published Saturday, September 17th, 2011

Get an introduction to growing bonsai this weekend

The Tennessee Valley Bonsai Society will exhibit trees at River Gallery, 400 E. Second St., in the Bluff View Art District, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. today and from 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Tom Scott, a skilled bonsai artist, will demonstrate from 2 to 3:30 p.m. both days. The event is free.

Bonsai (pronounced "bone-sigh") literally means, in both Chinese and Japanese, "tree in a pot." It doesn't have to be a tree. It can be a vine or a shrub. These are not dwarf plants or special plants designed for bonsai. They are common plants found at garden nursery stores.

The plant stays small through regular root and top pruning. The trees are not impaired in the process. In fact, a well-maintained bonsai can frequently live longer than its full-size counterpart. The appearance of age is much prized, and bonsai may live hundreds of years.

Removing about a third of the roots each year keeps the plant small. New soil can be introduced to the pot. More room allows new roots to grow. Even standard fruit trees can be trained to grow miniature. The trees produce edible fruit, just smaller than normal. Some of the more common choices include lemon, tangerine, apple, fig, peach, lime and cherry.

Starter trees

The choices for bonsai are endless, but some plants are easier in many ways. Junipers are probably the most popular for beginners. They can be grown indoors or outdoors and are easy to care for because they tolerate adverse conditions such as low light.

Ficus is probably the easiest to try for an indoor bonsai. Japanese maple is also a great choice. It has amazing red, purple or orange color most of the year. The leaves can be reduced to 1 inch or less.

Chinese elm is another good one to try. It will grow well indoors or out. It is slow-growing, which allows for the beginner to become accustomed to training and caring for the bonsai. The leaves get smaller each year. The whole tree stays about 8 to 10 inches in height.

Root pruning is done in early spring before bud break. Remove the tree from the pot, and stretch out the roots. Cut the roots back to create a compact root ball with a flat base. The basic idea is to encourage fine roots, which grow quickly to give the tree vigor. At least a third of the old soil should be removed.

Position the plant back in the pot on a layer of fresh soil. If needed, anchor the roots with copper wire threaded through holes in the pot. This will hold the tree in position until new root growth begins. Top up the pot with soil, and water well. Bonsai can't be allowed to dry out. However, don't drown them. The same advice goes for fertilization. Learn the requirements for each type of bonsai. Then adjust it for each individual plant.

To create and maintain the shape of a bonsai, some wiring may be needed. Again, this does not injure the tree. There are various grades of wire available. Copper wire is best, but aluminum wire also can be used.

Almost all bonsai, except the tropical types, require outdoor conditions to survive. They will do poorly if kept indoors too long. The plants do best outdoors in a wind-protected area, such as a courtyard or patio. Sometimes, they need to be brought indoors to protect them from hard freezes.

Bonsai training

The Tennessee Valley Bonsai Society usually meets 2-4 p.m. the second Saturday of the month at the UT Agriculture Extension center on Bonny Oaks Drive. Members mentor beginners and share ideas with each other.

For more information, contact Jim Gumnick at 847-1342 or jlgtwo@peoplepc.com. Or go to the Master Gardener website, www.MGHC.org, or Tennessee Valley Bonsai Society website, http://tvbonsai.org.

Contact Tom Stebbins at 423-855-6113 or tstebbins@utk.edu.

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