I had a Bonsai once. It died

by Carl Morrow

Why is this the most common statement one hears when the subject of bonsai comes up? I think the major problem is that not enough information is being giving to people who buy a tree. To keep a tree in a pot alive is not child's play; it takes commitment, thought and a constant watchful eye on your tree to ensure that it stays healthy and vigorous. You need to respond continually to its needs i.e. watering, fertilizing and trimming, as they arise.

First and foremost, most bonsai grown in South Africa are NOT indoor trees; they like to be outside in the garden where they can receive a few hours of sun every day along with some healthy air circulation. You must however protect the tree from the full force of the South Easter and be wary of strong afternoon sun. Water the tree when the surface of the soil in the pot becomes dry. During the summer it is usually necessary to water every day because the tree is growing in a small volume of soil that loses its water quite rapidly. In the winter you need to be especially diligent and continue observing your trees to make sure that the soil does not dry out. Roof eaves, patios, trees and other shelters prevent rain from reaching the plants underneath them and so you must make sure that your trees are not missing out on the rain. If they are, then you must continue to water them throughout the winter season.

It is possible to grow bonsai inside the house, but you must choose the species that you buy carefully, the tree must be able to tolerate the rather harsh environmental conditions encountered indoors.

If you follow these basic tips you would be able to successfully keep your bonsai alive and healthy. You must remember, however, that there is a big difference between keeping a tree in a pot alive and actually growing a bonsai tree. There is no mystery, magic or sorcery involved it just takes an added level of enthusiasm and commitment to the art. Most people are happy to have one or even a few trees in their garden that they trim periodically, keep watered and fertilized and enjoy watching as they grow and change with the seasons. Some people actively maintain their trees with all the associated trimming and potting and wiring, while other people like to collect more mature bonsai trees and house them in suitable surroundings to display them to their best advantage. Then there are those who go way beyond this stage and reach the level of "fanatic" where bonsai becomes their life and they have tremendous difficulty imagining how people cannot be completely devoted to their trees!

What new growers need to decide for themselves is how much time they have available to spend on attending to trees and what they would like to achieve with their bonsai.

The growing of bonsai has many facets. I find it a marvelous relaxation and healthy escape from the rigors of everyday life. There are horticultural challenges, artistic and aesthetic challenges, the aspect of time and maturation that goes into a beautiful tree and one can even involve oneself in the deep eastern philosophical avenues that can accompany bonsai. It is these multiple facets that make bonsai such an appealing hobby.

One must be careful of so called "Book Experts" in bonsai. It is almost impossible to create beautiful bonsai simply from the guidance of a book that was probably written several years ago and in a country far removed from the local conditions. The art is a vigorously evolving activity shown by the fact that there are many magazines devoted entirely to bonsai appearing in many European languages and some of them are published monthly. These publications are filled with new hints on how to achieve more attractive trees. One can see that with this amount of current interest in the art it is hardly surprising that someone who relies on books alone will have great difficulty in creating beautiful bonsai.

So where does this argument lead? What I am trying to say, is that if you are interested in developing your bonsai knowledge further, then the best route to follow would be to join a club of like-minded enthusiasts. If you live some distance away from where the Cape Bonsai Kai meets in Rondebosch, get in touch with a committee member who will be able to give you the contact details of a club that is closer to you

There are many good reasons for belonging to a bonsai club. Within the club you have access to the combined knowledge of many people who have years of growing experience (a quick estimate in the Cape Bonsai Kai would put that figure at a minimum of 170 years!). Belonging to a club is a wonderfully friendly experience. In most clubs, meetings are held once a month. The Cape Bonsai Kai follows this tradition and their meetings are aimed at providing something of interest for members at all levels. I often find myself feeling a bit despondent with the way my trees are growing but then after a meeting or exhibition my enthusiasm is rekindled. This is particularly useful during the winter when one's trees go through a time of rest and the wet weather makes the trees less appealing to look at. Many clubs maintain libraries of books and current magazines and so you can continue your bonsai studies without having to make the tremendous investment needed to buy these expensive items. This is particularly so with the currency exchange rates that we have at the present time. The libraries often contain old books as well and so it is possible to see how the art has developed over time. Being a dynamic art, as I have already said, clubs offer you the opportunity of seeing visiting lecturers that often impart new knowledge to the region. Most recently Peter Chan from England visited us and demonstrated a method of how to bend thick branches and trunks that is quite different from any methods that we have used up to this stage.

The art of bonsai is a very enigmatic one, with many people knowing of it but most having very little knowledge or education on how to look after bonsai. This really needs to change if the art is to spread to a wider group of enthusiasts. I f you are new to this game then you need to decide what you would like to get from this hobby and this decision will govern the amount of commitment required to achieve these goals. If you decide that you would like to develop your interest to beyond purely looking after a small collection of trees then I would strongly urge you to join a club as this is the easiest and most enjoyable way of developing in the art. To this end if you have any questions then please get in touch with a committee member who will gladly answer you questions. ) am looking forward to seeing a new group of enthusiastic novices taking up this fantastic hobby that can easily turn into a lifelong passion.

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Fearlessly he moulds and

guides the elm tree

to a greater masterpiece

Random Bonsai Tip

If a tree lacks a branch in a specific place you could in arch or approach graft a branch in the required area or thread graft through the trunk using a long shoot of the same plant.