TRAINING TRUE INDOOR BONSAI!
By David W. Fukumoto, President & founder, Fuku-Bonsai Inc.

                My family began training house plants as bonsai in 1962 and since 1973 we've run a personalized certified export bonsai nursery in the rural area between the city of Hilo and Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii. The Fuku-Bonsai Cultural Center & Hawaii State Bonsai Repository has an extensive bonsai collection, educational exhibits, and a knowledgeable staff because we want our customers to be successful and our plants to bring joy.  We've always focused on improving customer success

TRUE INDOOR BONSAI CONCEPTS

              A temperate climate outdoor plant does not suddenly become a houseplant just because it's trained as a bonsai.  In its widest interpretation, bonsai is an international art, craft, and hobby of artistic pot plants.  It took three generations for outdoor tropical Hawaiian bonsai to evolve from its Japanese bonsai and Chinese penjing origins.

              Japanese bonsai utilize outdoor trees and tends to be overly encumbered by too many rules. Most are based upon a single trunk line running from the roots to the top of the tree.   The trunk generally fall into upright, slanting, semi-cascade or cascade styles and branches are arranged in irregular horizontal tiers.  There are many variations but most can be described as having a "single apex-tier branched" structure.   The Japanese love this triangular shape and azaleas and elms are often trained to have a "pine tree" structure.

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           TRUE INDOOR BONSAI is the newest, easiest,  most successful and most popular type of Hawaiian bonsai! They are the only form of bonsai suitable as gifts to those without bonsai skills and who want to grow bonsai in homes and offices without special facilities.

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                In contrast,  tropical trees have large massive trunks.  Often there are many trunks and arching branches.  The overall shape is a broad  canopy dome that we describe as a "multiple apex-arch branched" structure.  The buttressing roots are prominent and branches are stout.  Our favorite shape is the banyan form.   "Banyan" is a term describing a tree with aerial roots.  For those of us who grew up in the tropics,  the banyan trees were our playgrounds.  So it was only natural for us to want to train into this form. 

                Initially, I thought we would be specializing in the Ficus or Fig family and became a research affiliate of the Harold Lyon Arboretum of the University of Hawaii at Manoa in a study titled:  "Ficus: An Inspiration for Bonsai for Indoors."  In 1979, several papers were published in the American Bonsai Society Journal.  Some of our finest outdoor bonsai are ficus.  Ficus are known house plants, but unfortunately,   they need more light than is normally available in most homes and offices.   They will do well if several plants are rotated with most kept in very bright light.  But some varieties will drop leaves when moved.  For these reasons,   we dropped ficus from our list of plants suitable for True Indoor Bonsai. 

                Only a very few tropical plants have the ability to grow in a fairly wide range of "indoor" conditions.  These "common" houseplants are common because they survive while the "rare" ones keep dying off.  In beginning only with proven durable house plants,  Fuku-Bonsai's True Indoor Bonsai have the greatest potential for success.  We specialize in Dwarf Schefflera which is the best, most durable of all houseplants!

                True Indoor Bonsai are proven durable house plants trained into Hawaiian tropical multiple apex-arched branched structures.  Our favorites take on a banyan form with aerial roots.  We're very fortunate to live a bonsai lifestyle in this beautiful part of the world and by sharing our knowledge,  we share our blessings.  Bonsai can be enjoyed in two basic ways:

        1.     ENJOY THE ARTISTIC CREATIONS OF OTHERS.  The finest old magnificent bonsai are truly masterpieces of man and nature in harmony.  They have an aura that overwhelms the viewer! These ancient specimens require an extraordinary amount of skillful, disciplined care.  They are fragile with age and their curators have accepted a very heavy responsibility to maintain them.

        2.     ENJOY GROWING AND TENDING YOUNGER BONSAI.  Younger trees have stronger growth and you'll experience the satisfaction of being a part of their training.   The younger bonsai will come to have greater personal value.  Tend to them as you would guide and nurture your children. You'll one day be able accept the responsibility of maintaining and improving older trees. Learn first.

TRAINING BONSAI BEGINS WITH A SENSE OF PEACE

                The tree depends upon you for life and you have a duty to provide for the tree. Bonsai is a living art and are just like raising children. It can be relatively simple and satisfying if you begin in a sensible manner. There are five major challenges:

        1.     CHOOSE A SUITABLE PLANT VARIETY.  The plant should be able to thrive for you in your environment or you must be able to change the environment to meet the needs of the plant.  All indoor bonsai are not the same.  To grow bonsai in homes and offices without bright window light or a lot of additional supplemental light,   the plant MUST be a proven durable house plant. Fuku-Bonsai's True Indoor Bonsai™ are such durable house plants.  But many people misleadingly use the term "indoor bonsai" for  tropical trees that require very high light or greenhouse conditions. Outdoor plants like junipers are unsuitable and will not survive indoors.

