Bonsai, a balance with nature

Bonsai ZenThe Japanese regard bonsai as a union of very old beliefs and Eastern philosophies regarding harmony between man, his soul and nature.

Much focus and patience is required to carefully prune the roots and branches to prevent unwanted growth. The best bonsai specimens portray nature accurately in miniature form.

It’s important to remember that the goal of bonsai is not to duplicate nature, but instead to communicate its spirit and essence.

Monks began using bonsai for meditative purposes as they tried to join the elements of earth, water and sky. Making bonsai is therefore a Zen Buddhist practice which helps the gardener become closer with nature and more importantly with one’s self. The process is never-ending as the tree requires constant attention in order to flow harmoniously and naturally. With the appropriate love, a well-cared for bonsai can live for hundreds of years.

So what are the main styles for growing bonsai that resemble that balance with nature?

1) Formal upright – this form looks like a human standing upright. It is grown straight with balancing symmetry.

2) Informal upright – this technique is meant to resemble windswept trees that remain upright despite their conditions.

3) Slanting – this shape is similar to dense forest trees that lean toward the light over streams.

4) Cascading – this style reminds the viewer of waterfalls as nature pulls the water down.

5) Semi-cascading – this final method evokes a picture of plants and other vegetation that grow on cliff faces, yet stretch toward the sun.

As you can see, this ancient horticultural art form allows the gardener to become like the creative forces of nature. Through much contemplation and meditation one can produce the mysteries of nature in a living thing which then embodies these quintessential qualities.

Designing Bonsai

mugo pine in cascadeWhen designing bonsai trees you would shape them by trimming the branches or by wiring them into new positions.

You are dealing with living things, and you must be respectful of that. You will kill trees. This is a sad fact of the activity, especially as you start out. Commit yourself to understanding why every tree dies and what can be done to prevent it. Learn from your mistakes and do your best to prevent them in the future.

Every tree is different. Learn to care for a few different types of plants, and grow your collection from there.

How to Begin the Art of Bonsai

Remove the tree from the plastic pot by turning the pot upside down, tapping the bottom, and letting the tree slide out into your hand. The soil should not be too dry, so that the root ball remains intact. Gently scrape away the topsoil around the base of the tree, to expose the lower trunk (about one quarter to one half inch). Try not to break too many surface roots. First thing is to look at the roots of the tree and check to see if it gives the appearance of a strong foundation.

Cut off the bottom third of the soil and roots, and flatten out the remaining root mass. Prepare the bonsai pot by placing a piece of screen over each drainage hole, and pour a layer of potting soil into the bottom of the pot. Place the tree in the pot, pour in the remaining soil, and pack it firmly. Finally, submerge the bonsai, pot and all, in water, up to the base of the trunk, and let it sit in the water for a few minutes.

Interesting Bonsai Visual Effects

In bonsai, the rule of thirds states that the first (lowest and biggest) branch should be at about one third of the total height of the tree. It is the trunk that gives the tree its visual strength, and every effort should be made to have at least the bottom two-thirds of the height clear of branches at the front of the tree.

Next is checking the trunk. The shape of the trunk will basically determine the style you choose. In almost all cases, however, a thick base, which tapers gradually and gently to a thin apex, will make for a nice tree. Which style you prefer will depend on the movement of the trunk.

Look at the branching pattern. The lower branches should be thick while the upper ones should be thin. The branches should be laid out like the spokes of a wheel with some going to the back. This will give the tree depth when you look at it. No two branches should leave the trunk at the same level.

The handlebar effect is unnatural looking and, if left, will cause the trunk to swell at their level causing an ugly bulge in the trunk line. If your tree has such a fault you should, if a deciduous tree, remove one of the branches entirely. Try to avoid having branches spaced evenly down the trunk. Reduce the distance between the branches as you go toward the top of the tree.

Finally examine the plant to see if it is healthy. Be sure not to wire so tightly that you cut into the bark, or so loosely that you do not have support. Minor wire marks can sometimes add interest and show that the tree has been trained, giving branches character after several years. However, major wire marks are very ugly. To hide any marks that look unnatural you can strategically place foliage at intervals in front of the trunk, so that the trunk line is not completely visible.

It may be ten years (or longer) before your plant will actually be a bonsai. Don’t be discouraged by this, but think of it as part of the experience. Perhaps most importantly, understand that when you put a tree in a pot you are committing yourself to the care of that tree. You cannot simply ignore it or it will die. Bonsai is a responsibility as well as a hobby. If you practice it with care and patience, the rewards are tremendous.

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Shisendo, The Poetic Vision of Ichikawa Jozan

Above all else, Ichikawa Jozan was a poet. Perhaps it was his ability to manipulate words into phrases of great meaning that made his creation of Shisendo Temple and Garden in Tokyo possible. The very skills needed to coax words into their necessary order are similar to those used by a gardener when training a branch or a vine to grow a certain way. Both skill sets require a vision of the finished product before they are even begun.

