I recently received an email from someone who was very concerned about the size of the leaves on his bonsai trees. The concern was that a change of fertilizer may have become an issue. In thinking about my reply it became obvious there was a little misunderstanding on the part of the gentleman but his question is not a new one, I have heard it many times before. Over the years I have heard a lot of silliness expounded as wisdom in relation to foliage size in bonsai and I figured now was as good a time as any to set the record straight. This may seem needlessly basic to some but stick with it. Here are a few basic ground rules.
- 1. Bonsai are just regular plant varieties kept small by pruning.
- 2. Bonsai must be supremely healthy in order to survive.
- 3. Bonsai are NOT kept small by living in a small pot.
- 4. Bonsai cannot be perfectly manicured and shaped all the time.
- 5. Fertiliser will not determine the growth pattern of a bonsai tree.
- 6. Foliage size is not determined by nutrient availability.
1. A lot of ignorant folk think bonsai are special types of tree. A friend of mine who sells bonsai out of his florists shop recently had an argument with a guy over a pyracantha. The ignorant fellow insisted it couldn’t be bonsai because it was a ‘motorway tree’. He was implying that as the variety is used for amenity purposes it was obviously NOT bonsai because bonsai are little trees. You really can’t blame the guy, it’s our own silly fault for shrouding our hobby in mystery and making it a lot more esoteric than it needs to be. Even seasoned hobbyists are missing some of the basics, I know I have to deal with the problem every day. Maybe there are a few folk out there who have benefited from this, in fact scrub that, A LOT OF FOLK HAVE BENEFITED FROM MAKING BONSAI A GREAT DEAL MORE COMPLICATED THAN IT IS. Couple that to the fact that almost all the books available have been published by mainstream businesses only interested in shifting books (thus all beginners books) and written by authors on a tight brief only interested in increasing their own demand as teachers and you have the perfect ‘sh** storm’ of poor information and ignorant but hungry consumers. That’s how so much nonsense has become engrained in our hobby and much like the smell of kiddy sick in your car it’s hard to shift 😉
Bonsai are just regular plants that, returned to open ground, very quickly revert to their natural form. Selecting the plants with good character is half the battle. Choosing a raffia palm as a bonsai subject is just stupid, the leaves can be eighty feet long and ten feet wide. A chinese elm is better, it has small leaves and fine twigging, it’s also naturally not a monster. Keeping a giant sequoia as bonsai is always going to be tough. It’s pretty obvious a naturally large tree in a small pot is going to present a few issues long term. Now I am the last one to say these things are not possible, I have seen some remarkable things over the years but for most folk it’s much simpler to cross the road using a pedestrian crossing rather than stretch a tight-rope across the tops of the buildings and use that. For a start let’s just concentrate on crossing the street.
2. There is a wide spread belief that bonsai are kept small by some cruel means and that they are in some way ‘stunted‘. The dictionary defines stunted as…
To prevent from growing or developing properly. Synonyms: inhibit, impede, hamper, hinder, restrict, retard, slow, curb, arrest, check, stop.