Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Bonsai for Beginners

I have just purchased an Acer palmatum 'Katsura'. The plant currently stands at a height of about 3 feet including about 10" for the Pot. Its shape is very much vertical with some branches horizontal. It is at the moment in bloom and unfortunately the leaves are small. I want to make this tree an ornamental display and would like some advise on how to prune and shape. I am looking for a Bonsai type shape and eventually want it to stand about 5ft in height excluding the Pot. Can you give me suggestions on what Pot size I should use and how to Prune and shape it?
I am very new to this type of gardening so talking to me as though I am a child will not offend me.

Congratulations on your new Japanese maple. Even though it will require regular and meticulous pruning, watering and fertilizing, and care, you can most definitely train your maple to become a bonsai specimen. A successful bonsai requires careful pruning of both shoot and root tissue in order ultimately control the size and create that specialized and miniature specimen that you crave. The art of bonsai requires attention on a year-round basis, but if you prepared to devote the time to it then it can be a wonderful and gratifying practice to embrace. Because I have limited experience with bonsai myself, I turned to the stacks in the HSNY Library after receiving your email. There are a number of excellent “bonsai for beginners” books out there and I am guessing that will be the best way for you to start educating yourself. You can review the steps and maintenance to create and grow bonsai and assess whether it is an endeavor you wish to take on. If it is more than you want to take on, then I am sure with some regular pruning you can still keep your maple to a manageable size in a container. And we can discuss that further if that would help.

One bonsai book that I found extremely helpful was written by Craig Coussins entitled Bonsai for Beginners. In a small section specifically on maples, there was a great insert that I think might be a good starting off point for you. This is pulled directly from the book, and I have included the complete bibliography below:

“The Maple’s Year
EARLY SPRING: Although you can repot at almost any time, this is the optimum period for the majority of maples. Kashima and Kiyohime will have started to spread at this time, so make sure that they are protected. Feed 0-10-10 (zero nitrogen) every seven days to stop lush green growth, but only after the buds have opened.
THROUGHOUT SPRING: Start plucking out the bud centers.
EARLY SUMMER: After the first two feeds, start giving them a high-nitrogen feed to build up stamina in young trees. If you want good fall color, cut down the high-nitrogen food. If the tree is healthy, consider a full or partial defoliation, which can be followed by selective wiring. The tree should be looked after as during spring the problem with summer defoliation is sunburn rather than winds.
MIDSUMMER: Wire trees with cage (not tight) or protected wire, and carry out any major pruning at this time of summer dormancy. Reduce feeding until late midsummer.
LATE SUMMER: Start feeding weekly with low-nitrogen food. This is the last opportunity for defoliation before fall.
EARLY FALL: Trim any leaves that are growing out of the planned shape. Stop feeding if the leaves start to change color. God fall color is achieved with little or no nitrogen feed. The question is whether or not you want to risk the tree’s health for a short-term benefit. It is probably better to wait until the tree has been completed and then to reduce the feed to zero nitrogen for one year.
MIDFALL: Complete your feeding program with low- or zero-nitrogen feed.
LATE FALL/EARLY WINTER: Remove any dead leaves and make sure the trees are protected against winter frost and winds.
WINTER: This is the other time when you can perform major surgery to your bonsai.”
-Coussins, Craig. Bonsai for Beginners. Sterling Publishing, 2002. P. 102

Now, I must admit that I am not sure if this is the best bonsai advice, but like I said, I hope it is a starting point for you to gain more of an understanding of the intricacies of bonsai. As you can see, true bonsai is a little more than just occasional pruning. It requires regular and meticulous manipulation of the tree. Review these notes and any books you might be able to find at a local bookseller or library, and let me know what you decide to do.

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