Ichikawa Jozan (1583-1672) first became a samurai and after retirement in 1615 he turned his attention to the arts. He was a devotee of the Chinese classics and after half a lifetime of studying and creating poetry and artwork, in 1641, at the age of 59 Jozan created Shisendo. The gardens sit in what is now northeast Kyoto and are tended by a Zen Buddhist sect, the Sotos.

Shisendo, like its creator, is a blend of poetry and artistic vision. Almost like Jozan guided the eyes of readers down a page of his poetry, he guides visitors to his garden with delectable phrases that hint at what is coming next. One can enter the “Grotto of Small Possessions” and then follow a pathway that leads to the “Ancient Plum Barrier.” The humour is evident in such labels as the “Wasp’s Waist” describing a series of steps that leads to the “Hall of the Poetry Immortals.”

Another clever turn of phrase is the “Pursuit of Art Nest” name given to a tiny room that offers a panoramic view of the garden. Jozan’s humour surfaces again at his naming of a deer-chaser “Archbishop.” A deer-chaser is a piece of bamboo that fills with water and then tips making a clicking noise, which scares grazing deer. In Japanese it is known as a “shikaol.”

Jozan shows his romantic side in the garden as well. His affection and respect for the moon are reflected in garden areas named “Pavilion of the Lingering Moon” and the “Tower of Intoning Poetry at the Moon.” And of course there are the azaleas, pink and white and a complement to the white sand of the upper garden, kept perfectly groomed to resemble a sheet of white paper, ready for the poet and his pen.

Japanese Garden, a short history

Though there is evidence that early Japanese Gardens were created long before the reign of Empress Suiko, circa 592 AD, she is most often credited for popularizing these idyllic retreats. These early gardens already had incorporated the ornamental ponds and the gently rolling landscapes that are still very much a part of modern day garden design.

During the Nara period (646 to 794) trade between China and Japan increased. The Chinese influence began to show up in the gardens of Japan’s elite citizens. The trend was to design gardens that were more suited for parties and social gatherings, rather than quiet places to wander. Some of the Nara period gardens added animals, fish and birds to augment the elaborately arranged flowers, trees and water features.

There was an interest in going back to the more traditional Japanese Garden style during the Heian period (794 to 1185) and a form of design known as Shinden became popular. The Chinese influence was still there, but subdued. Gardens during this period were elegantly laid out according popular myths and legends of the times. As an example, an ancient Chinese belief is that all things pure came from the east, while impurities left the land towards the west. Streams put in a garden during this period had to run east to west.

The Shinden style predominated with little change until the mid Kamakura period (1185 to 1392). At this time Buddhist priests started creating meditation gardens. These were less extravagant and usually favoured evergreens, water and stones, with little seasonal variation.

Gardens got even simpler during the Muromachi and Higashiyama periods (1392 to 1573). Gardens began to be designed using only stones to depict various objects in nature. These meditation gardens, known as Karesansui or dry gardens, can still be seen today either on their own or as part of a larger Japanese Garden display. The tea garden was also introduced during this period, which usually added landscaped pathways leading to a small house specifically designed for the formal tea ceremony.

During the Azuchi-Momoyama periods (1568 to 1600), the tea house and garden became more prominent and later, in the Edo period (1603 to 1867) the tea house was complemented by more elaborate stroll gardens that would offer different landscapes at every turn. Owning a Japanese Garden was still limited to the Royal family and high ranking court officials during this time period.

It was during the Meijii Period (1868 to 1912) and to a greater extent the Showa period (1926 to 1989) that the elegant stroll garden was adopted by the merchants and industrialists that had the means to create and maintain them. The combination of the stroll garden and the minimalist Zen meditative design became a garden art form created and enjoyed by all. This design trend has continued into today’s Heisei period.

A Bonsai Journey – Beginners view

Remember “Gulliver’s Travels?” Do you ever wonder what it felt like to tower over your surroundings? Ok, forget about the little men with their arrows and ropes and uppity attitudes. Let’s just concentrate on the trees. Wander down the pathways of a Japanese garden and sooner or later you will come across tiny trees known as bonsai. Delicately sculptured, elegantly poised, they are perfect replicas of their larger cousins and yes, you do tower over them rather than the reverse.

Take advantage of the situation. This is your opportunity to see a tree the way a bird sees it, from the top down. We humans normally study the branches of a tree from ground level, or perhaps for the more daring or agile among us, from a perch within those branches that we’ve managed to climb to without breaking a limb of our own. But a bonsai tree lets us look down and study the symmetry of branches in a whole new fashion.

Though bonsai is normally associated with Japan, it is actually the Chinese that created this living art form. Thought to have come about in the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD) there are, as in many things Chinese, legends that surround the beginning of bonsai. A favourite is the tale of the emperor that created his entire empire in miniature inside of his courtyard so that he could gaze upon it at will.

Eventually Buddhist monks brought bonsai to Japan during the Heian period (794 to 1191). At first the art form was only practiced by the rich but the invasion of Japan by the Chinese in the 14th century changed all that. All classes began to take up the art of tending the tiny trees and plants and the art was refined and perfected into the bonsai tradition of today.

