The secrets to growing bonsai

All photographs are reproduced with the kind permission of Peter Chan

If you want to know how to grow bonsai then you really can't do better than to ask Peter Chan, owner of Britain's premier Bonsai nursery - Herons Bonsai.

Peter Chan is the author of eight books on the subject and a winner of no less that 21 Chelsea Flower Show Gold Medals (a feat that no other bonsai specialist has managed to achieve). I doubt that there is anything that Peter Chan doesn't know about his specialized subject .

Petre Chan
Luckily for me, I had the pleasure of an unexpected meeting with Peter at his bonsai nursery in Surrey, England. I say lucky because Peter spends a fair amount of his time travelling the globe either procuring bonsai, or promoting bonsai to the world. Therefore, the chances of seeing the great man at his home at Herons Bonsai can be rather slim!

After deciding to visit Herons Bonsai in order to find a pot the exact shade of blue that the future Mrs. Eade had decided on, I managed to meet up with Peter near his landscaped Japanese 'Stroll garden'.

After introductions, I was blessed with a private tour of the inner workings of the nursery. It was time to glean the secrets of growing bonsai from the best mind in the country.

The first surprise I came across was that all the Acer species of bonsai were produced on site at the nursery making Herons Bonsai completely self sufficient for stock of this family of plants. How does Peter achieve this? Well of course, propagation through seed and cuttings will account for all the small stock, but what about the decent number of larger specimens.

Even though Peter has been producing Bonsai at Herons since 1986, the only realistic way that he could have built up such a large and varied selection of mature specimens would have been by not selling any of them - which is of course ridiculous. So how does he do it?

The first secret

Air layering on Acers
Peter Chan is able to produce a large number of high quality, interesting stock by using the propagation technique of 'air layering'.

Air layering is a propagation technique by where a section of branch is encouraged to break in to adventitious roots.

Adventitious roots are those which arise out of sequence from the more usual root formation, and instead originate from the stem, branches, leaves, or old woody roots.

Air layering is executed by wounding a section the stem with a sterilised blade where the roots are required to form. If necessary, a dusting of rooting hormone powder can be applied to these wounds in order to encourage the adventitious roots to initiate.

Air layering on hornbeam
Wrap the wounded stem section loosely with plastic, sealing it at one end with some weather-proof adhesive tape

Pack the wrapping sleeve with a moist rooting medium to a thickness of 3-4 inches. The rooting medium is then secured in place using clear plastic.

The rooting medium should always provide aeration and a constant supply of moisture. Peter Chan prefers to use sphagnum moss.

Leave the wrapping in place for up to a year, and check it occasionally for signs of rooting.

When strong new roots are visible through the moss, remove the plastic sleeve. Cut through the stem just below the rooted section

Once sufficient root has been produced, a cut can be made below the adventitious roots, and this new plant can be potted on until it is large enough to plant outside

By carefully selecting interesting branch formations Peter Chan is able to produce the foundation of a new specimen in a traditional bonsai style.

This saves years on trying to produce stock by seed or cuttings, plus you have the advantage of an instant, mature plant.

Peter Chan also uses this technique on hornbeam, and on rare occasions beech.

The second secret

Carpinus species growing in sphagnum moss
In order to produce vigorous root growth in poorly specimens - or specimens that that need to be deliberately accelerated, Peter Chan doesn't use anything as pedestrian as potting compost.

Instead, these bonsai's are potted on into a medium made up entirely of sphagnum moss - which is of course sterile.

Therefore, all the plants nutrients are supplied using a liquid feed and these bonsai's will remain in sphagnum moss for up to two years before being potted on to a more commercial compost mix.

The third secret

Copper wire embedded in pine
Most growers of bonsai will use copper or aluminium wire to help guide the shape of their bonsai.

They will also remove or replace them as the plants branches increase in size.

Peter Chan's method is leave the wire in place and allow the trees bark to grow and callous over the wires forming a pleasing, gnarled effect.

Just be aware that there are no shortcuts to this effect, and you can expect it to take a number of years to come to fruition.

The fourth secret

This may seem obvious, but correct watering is paramount to producing a high quality bonsai. Too much and your bonsai will die. Too little and again your bonsai will die.

The root balls of bonsai are deliberately cropped in order to induce the environmental stress that helps the 'miniaturization' of the plant.

Peter Chan, the future Mrs. Eade and baby George
It is this miniaturization that typifies the bonsai style. The problem is that these small root balls are prone to drying out as they can only hold a limited amount of water.

With this in mind you will probably find that during the growing season your bonsai will need watering almost every day, and during the peak of summer this will probably need to increase to twice a day. You may wish to move you bonsai to a shaded, sheltered area under these circumstances to reduce the risk of drying out.

Underestimating this will result in leaf drop as your bonsai reacts to environmental shock. Of course try not to make things worse by leaving you bonsai in a bucket of water for a few days to compensate as this will quickly kill off what was left of your bonsai root system.

Of course, there is so much more to learn from Peter Chan than time would allow. However, you can find out more by reading his best selling book:

Bonsai Secrets: Designing, Growing And Caring for Your Miniature Masterpieces

If you would like to find out more about Peter Chan and Heron Bonsai then you can visit his website from this link

For related articles click onto:
The Secrets to Growing Bonsai
What is Air Layering?

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