Proportion Is Everything

Bonsais reign supreme when it comes to indoor container gardening

When I was in grade school, one of our assignments was to make dioramas: three-dimensional miniaturized scenes, usually from a book, that fit in the area of a shoe box, complete with every intricate detail. This comprehensive creation, with all its facets sized to a smaller scale, follows the same shrinking rules as the art of pruning bonsai trees. “Any plant that grows can be trained as a bonsai,” says Randy Clark, artist and owner of the Bonsai Learning Center in Charlotte. “What makes bonsais so unique is the fact that they are actually just ordinary trees. It’s just controlling where it grows and how it grows. When people find out it’s the same trees in their backyard, they’re amazed.”

Bonsai branches, trunks, and leaves are identical in scale to full-grown trees, but are instead miniaturized. And, like full-grown trees, with proper care, bonsais can have a lifespan of 100 years or more. Bonsai (bohn-seye), meaning trees or shrubs grown in a shallow container and trained or pruned to create an artistic effect, is regularly defined as “tree in a container.” Several bonsai trees can be used in a diorama-like art form called saikei, picturesque scenes from nature downsized and displayed as tray landscapes, using rocks for mountains, moss for bushes, sand for desert, etc.

Clark, who’s been operating for twelve years and receives visitors from all over the region, has 600 to 700 bonsais in his nursery, with 150 to 200 finished ones for sale. Choosing a bonsai that’s right for you is likened to humans picking mates: Select your bonsai by considering several characteristics. Do you want an outdoorsy type? Most bonsais need ample sunlight, especially outdoor bonsais like junipers and Chinese elms. How tall? Most Japanese bonsais stand somewhere between six to thirty-six inches. Chinese bonsais are a bit bigger. How much “junk” is in its “trunk?” (In all seriousness: straight trunk, curved trunk, slanting trunk, twin trunk, and triple trunk are all offered.) But above all, a bonsai needs to be proportionate. A thick trunk proportionate to tree size, a branch length proportionate to trunk size, and foliage proportionate to both. Don’t forget: Proportion, proportion, proportion.

As an art form, bonsais exude so much Zen, it may just make you want to drink green tea and recite haikus all day (Such a unique plant/Bonsais: miniature trees/Doesn’t take much space). And although it may be nice to have a little piece of Zen in the dining room or kitchen, outdoor bonsais can come inside for a few days but no longer. For example, coniferous and deciduous trees (pine, spruce, elm, oak) need the cold of winter, as its dormancy maintains the trees’ vigor. On the other hand, tropical and subtropical trees (fig, gardenia, serissa), which survive in warmer climates, will do just fine in apartments lacking outdoor space. So what’s best for Charlotte homes? “Almost anything will survive in North Carolina’s climate except subtropicals and some of the tropicals,” says Clark.

How you display the bonsai is just as important as caring for it (see sidebar on care). First, select the right container so it’s not only functional but also part of its harmonious composition. “Bonsai containers can run you anywhere from $3 to $350,” says Clark. Also a rule of (green) thumb is to never center the bonsai in the pot—or place it too far to one side or the other. Finally, it should be displayed around eye level, and in an uncluttered area as on a table, shelf, or stand. “A lot of gardeners don’t want to learn the artistic requirements—sculpting with living plant material—in addition to the horticultural responsibilities,” says Clark. “Bonsais don’t have to be fabulously expensive—they can run from $45 to $4,500 here—the difference is just in the artwork. In terms of prices, it’s not the kind of plant, it’s the art form.”


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