What makes a great bonsai? Many types of trees have been used to create bonsai. Two popular favourites are the Japanese Red Maple and the Chinese Elm. Both are fairly easy to care for and train. The Japanese Red Maple is known for its vibrant reds and greens, both in the leaves and the trunk and branches. The Chinese Elm adapts well to growing indoors. Its leaves decrease in size year after year which helps them keep in proportion to the trimmed branches. A full grown Chinese Elm bonsai is usually less than ten inches tall, perfect for taking an appreciative look from Gulliver’s point of view.

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Japanese Water Gardens and Light!

You can create remarkable effects for your Japanese water garden, stream, and waterfalls with lighting. You can make a fountain glimmer, illuminate the underwater world of your Japanese garden, highlight your waterfall, and even liven up your stream all with the addition of a few lights.

Pond lighting is a way to catch subtle attention and really emphasize the existing beauty of your Japanese water garden, it also provides additional depth to your night views.

There are several types of submerged lights on the market, each one creating its own special effect, depending on how you position it. Most submerged lights come with dark colored casings so that the lights disappear into the darkness of the Japanese water garden. They can be set either to illuminate an area or a feature underwater or to shine up out of the water to illuminate a design element outside of the pond. Use underwater lighting for drama but use them sparingly.

Waterfall lights can add a dynamic effect to waterfalls and spillways when placed beneath or behind them, it brings a new dimension to your Japanese garden after dark.

Fountain lights either in white or in color, give a fantasy effect to a spray. Some come equipped with transparent wheels of several colors. Some light sets feature transformers that include built in timers to allow you to set the time period during which the lights remain on. Others are equipped with light sensing cells so that the lights go on at dusk and off at dawn.

Lanterns are another form of accent lighting that seem to fit in every Japanese water garden. They stand alone and are either wired for electricity or candle powered.

Much favored in Japanese gardens are, snow lanterns, or yukimidoro, these have a wide roof that collects snow, which is then illuminated by the light chamber below. In warmer seasons, the illuminated lantern casts an interesting mix of light and shadows on the water’s surface.

Here are some tips for your pond lighting:

1. Pond lighting works best in clear ponds.

2. Never light up the entire pond if you have fish. Fish need dark places in which to hide and feel safe. They also need darkness to regulate their body cycles.

3. You should position the dome or spotlights where you can easily conceal their cables and connecting wires.

4. You can conceal exposed cable and cords with wood chips, plants or other design elements.

Pond lighting with tasteful garden accents, creates an unbelievable ambiance and a unforgettable experience for your guests at your next party.
Pond lighting is also the best and only way to fully utilize and appreciate your Japanese water garden during the night time hours.

The joy of having your Japanese garden, stream, waterfall, and fountains lit up well into the night will help turn an everyday spectacular, landscaping feature into a magical, mystical, after-dark wonderland.

Bonsai Soil

© Budi Setiawan - Fotolia.comChoosing the right bonsai soil is a very important factor if you want to have a healthy bonsai plant. Bonsai is a plant that has undergone special cultivation process to make it appears small. Bonsai plants actually are the same as their bigger versions, but the roots are pruned regularly so they will only grow to a certain small size.

Bonsai needs a lot of moisture and nutrients to survive. In this case, bonsai soil plays a very important role because it should be able to hold sufficient amount of moisture as well as hold nutrients to be the plant’s food. In addition, bonsai soil needs to be mixed appropriately so it has good air circulation for the roots and able to drain water properly. Since many bonsai lovers need good quality soil, there are many ready-mix bonsai soils available in the gardening stores and nurseries. You should understand that these bonsai soils are quite expensive. Moreover, you will need to spend more because your bonsai will need repotting every year or two.

In order to save cost, some bonsai planters have decided to make their own bonsai soil. Basic materials that you need to make this soil are dead plant substances and several forms of organic matter. These materials are mixed together to make a good bonsai soil mixture. The type of your bonsai plants affects how you should make your own bonsai soil because each has its own needs. For example, some bonsai plants require soil that can retain water, while others can do well without a lot of water.

If you are relatively new in the art of bonsai making, it is better for you to buy ready mix bonsai soil before you try to make one by your own. This is to make sure that you can grow a healthy bonsai first rather than making pig’s food from your soil experiments.

Repotting

As mentioned briefly, bonsai needs to be repotted periodically. You will need to change the soil during this process so it can supply sufficient nutrients for the plants. In addition, repotting is also the time for you to prune the roots of your bonsai. Some roots grow rapidly, while others grow slowly. In general, you need to repot your bonsai every year or two years.

This is also another reason why bonsai planters make their own bonsai soil. In many cases, it is more practical and economical to make bonsai soil from various organic matters around your house than purchasing bonsai soil mixtures from stores and nurseries. You do not need to buy organic materials to make your own bonsai soil and this is also a good way to recycle your organic matters.

By Cindy Heller