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Bonsai is indeed an ancient art form that dates back over 2000 years. The term “bonsai” literally means “tree in a tray” and focuses on creating a miniature version of a tree through restricting the growth of its roots and branches. Most think that the ancient art of bonsai started in Japan thanks to the popularity of Japanese Bonsai in modern society, however, it was originally found in China where they created entire miniature gardens. The Chinese were infatuated with miniaturization as they believed that miniature objects contained concentrated mystical powers, and bonsai trees were a highly regarded art form which was at first reserved for the higher classes and Buddhist monks. The Zen Buddhists are strongly linked with Bonsai and it was the Buddhist Monks who took the art form to Japan. In Japan, Bonsai officially found its name and new methods unique to the Japanese where they believed that creating these miniature trees symbolized the harmony between man, soul, and nature. Centuries old bonsai trees originating from Japan are actually still alive today, with the Sandai-Shogun-No Matsu (a pine needle variety) on display in the Tokyo Imperial Palace dating back to as early as 1610!
Growing your very own bonsai from seed is both a test of patience and a huge reward. It gives you full control from the beginning but it takes about 3 years before you can actually start pruning and training your tree.
The first step is to get your hand on some seeds. There is no such thing as a “Bonsai seed”, bonsai are grown from any normal seed; it is simply the way in which they are treated once they germinate that turns them into “mini trees”. Some popular species for beginners include Juniper, Ficus, Maple, Chinese Elm, and Jade. It is easiest to follow the natural germination process of seeds from your own climate, although seeds from different climates will also work, you will just need to pre-treat them. Pre-treatment, known as “stratification”, encourages seeds to germinate by exposing them to conditions which they would be exposed to in the wild.
Once you have your seeds you will need to set up your pot or tray. Make sure your pot/tray has drainage holes then place a coarse, water-draining substrate such as lava rock or grit at the bottom. On top of the coarse layer, place a layer of standard bonsai soil and then spread your seeds out over this layer. Cover your seeds with another layer of bonsai soil making sure that the planting depth is correct for the species you have chosen. Now the fun begins – make sure to keep the soil watered and watch your seeds grow. At each stage of growth you can weed out the least healthy plants and continue with the strongest. As your tree/trees grow your earliest concern is trimming the tap root and looking after the root system in the first year – a compact tree needs a compact root system. Only once your tree is about 3 years old may you start the pruning and training process. Remember that bonsai is an art which teaches us that it is the journey, not the destination, which is most important.
Bonsai make for aesthetically pleasing décor for courtyards and internal gardens. The most rewarding thing is, once you have grown your own you can start placing them on display. When it comes to placement, the rule of thumb is: Outdoor species prefer a bright spot which gets direct sunlight for about half the day and is sheltered from the wind. Indoor species enjoy a bright spot too, usually right in front of a window, and a constant temperature.