Your own special bonsai-en, Prt 1

by Graeme Hill

The first question I suppose is, what is a bonsai-en? What does it mean? We know that bonsai means "plant in a pot", bon meaning a shallow tray or pot and sai a plant. So that leaves us with the word "en".

Well I searched a good number of books about this elusive word and elusive it was too !

After a number of consultations and the help of Lionel and his excellent collection of tomes, it transpires that "en" is a suffix used in Japanese to signify an external building or an enclosure - usually round in shape.

Thus a correct translation would be a circular building or enclosure in which to keep or display bonsai.

Isabel referred me to "Rosade' s Bonsai Glossary in International Bonsai , No. 1 of 1963 where the meaning of 'en' is given as 'garden'. Incidentally, the Japanese character 'en' is made up of 13 pen strokes - so no doubt this adds to the difficulty of translation.

However, this is all somewhat academic and people really can interpret it rather more loosely. Bob Richards used to call his nursery his bonsai-en, for others it is a special nook or corner or area devoted to their bonsai.

I can only conjecture as to how they came into being. Perhaps it was a combination of factors which lead to their development, rather than anyone particular reason.

FIRSTLY, the trees themselves need special care and thus while one or two pose no problem, it would be far more practical and make for ease of effort to have them all together once a reasonable collection was owned.

SECONDLY, to be appreciated bonsai need to be displayed, again creating the need for a separate area with special features.

THIRDLY, with their penchant for aesthetics, the Japanese would create the separate specialness needed for their special little trees.

LASTLY, an oriental garden is different in layout from western gardens. It often comprises different sections, rather like the rooms in a house, each different from the other. One such section could well have been developed especially to display the bonsai collection.

Having now got a mental handle on what we mean by bonsai-en, we need to consider what goes into one, how one can create such a place and what do we need to bear in mind when we go about it. Here I would like to divide my comments into two areas - rather like bonsai itself.

  1. The hard issue aspects, the technical and practical issues, and then
  2. The soft issues, or aesthetics - the creative and artistic elements which are more intuitive and which help generate emotions.

So firstly what are the practical points we need to bear in mind? I have listed five : size, position, intent, watering, maintenance.


There are no restrictions on size. Your bonsai-en can be as big or small as you require. It could be a small corner of the garden dedicated to your bonsai, or a special display area incorporating part of the external house, such as a patio. It could be a specially created area around which your bonsai activities revolve and the main part of which would include the display of your trees.

However , when planning a bonsai¬en rather veer on the side of generosity as far as space is concerned. Your trees need room to be displayed properly and, as both they and your collection grow, you will be grateful for the added space as time moves on.

So plan your bonsai -en to make sure the area is big enough or if space is the limitation, that the content of your en does not merely create the impression of lots of trees crowded together. In this case rather rotate your trees as the seasons change to display them in the bonsai-en at their best time.


This is most important and the factors we have to consider are twofold, sun and wind. The type of trees you have in your collection will influence your decision. By and large though we would need to encompass areas which give light shade and morning sun and another part which receives sun for much of the day.

Now as we all know, wind in Cape Town is a problem and the dry summer south easter probably the worst. So for the sake of our maples in particular, you will need a particularly wind-free zone in your bonsai-en.

Firstly I'd like to cover the question of shade. This may be natural or created artificially. Natural shade comes in the form of shadows. As the sun moves on its daily route, so shadows form from walls, buildings, trees, hedges, etc. and one can place the bonsai-en to make good use of this natural shade.

Beware, however, of putting your bonsai directly underneath garden trees. Trees are natural havens for all sorts of things - from tiny bugs and nasty beasties to birds and their droppings! Falling leaves too could cause problems, especially in autumn. But perhaps the most worrisome aspect from trees is something we cannot see - it is lye and is excreted by all trees and falls from the leaves. Some trees excrete a lye which is incompatible with other tree varieties and over time will cause die-back.

Fortunately today we can create shade through the use of shade cloth. This comes in varying densities so that you Can have either a dense or light shade as you desire. Probably most commonly used for our purposes would be a 20 - 25% shade density.

Certain types of glass fibre sheeting are also worth considering but these act as heat traps as heat generated cannot escape upwards through the sheeting itself.

Another possibility is to create a natural roofing out of strips of wooden planking with narrow gaps, or even better, if you can get it, is to use bamboo strips to add the oriental touch.

Fortunately the natural and artificial ways of obtaining shade can also help solve our wind problems - so walls, trees, etc. as well as shade cloth can be used to act as wind breaks or shields. So with a little planning and forethought we can get these things to work for us together, to help create the right environment.

Finally on this issue, just a couple of pointers - common sense points really but well worth emphasising :

  1. Trees need sunlight to grow healthily.
  2. Beware of reflected heat such as sun rays from walls or buildings. While some trees such as acacias like good strong sunlight, others will suffer leaf burn and weaken.
  3. A well-aired position is best, some air movement creates a healthy tree. A pokey, over-protected, still corner will harbour and encourage pests and disease.
  4. For us here in Cape Town a north-easterly inclination is the best, if you can arrange it.

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Grey marsh, black cloud...

Flapping away in autumn rain

Last old slow heron. ~ Anon

Random Bonsai Tip

By limbering or flexing a branch or trunk you gently break the cambium layer loose and the healing process will then increase the diameter of a branch or trunk which is too thin