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Create a living work of art through bonsai

This photo taken on May 20, 2013, shows bonsai trees at a cultural exhibit in Chicago that range from 70 to 90 years old.(John Zvirovski / The Sun)

Every time I see the little roadside stands that are in town or set up at craft shows, I always become inspired by the displays of bonsai trees for sale. There are so many different types to look at and choose from, but oftentimes their prices keep me from making a purchase. Sometimes you can get them for as little as $25, but other times you can spend upward from $150 depending on size, species and the age of the plant.

The art of bonsai is not the element of growing or creating dwarf varieties, but it is more about growing natural tree species in a dwarfed state through annual pruning of the roots and crown of the plant. Often many people see these trees and just stand in awe of the natural appearance they have as a mature tree in a dwarf state. Their shapes, colors and details depict selections that are way beyond their age. Some bonsai trees on displays in some cultural exhibits are up to 300 years old and still growing.

The act of viewing these items is one of the reasons bonsai was created in Japan more than 1,000 years ago. This act is known as contemplation — to view and allow the mind to think in a very calming and rejuvenating way. The other element that is necessary is the art of patience. Bonsai trees are not created overnight, but rather over an extended period of years, decades and sometimes centuries.

When making a purchase of a bonsai tree, know what species works best for the lighting and space you have allowed at your home. Keep in mind that when selecting a bonsai tree, it should be of a native species that can be grown outdoors. Selections that grow indoors should be of the tropical species such as bouganvillas, live oaks, weeping figs or other fig species.

Evergreen and deciduous selections are available. Some of the deciduous selections even bloom during the spring months for an extra flare. Deciduous species go through a dormancy period where they will actually lose their leaves and are bare for a period of three to five months. Once the leaves are gone, the tree takes on a different character all together with its natural and gnarly appearance.

Evergreen selections are green all year long and some species, such as pines, will naturally lose some needles that are 3 to 5 years old. These varieties look alive all year long and don’t seem to ever go dormant, but they do halt the growing cycles for months also during the winter.

There are many different design styles to choose from. Some bonsai displays will have multiple trees in the container giving it a forest or grove look, but oftentimes they are in a singular stature. Ones in a singular stature are typically grown as a straight, upright tree with a round or conical form, others will have a cascade style where they may actually grow toward one side cascading down past the container level toward the ground. One of the most common design styles is the irregular and aged look where the plant looks years beyond its actual age.

To grow a bonsai tree, one needs one or more trees that are young in age, a small shallow container with good drainage and a light type of soil that rarely becomes soggy after being watered. The depth of the containers rarely are deeper than 3 to 4 inches and can be anywhere from 12 to 24 inches wide. Small rocks, bar and sheets of moss can make up the landscape scene, covering the soil beneath the tree canopy to give it a natural appearance.

If growing your own tree selection, initially remove 50 percent of the leaves and branches to create a desired shape. At the same time, remove half of the roots before planting into the new container. This stunts the tree selection to grow at a slower and more compact rate. Trim the canopy as needed to retain the desired shape throughout the growing season. Each spring, right before bud-break of the tree, remove the tree from the container, and remove any excess roots from the base to continue the encouragement of a stunted growing pattern.

Using a soft, copper wire to wrap around the branches allows you to bend the stems to a certain shape. Once the branches age, the wiring can be removed (usually after a period of a couple years) and the branches will retain the shape. Scarring the trunk bark will give a dead wood look with the bark callusing, creating an even more aged appearance, but do this in a sparing manner as it also places the plant into a stressed mode.

Bonsai can be a very appealing process for many people with pleasing results, but patience is a requirement for this practice. Years of growing these plants give a sense of satisfaction, but it also creates a living work of art in or outside of the home that is ever changing. If you are looking for a challenge and have the patience to see the results of your labor and craftsmanship, give a bonsai a try for a unique piece of living art.