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Bonsai en

by Siggy Franz

Bonsai En is the Japanese name for the area where one grows Bonsai. Many initial bonsai failures by people who may have bought the tree on the spur of the moment or received it as a gift, are due to wrong placement or wrong watering and these two are often connected. I hope that the following notes may help the beginner to start off correctly and provide some ideas for the time when the collection has outgrown the first shelf.

Since many young people acquire their first tree while living in a flat, I like to begin by talking about flat dwellers. Also their problems are easier to understand and the same principles apply to gardens.

Even if you have only a balcony, you must keep your trees outdoors. Trees need lots of light, good air circulation and sun for at least part of the day. Indoor bonsai as grown in Europe is a different subject all together and they have their own set of problems. There is no doubt that in our wonderful climate it is easier and less trouble to keep trees outdoors. However Cape Town with its mountain range stretching straight into the southern ocean has many micro-climates, depending on where you live. Compare Newlands with Camps Bay or Claremont with Bellville. In a flat your microoclimate is pretty much set - you can't turn your balcony the other way. The relation to the sun and wind is fixed. Therefore if you are confined to a balcony for your growing area, choose your species according to your growing condition. Some can take full sun, heat and wind (pines, junipers, pyrocantha, cotoneaster, figs), but many of the popular species such as maple and elm cannot take extreme conditions. You have two choices, either confine yourself to species suitable to your conditions or else erect a sun and/or wind shelter with shade cloth which is available in various grades which indicates the percentage of shade provided.

The trees can be placed on a small table or shelves. There is no need for fancy shelving, a stack of bricks with wooden planks across the top will work. Make sure the planks are thick enough - pots with trees are heavy. For a rustic look get rough sawn and treated timber. This looks good and is cheaper. There is however a major problem on a balcony, some mess with watering is unavoidable. Beware! It is dangerous to try and water without spillage. Remember, keeping the tree alive and well is the overriding requirement. The trees must have good drainage and the only sure sign of thorough watering is when the surplus water drips from the drainage holes. It is also very important that trees growing on a balcony are rotated on a regular basis, once or twice a month. This will ensure even growth right around.

No doubt garden owners have it easier. Small outdoor tables can be moved to adjust to shade and wind conditions. There is however one advantage in living in a flat with a balcony - it limits the number of trees you can manage. Garden owners soon outgrow their original tables. Don't be tempted to put surplus trees on the ground, not only because of bugs, rainworrns or dogs (Rudi's tortoises!) but most importantly you are likely to loose your drainage. It is better to build more permanent growing tables or shelves. Their placement is usually not arbitrary but depends on space and/or spouse. The available and approved space immediately sets conditions regarding shade and wind, but it may be possible to have more than one growing area to allow for varying conditions. The use of shade cloth may still be necessary. For example, if you place a table in a north / south direction and have four upright poles at the corners to suspend a horizontal shade cloth, you can have full shade at midday and no shade in the morning and in the afternoon. The choice or adaption of the growing area needs careful thought since once established one is unlikely to move it, one rather struggles with not ideal growing conditions.

Dorothy and I have had experience with two types of growing tables. In our last house I used building blocks to stack (2 wide by 4 high) on top of each other and another stack 2m away and put an asbestos roof sheet on top which was then covered with gravel. This type of table is easy to build and inexpensive and can be made as long as needed. It has the advantage of creating a humid environment for the trees as the water held by the gravel evaporates slowly. Due to the spill-off of fertilizer it is also great for growing cuttings. The disadvantage is that it is only a matter of time and you have to weed the gravel as well! I also think that it is a breeding ground for undesirables. When we needed some more space we built wooden tables of treated timber poles and rough sawn pine tops. They had two tiers and worked well.

Make sure the lower level is wide enough to provide space for the back branches (40cm worked for us). The width of the upper level depends on your access from the back. If there is no access from the back limit the width to 30cm.

Drawing on these experiences, we built wooden tables which work extremely well, when we moved to our present house. They are also built on wooden poles which are set in the ground, not in concrete. The tables are 80 to 90 cm high and 80 cm wide and has access from both sides. The tops are made from treated wooden slats 70 mm wide and set 10 mm apart. We are very happy with this arrangement since they are easier to keep clean, allow for better drainage and I think they look neater. I must however stress that we live in a high rainfall area. In a drier part of the peninsula the choice may well be different because of the better moisture holding capabilities of gravel covered tables.

A type of table which we have seen quite often in Europe is a metal frame made from L-shaped steel bars for the top, the legs made from 20 mm square steel bars and a lower stretcher from flat bar steel. The top is timber, either cut to fit into the L-shaped frame or simply large planks placed across the top. Modern powder coating methods solve the rust problem and there should be no need to re-paint for many years. The great advantage of this type of arrangement is that you can take it along should you move house. I have also seen these metal legs on wooden blocks inside a flat dish filled with water and/or insecticide.

If your tables are not too wide and 90 to 100 cm high and you can arrange them north - south then you can place planks across the stretchers underneath for all your mame and other low plantings. They would get sun in the morning and afternoon but shade midday.

If you would like to display some of your trees more artistically use an individual pedestal stand for each tree. They usually have a wooden top which is fixed to a wooden pole, Rudi had made some of his as a turntable so that the tree could easily be rotated to expose all sides to the sun. One can also use different diameter PVC pipes as support or two large garden pots stacked on top of each other upside down. For the top one can also use slate, slasto or asbestos.

There is another garden display table which we saw a lot of in China. There it is made of marble but it could easily by copied in cement. Two upright slabs are set in the ground so that they stay up firmly. Another slab is placed across them like a table top. One could mould in or add some ornamental edging and such a table can hold one to three trees. This looks good and is cheaper.

A successful Bonsai En should firstly cater for optimum growing conditions and secondly it should make work conditions practical and enjoyable. We like to think of bonsai as an art form, should we then not show our trees to their best advantage at all times? Apart from looking good for a public show, they should also look good during the year for our own pleasure and enjoyment.

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