The art of making miniature landscapes was thought to have begun more than one thousand years ago. Later the Japanese refined the art and called it bonsai.
An experienced bonsai artist will assure you that growing miniature trees only touches the surface of what bonsai is all about. Although the Japanese word "bonsai" literally means plant (sai) in a small basin (bon), the mere arrangement of a small tree in a pot does not create a bonsai.
There are multiple layers to Japanese bonsai. There are three very important dimensional aspects to bonsai, gardening, artistic expression, and appreciation of nature, that when combined result in a excellent bonsai. When you have created a beautiful tree it is something you can be proud of. Can you see how a bonsai cannot be created if any of the dimensions are missing?
Do you think of yourself as a good gardener? You won’t be a good bonsai gardener if you aren’t a well-educated gardener. A good bonsai gardener must understand how plants grow. He must understand the role of a tree’s roots, it’s trunk, branches, and skin. A bonsai artist will need to learn about how a trees leaves absorb carbon dioxide. A bonsai tree has seasonal cycles that affect growth that he will need to know about. All of this knowledge must be brought together in order to grow robust and healthy plants. The artistic aspect of bonsai is very closely related to this understanding of a plant’s physiology, and it would be very hard to apply some of the bonsai techniques without the understanding of plant physiology.
The second dimension of bonsai, the art dimension, is what sees the potential and what creates the beauty of a miniature tree. Like a sculptor that can see a statue inside the block of granite, a bonsai artist must look inside the bonsai tree to understand it’s essence, and then train and shape the tree into form. A tree that grows in harsh windy conditions, or a tree that has taken root on the edge of a cliff, or overhanging a lake, would all have different forms that a bonsai artist will attempt to create only in miniature, and in a pot. In order to train a tree to be a bonsai the bonsai gardener must apply various methods, which may include grafting, pruning, and pinching, to achieve one of the traditional bonsai styles.
The final dimension of bonsai is the philosophical or spiritual dimension. There must be a connection between the bonsai artist and nature. The philosophies of Buddhism, Zen, and Taoism have all been related to bonsai. A true bonsai cannot be created in the absence of a true connection and understanding of the natural world, regardless of the philosophy.
Fortunately you don’t have to be a philosopher or a spiritualist in order to appreciate the beauty of Japanese bonsai. Happily, even folks who don’t fully comprehend the multiple elements of bonsai can still be stirred by its beauty.