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How to Get Into Bonsai

The first weekend in March saw the Bonsai Open held concurrently with the Central Coast Bonsai Club Annual Show at the Mingara Recreation Club. With over 150 trees on display, about 500 items available for purchase and some of Australia’s leading Bonsai experts including Marcela Ferreira, Andrew Edge, Hugh Grant, Evan Marsh, Joe Morgan-Payler and Tony Bebb demonstrating, it was an event not to missed.

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I spoke with Steve Reeve, President of the Central Coast Club which began in the mid 1970s and has currently over 100 active members about the history of Bonsai. “Bonsai is a Japanese word, but the art started in China around 1,500 years ago. Not long after that it emerged in Japan and then eventually made its way to the West with the GIs after the Second World War.” On the practice of Bonsai Steve added, “People often say that Bonsai is a cruel art, that it tortures trees, but you can see still living azalea trees in China that are over 1,200 years old and I can guarantee an azalea living in a suburban garden is not going to live over 1,000 years. Bonsai increases the longevity of trees and it’s certainly not cruel.” Steve also noted the sense of satisfaction one gets from learning to promote this longevity while enjoying the ability to put your own creative twist to the creation of a Bonsai. Perhaps in these polarising times, these are reasons why this living art form is rising again popularity. Bonsai asks us to slow down, to focus on growth, care, and design. It is an extremely mindful horticultural experience as a grower as well as viewer.

Bonsai Open demonstrator and judge, Australian Bonsai expert Hugh Grant commenced his bonsai journey at the Central Coast Bonsai Club when he was about 12 years old. His many years of bonsai study and experience are complemented by his Fine Arts degree, and he is now a fulltime bonsai practitioner, owning ‘Tree Makers’, located in the upper Blue Mountains of NSW. Whilst his business offers a large range of material, Hugh has a passion and preference for specialising in Australian Native trees and plants. He attributes his skill development to being a part of the bonsai community, constantly attending meetings, lectures and demonstrations and just generally hanging out with other bonsai enthusiasts. “For the most part, Bonsai centres around design and architecture as a practice, using horticulture as a technical application to produce the product, which is the bonsai tree. Going into it, (at 12 years of age), I just thought it looked cool. I guess my mind was focused on the design aspect, not knowing that I needed the technical ability to keep that plant alive. This is the problem most beginners face.” Once simple horticultural information about bonsai is obtained and followed it really is not a hard activity at all.

How to Start a Bonsai

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After chatting with Steve and Huge my advice for beginners is to get to a nearby Bonsai club and immerse yourself or at least read a reliable book. It’s not a hard technique but it does require dedication and patience. Like your larger gardening endeavours, you need to consider the fact that every plant and situation does vary. Here is a simple rundown on the basics.

  1. Firstly, choose a tree you feel some affinity with. Have a look at the way this tree may look as a Bonsai as well to help with this decision. Starting from seed may mean a longer journey with your Bonsai so perhaps a seedling may be more to your liking. There is also the option to start with a young Bonsai and these are easy to obtain.
  2. Find a suitable pot and choose a style that you will create. Again, there are so many resources out there to help in your selection and most enthusiasts believe that the pot forms part of the art of bonsai so chose with that in mind. Bonsai pots have additional holes to enable the root ball to be wired to the pot for stability.
  3. Premixed general bonsai soils are available, and you can make your own but for the best results, you should be creating or obtaining a mix that suits your actual tree type.
  4. Roots are perhaps pruned at this point and depending on the size and maturity of your seedling or immature bonsai you most likely will need to need it to wire it to your pot.
  5. Looking at your style and depending on the season, you may wire branches to begin shaping your bonsai.
  6. Water the tree and place it in a suitable location for its type.
  7. Look after it! Bonsai need constant care, they are not ‘set and forget’ houseplants at all, in fact they are not really suited to indoor living. While some will cope, you need to remember they are trees, and so like most trees, they need direct sunlight and an outdoors aspect to thrive.

Central Coast Bonsai Club
Along with courses, workshops and demonstration, monthly meetings are held on the second Tuesday of each month (except January) from 7.30pm until 9.30pm in the Tasman Function Room at Mingara Recreation Club. These meetings typically involve a guest speaker/demonstrator describing a different aspect of bonsai. Community members are welcome to come and enjoy your first meetings without needing to be a member. All ages and skill levels – be they absolute beginners through to advanced -and welcome all ages.

Cheralyn Darcey is a horticulture author and along with Pete Little, hosts ‘At Home with The Gardening Gang’ 8 - 10am live every Saturday on CoastFM96.3, on air locally or streaming by asking ‘play coastfm963’ Archived articles:  Send your gardening questions, events, and news to: [email protected]

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Cheralyn writes the 'DOWN IN THE GARDEN' page for the Coast News Newspaper each week and this originally appeared in The Coast News as below: