Getting Started with Bonsai

Getting Started with Bonsai

Part of Ep. 502 Indoor Gardening

Join Wisconsin Bonsai Nursery's Tim O'Rourke as he shares tips on the art of creating bonsai.  O'Rourke attempts to capture something wild or ideal in nature with his plants.

Premiere date: Mar 31, 1997

TRANSCRIPT+
Wisc Gardener Transcript: 

Shelley:
I always thought growing bonsai would be a great winter hobby. I could bring these beautiful evergreens indoors when it's too cold to garden outside. Imagine my surprise when I found out that some of these are not houseplants. Joining me is Tim O'Rourke owner of Wisconsin bonsai nursery and a member of the badger bonsai society. Tim, let's start out with the definition. What does "bonsai" mean?

Tim:
Well, bonsai means, strictly translated, "a plant in a pot." Obviously, it's a little bit more than that. In bonsai, we try to capture the spirit of nature something wild or ideal that we've seen like something on the side of a cliff, in a forest or the tree in the middle of a meadow.

Shelley:
You're almost trying to capture the emotion of wildness.

Tim:
That's right.

Shelley:
We have a variety in front of us some outdoor and some indoor. Tell me which plants I can't grow as houseplants, and why.

Tim:
The temperate climate ones especially the junipers, maples, elms and spruces those are all outdoor trees. They have to be grown outdoors for three reasons: number one, they have to go through a cold dormancy. They also need a change of light.

Shelley:
Winter?

Tim:
Winter, that's right. Second, they need an incredible amount of light. Even the light under a large tree is more light than most of us have in our homes. So, they need much light. The third reason is pests. Outside, nature keeps pests fairly well under control especially with junipers and red spider mites. Indoors, the red spider mites can go nuts all over the house.

Shelley:
Well, there's no competition. They come inside and there's a population explosion. So, if we keep these little guys outside in the wintertime don't they freeze?

Tim:
Right. They're going to freeze solid just like those trees that we purchased at the garden center and put in the front of our house. They're going to freeze solid.

Shelley:
So, we treat them like a full-size outdoor tree?

Tim:
Right. But we like to give them a little bit of protection either with a rose cone, if it will fit, or with snow or shredded leaves up to about the first branch. Use something to kind of stabilize the temperature but keep it constantly cold.

Shelley:
Let's talk specifically about this juniper, here. This does evoke an emotion. Tell me what you did with this.

Tim:
What I tried to do is capture that feeling of something on the edge of a cliff, that wind-swept look. I found a large shrub and I took off branches that I didn't want. I wired the ones that remained into the shape that I wanted them to go. Over here, what I have done is I stripped the bark and bleached it with a lime-sulfur solution. It's a dormant fungicide but it also helps preserve the wood a little bit. When you first put it on, it turns to a bright orange-yellow. In another 24 hours, it will turn into a nice bone white and give it that bleached look.

Shelley:
It really has an old, haunting look about it.

Tim:
Right. It's sort of a delicate look, but yet having a violent past.

Shelley:
What about the ones we can grow indoors? What are some good choices for beginners?

Tim:
Any woody plant is eligible to be a bonsai. Some are a little better than others.

Shelley:
Why woody?

Tim:
Well, that gives it more of a feeling of age. And when we put wire on it the wire holds the position a bit better when it's woody.
Shelley:
What about this one right here, then?

Tim:
This is an olive, a dwarf european olive. Right here, I've got a natal plum.

Shelley:
Will that bloom?

Tim:
It will often bloom in the fall.

Shelley:
And this one?

Tim:
That's a podocarpus, it's also called buddhist pine.

Shelley:
I recognize this taller one as some sort of fig.

Tim:
Right. Figs are often used for indoor bonsai, mainly because they're easier for us to find them. This is a ficus benjamina, or a weeping fig. What I've tried to do here is I've wrapped wire around the individual branches. The wire should be about a third of the thickness of the branch.

Shelley:
Any kind of wire?

Tim:
Copper or aluminum is used. In this case, I've used copper wire. With the wire, I can bend the branch up or down to fill a space or to make it go into a direction that I want. For instance, with this branch, I want it to go down more. With this tree, I've taken much of the soil away from the roots to give it that feeling of age. This is done in kind of a clump style because I want that abstract feeling of a forest.

Shelley:
This is a work-in-progress, this isn't finished yet.

Tim:
Right. Shelley, this is what I want it to look like. Obviously, it's a lot more full. You can see what I've done with the roots and the branches have already come out. Most of the wires have been removed.

Shelley:
So, we only leave those on a couple months, usually?

Tim:
The rule of thumb is about three months. When you see the wire starting to dig in, then you take it off.

Shelley:
What do we have to do to keep these plants alive indoors?

Tim:
Two main things: water and light-- water and light, especially water. Most of us are used to watering plants about once a week. But most of these plants, partly because of the shallow pots, because of the gritty soil, and also due to the species these have to be watered about every other day. The other thing is light. Keep them by a bright window, say a south or east side. And if you want to use artificial light keep the artificial light right on top of it so it gets plenty of light.

Shelley:
Are these a special breed of plants? How do you keep them short?
Tim:
The way we keep them short is with my shears. The shallow pots will slow the growth down a little bit but it's mostly my shears that keep them small.

Shelley:
Thanks, Tim. If you'd like more information on bonsai there's a lot of literature available and there are a number of bonsai clubs throughout Wisconsin.

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