, texture and color work together. Then the tree must be shaped. It is not enough just to plant a small tree in a tray and allow nature to take its course. Every branch and twig of a bonsai is shaped or eliminated until your design is achieved. After that, it's a matter of continual trimming and shaping.

The trimming is accomplished with special clippers and shapers. By trimming a limb or branch, one shapes the form of the tree, often creating a design unusual or unique but not contorting the tree. This is nature refined, not distorted.

The pruning and shaping is where the individual makes the most important decisions. It isn't simply keeping the bonsai small; it's making it into something, as the Japanese say, "between heaven and hell" - the sky and the earth. The special tools used feature short jaws to allow trimming in tight places.

"Tools can be expensive, easily $100 for an average set, many times that in stainless steel," said master Ferguson, who is president and founder of the High Desert Bonsai Club of Carson City.

Masters say that bonsai is "90 percent art and only 10 percent" horticulture. So having a green thumb is not a requirement. But having a good eye and a sense of artistic balance are critical.

Bonsai are kept small by pruning branches and roots, repotting or pinching off new growth.

As for design, only a few major principles apply. The tree should always be positioned off-center in its container for visual harmony. But the center is symbolically where in Zen "heaven and earth meet," and nothing should occupy this place.

Another principle is the triangular pattern necessary for visual balance and for expression of the relationship shared by the artist and the tree. Tradition holds that three basic virtues are necessary to create a bonsai: shin-zen-bi, standing for truth, goodness and beauty. Given proper care, bonsai can live for hundreds of years, with prized specimens being passed from generation to generation.

The bonsai may offer pleasing shapes or unusual forms, but it must appear natural, not showing the work of a human.

Bonsai is not expensive (other than the special tools), but requires time and patience.

You'll quickly discover that there are two basic styles of bonsai: The classic (koten) and the informal, or comic (bunjin). In koten, the trunk of the tree is wider at the base and tapers off toward the top; it is just the opposite in the bunjin, a style more difficult to master. Save bunjin for when you've become an expert.

When you start a bonsai, always remember that you are working with a living plant. Look carefully at its natural characteristics, and you may discern within them a suitable style, or styles.

Shrubs like azaleas that are not tree-like in nature have fewer restrictions in the style you choose, but it is best to base any design on the way a tree grows in nature.

n Contact Sam Bauman at or 881-1236.


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