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The Bonsai Forest

The Bonsai Forest

by Ruth Staal

Most bonsai are single plants, in a variety of different styles, that resemble old trees growing in their native habitat. A forest is a group of trees of one species, growing as they would in nature. It can be created from small purchased plants, either tropical or those suitable for landscaping.

Bare-root hedging plants such as cotoneaster, are inexpensive and often perfect for a forest - they are only available in spring and fall. Seedlings could be collected from beneath native deciduous trees in your area, such as elm (Ulmus spp.), aspen (Populus tremuloides), maple (acer spp.) or birch (Betula spp.) . Some conifers, such as larch (Larix) or spruce (Picea) could also be suitable.

It is also possible to propagate little trees by cuttings from a larger plant. This would be appropriate with cotoneaster (Cotoneaster spp.), birch, maple, or ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), for example. Tropical houseplants such as weeping fig (Ficus Benjamina ) or ficus Natasha, Ming aralia (Polyscias fruticosa) or pomegranate (Punica granatum 'Nana') would also be good choices. They could be purchased plants from a nursery or cuttings from larger plants.

Smaller plants which alone would not be suitable for single bonsai can be used to represent trees growing close together. These trees do not naturally develop the strong trunks of a single tree. Each tree is competing with others for available light by stretching upwards rather than outwards, so trunks are thin. Only on the outside of a grove can lower side branches find enough room and light. Trees should be slightly different heights and have different trunk diameters, as they would be in nature. Roots should be trimmed and any tap roots removed, saving as many fine feeder roots as possible.

The pot used for a forest is oval or rectangular and very shallow. It is usually neutral in color and most often unglazed. The size will depend on the size and number of the individual plants. Five trees would be a minimum number, seven would be better, nine better yet. Uneven numbers are always used. The larger trees will be placed in the front, and the smaller ones in the back. This gives a feeling of depth - our minds perceive the smaller trees to be farther away. In a forest of many trees, one or two smaller trees at the front will look younger, especially if some of the lower branches are not pruned away, and add to the realism.

Start by placing the largest tree off-centre and slightly towards the front. The next largest should be placed to one side and slightly behind it. If you are planting five trees, the other three would be in a grouping towards the other side of the pot, slightly back in the pot from the first two.
Seven trees would be in groups of three and four. Each plant has an individual root ball, so they can be rearranged until you are satisfied with the appearance. Each tree should be able to be seen from the front, but some small branches may cross, as they would naturally. Space between trees should vary a little, and a small tree could lean somewhat away from a larger one, competing for light. Can you imagine walking into your little grove ? Could a glimpse of a deer between the
trees make you want to look again?

Soil is added, working gently between the roots, and mounding slightly in the centre. Most of the lower branches are moved. Often tiny ground cover plants give the appearance of a forest floor, a rock might be added, and soil could be covered with moss or very fine bark. Keep the planting out of direct sun and be watchful of watering until plants are established. Once new growth begins, unwanted foliage must be trimmed off stems regularly, and tip growth pruned to maintain desired size. Because the pots are very shallow, care must be taken to prevent the soil from becoming too dry.

This bonsai style requires an imagination. If possible, take a walk through a grove of trees and look at the trees instead of the forest! Creating it in miniature brings the forest into your home.