        2.     BEGIN WITH SOME "CHARACTER."  Recognize that indoor growing conditions are marginal even for proven house plants.  They grow very slowly indoors compared to ideal nursery conditions.  Plants with some character provide a basis for design and are much easier for a beginner trainer.  The quality of the starter stock will usually determine the quality of the bonsai that will develop. If you want to create a masterpiece bonsai, be extremely selective and START with masterpiece quality bonsai stock!  Even a bonsai master would need several years just to create suitable bonsai stock before major training could begin. 

        3.     MASTER HORTICULTURAL SKILLS FIRST.  Too often we see enthusiasts begin bonsai training before a plant is acclimated to their environment and before the plant is growing strongly.  Bonsai are not stunted plants.  Stunted plants cannot be trained! Training begins with discipline and the desire that the plant will live.  The horticultural skills to keep the plant healthy and growing vigorously is crucial.  If a tree is growing poorly, training will kill it.  Bonsai training is not the art of killing trees!

        4.     DEVELOP A VISION OF A FUTURE SHAPE.  This is the hard part.   It's easier if the tree already has some character as it will suggest a future shape.  Develop a mental image.  Imagine a dotted line outlining the future canopy of the tree,  but bring that canopy line down closer to the trunk.  When branches grow out into that outline,  it'll be time to trim that portion back.   Think of a hedge.  If you want it to grow to a certain height with the top level,  you'll trim portions that grow above that string-line or imaginary line.   Fast growing hedges require trimming more often.  But if you trimmed bonsai the way that you trim hedges,  you'd be creating topiary or shaped plants.   Bonsai is a little more complex as it includes pruning of interior branches to try to imitate all of the complex branch patterns of natural trees.  To learn this place a mat under aged trees. Lie down and study the patterns.  To an untrained eye your bonsai will not seem to develop as the trunk, major branches, and overall foliage canopy may seem to stay the same.  But each year the trunks and branches thicken and ramify into more complex branch patterns that slowly widen the crown of the tree to convey the grandeur of older trees.  It becomes easier if you keep your vision of the overall future shape in mind. From time to time your vision will evolve and the bonsai will become a unique and special personality.

        5.     ACQUIRE BONSAI TRAINING TECHNIQUES TO IMPROVE THE SHAPE.  This is the easy part.  By now, you've got an appropriate tree that is growing well and a vision or a gameplan. Just like taking a vacation trip, the most important part is deciding where you want to go. Technique is relatively easy to learn and is simply a means to go from where you are to where you want to go. To often the emphasis is on learning techniques as if it were the magical part.  That's like taking art lessons and copying others without ever deciding what to draw or paint.  Start with simple techniques.  It's not hard.  If you want to remove a section,  chose a proper tool.  If you're working on a huge tree,  a chainsaw may be appropriate.   But for most of us a garden pruner will do.  It's not critically important which tool is used or how the section is removed.  It is necessary to decide whether the section to be removed fits into your desirable future design.

TWO TRAINING STRATEGIES FOR DWARF SCHEFFLERA

       1.     MAINTENANCE TRAINING.  One common goal is to purchase a plant with character and to simply maintain it as close as possible without creating vigorous growth and more complex training.  Most of our customers purchasing our Hawaiian Lava Planting line items are in this category.  For these customers, follow a simple rule of thumb:  "Cut back the entire growing stem when the distance between the leaf nodes on the stem begins to stretch or elongate."

                Note where the stem has last been cut.  The first two to four leaves are usually very compact.  The next few leaves are larger but still relatively compact. But then the leaves get larger and the distance between the leaf nodes becomes longer. Another way to express this is:  "Allow six or seven leaves to develop after a cut, then cut off the growing tip and stem, leaving the two or three oldest leaves only. If you want a compact plant, cut off shorter, leaving only one leaf. A new growth point will likely develop where the leaf stem meets the branch and the direction of growth will follow the direction of the leaf stem."

        2.     CREATING "BONSAI CHARACTER!"  Being oriented to bonsai,   we are delighted when our customers want to move into bonsai training to add complex growth. The key is developing accelerated growth or optimum growth.  To do so requires creating the ideal growing conditions as to light, moisture and humidity, temperature, fertilizing, and root system enlargement.

                In general, the more light the better. Provide the proper amount of moisture and humidity needed by each plant.  Dwarf Schefflera should be soaked in water for 30 minutes once each week and placed on dry gravel.  White roots indicate all is well.  If roots are black and rotting, the plant is being over-watered.     Keep them at 60F-85F with preference towards the warmer side of the temperature range. We include Nutrient Granules with each plant shipped.  Follow instructions and enjoy success! Do not use strong fertilizers meant for outdoor plants as they will burn the roots and kill True Indoor Bonsai.

                After mastering the cultural practices and your plant is strong and healthy, you're ready to move to the next stage of training. You'll get faster and more dramatic results by enlarging the plant's root system.  This is explained in Training Lesson #1: HS-8 Dwarf Schefflera and #8 Conversion Kit.

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