Bonsai Bonanza

July 16, 2011 5:33:55 AM PDT
During the weekend of July 16 and 17, you can learn about "The Art of Bonsai" at The Morton Arboretum.

A series of workshops will walk you through the different kinds of bonsai and how you can sculpt your own at your home. Jim Keith from the Prairie State Bonsai Society joined us in our ABC7 studio to explain the best ways to care for bonsai.

Tips from Jim Keith

Is a bonsai a type of tree?
No. In fact, most any type of tree can be made to grow in a container environment.

What is a good tree to use for bonsai?
Good trees to use for bonsai have smaller-sized foliage or leaves. Some good trees for beginners include Ficus, Spruce and Juniper.

Where do you find trees to use for bonsai?
Trees can be purchased from a local nursery and trained to be bonsai. Prospective bonsai can be collected from nature and trained to be bonsai. Trees can be propagated by various methods such as growing them from seed or layering a branch from another tree to grow roots and then removing and transplanting the branch which has grown roots of its own into a pot to train into a bonsai. Trees can also be purchased as bonsai or pre-bonsai from a bonsai vendor.

How do you miniaturize a tree to make it into a bonsai?
By growing the tree in a container or pot it, it limits the amount of soil available and reduces the ability of the root system to grow which helps to keep the tree and foliage compact. If a bonsai tree were taken out of its container and planted into the ground it would grow to its normal size over time.

How do you train and prune a bonsai?
The tree is shaped by way of pinching, pruning and directing the growth of the tree by wiring with aluminum or copper wire and bending the branches. Pinching involves using fingers or tweezers to pull out the tips of new growth, which sends a message to the branch to begin to bud back and produce new growth on further back down the branch.

Pruning using scissors also helps to remove unwanted growth and branches to keep the tree compact. The length and position of branches can also be manipulated by way of wiring the branch and bending it to put bends in it and thereby reducing the length and changing the position of the branch.

Do I keep the tree indoors or outdoors?
All trees need to be outside in order to maintain the health of the tree through access to the natural elements of sunlight, fresh air, rand and dew. Depending on the type of tree and its U.S. Dept. of Agriculture geographical hardiness zone rating, it may need to have some protection during the fall and winter months. Chicago is in Zone 5, and any trees with a Zone 5 or less rating can be kept outside all year round. Tropical trees can only be outside in the spring and summer months when temperatures are above 40 degrees Fahrenheit. They need to be brought indoors in the late fall and winter months because they cannot survive freezing conditions. Tropical trees that are brought indoors need to have adequate exposure to light, either artificial or natural, in order for them to survive the cold months.

Where should I put the tree?
Bonsai trees need to be placed on a bench off the ground to keep them from insects and animals. They can be brought in for display for two or three days maximum at any one time.

Is there special soil used to plant bonsai trees in because it looks different than garden soil?
Bonsai soil is made up of various materials that are organic, such as pine bark, and non organic such as high fired clay and grit. This soil provides anchorage for the tree plus good exchange of water, nutrients and oxygen to the roots. Garden soil is too heavy and causes the roots to rot and the tree to die.

How often should I water my bonsai?
Bonsai need to be checked on a daily basis for the moisture content of the soil during the growing months. The soil can be checked by way of a moisture meter or by checking just below the surface of the soil. If the soil is dry just below the surface of the soil it should be watered until the water drains through the holes in the bottom of the bonsai pot.

Are there special tools needed for bonsai?
Beginning enthusiasts only need a pair of scissors. As you learn more and your interest increases, you can begin to purchase bonsai tools.

Where can I find a bonsai club?
There are several bonsai clubs in the Chicago area. The Prairie State Bonsai Society (link: has its monthly meeting the first Wednesday of each month at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.

The Morton Arboretum
I-88 and Rte. 53
Lisle, Ill.
Open Year-Round
7 a.m. Until Sunset

Bonsai Demonstrations & Workshops
Saturday, July 16
Sunday, July 17
10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Live Bonsai Demonstration
Saturday and Sunday, 2 p.m.
Visitor Center

Saturday Workshops:
"Banyan Ficus": teaches tween and young teens how to style and shape bonsai
Cost: $28, plus $15 materials fee

"Dawn Redwood": shows students how to care for the majestic deciduous conifer
Cost: $48, plus $40 materials fee

"Korean Boxwood": demonstrates proper placement, scale and dimension for these bonsai
Cost: $48, plus $50 materials fee

Sunday Workshops:

"Jade Tree": how to shape and form this popular house plant without wiring
Cost: $28, plus $15 materials fee

"Japanese Red Birch": workshop for beginner and intermediate students
Cost: $48, plus a $40 materials fee

"Shimpaku Juniper": instructs intermediate students about this popular tree known as "the smoke of the volcano" for its twisted trunk appearance
Cost: $60, plus $90 materials fee

Discounts available for Arboretum members

Registration required:, or call 630-968-0074.

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