Growing pleasures of small wonders
By Esther Williams
Most of us have seen and admired Bonsai, the gentle art of miniature tree growing. The millennia-old art form that originated in China and branched out to Japan is still growing strong today with many species of trees from different countries becoming proper subjects for Bonsai.

The oriental art of creating miniature versions of nature's wondrous trees is a hobby that we too can develop. Bonsai grower, Prof. Merrill Perera shares his expertise in the area that he has dabbled in, off and on during the past 40 years. "A vibrant three-dimensional art form, a Bonsai is a living art that changes each day unlike a painting," says he.

The art has become popular in Sri Lanka over the past two decades, with exhibitions held annually by the Bonsai Association. Outlining the basic features he says Bonsai are essentially, outdoors plants, and need plenty of bright sunshine. They need to be watered liberally each day until the water drains out from under the pot. Stems and leaves can be sprayed to appear fresh. While good ventilation is necessary, strong winds and draughts need to be avoided. Bonsai can be kept indoors for short periods but should be nurtured on a daily basis for healthy survival and watched for possible signs of ill health.

How to grow
Choosing a pot: Different sizes of earthenware, cement, ceramic or porcelain pots are available. Choose a shallow pot to match the plant size, ensuring that it is not glazed on the inside. Shallowness enhances the tree's trunk. Terracotta, cobalt blue or shades of brown or green complement many trees. Ensure that the pot has adequate drainage. Harmony between the tree and the container should be your goal, as the plant will live in the chosen container for many years.

=Choosing a plant: In temperate climates, firs and pines are commonly used but in Sri Lanka, the Bo, Nuga, Hawthorn, Dibul, Nelli, Beli, Candle plant, Tamarind, and various other indigenous hardwood plants can be captured in miniature form. Flowering plants and citrus fruit tress can also be used. Small leafed plants look dainty. From plant sales choose those that are short with thick trunks, many branches and with a certain symmetry or asymmetry and nice curves. Plants can also be collected when on trips to the countryside.

=Tools: Keep available scissors and wire cutters and sieves measuring ½" to 1/3rd". Children's toy implements such as shovels, brushes, water sprayer and old pencils or pens can be used to prepare soil and for planting. Copper or aluminium wire and green plastic mesh can be purchased from hardware stores.

Preparing the soil: Equal proportions of cow dung, humus or compost, river sand and red earth make up the soil. Throw in some broken chicken bones or snail shells. Using sieves grade soil into different sizes such as 1, 2 and 3 to stand for coarse, medium and fine.

Planting: Wash pot and cover drainage holes with green plastic mesh to conserve soil and secure with wire. Line bottom of pot with broken bits of bricks and tiles making a ½" layer. Add grade 1 soil and then layer with grade 2 soil. Prune root and branches of plant and place off centre in pot. Add 3rd grade soil and the finest on top, piling it into the centre. Pat plant with pencil so that no air is trapped within the soil. Scrape moss collected from walls of old buildings and place on top. Place pot in a tub and pour water into tub filling it until just below the brim.

Caring for the plant: Keep plant indoors or in a cool shady place for two weeks and do not disturb it. Always ensure that the water in the tub is at the required level. Plant can be kept outdoors after two weeks and allowed sunshine by which time one should see tiny shoots/buds. Spray with water each day and wash and spray leaves. Look out for insects.

Keep pruning to maintain size and to enable new branches to grow. Wiring can be done to reposition or straighten branches. Keep height at 6" as it will help thicken the trunk. Add fertilizer (plant food - diluted as instructed on fertilizer cover) once in two weeks.

A bonsai needs to be re-potted every 2-3 years and should be cared for like a child. A well-looked after bonsai can last for many many years. It can certainly be a rewarding pastime, for it is viewed today as a hobby that allows a greater understanding of nature and also a way to enhance one’s garden.

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