Bonsai have a long and honored history in the Orient. And there are so many!

Dwarfed fruit trees barely two feet tall that produce fruit. Ancient azaleas scarcely 12 inches tall that bloom every year. Roots of venerable evergreens clamber over tiny boulders to capture the essence of a tree clinging to the side of a cliff.

Bonsai are often sold in stores at this time of year. People are enchanted by them and buy them to spruce up their home, or to give as gifts. Unfortunately, many of these bonsai are roughly mass produced, and often already dying when sold. The other drawback is that most bonsai are outdoor plants. Indoors, in low light conditions, they become stressed and die.

So before you plunk down your money for a plant that most likely will not make it, why not experiment a little and make your own bonsai. It is fun and easy to start this venerable hobby. It's also a great project for kids.

Bonsai (pronounced bone-sigh) is a Japanese name that translates as "plant in a shallow pot." It is not simply a shallow pot that makes it a bonsai, but also its artistic quality. Bonsai refers both to the plant itself and to the art of creating a miniature plant that appears to be a full-sized plant growing in the wild.

The plant is kept small and compact by limiting its normal growth. This is done by careful annual trimming of branches and roots, and repotting, often back into the same pot. In addition to this annual care, tips must be nipped back on a regular basis, or the plant will get too large for its small pot.

For our area, select plants tolerant of low humidity, such as these evergreens: Rocky Mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum), so-called "red cedar" (Juniperus virginiana), mugo or mountain pine (Pinus mugo), Japanese black pine (Pinus thunbergiana), single-leaf pinyon (Pinus monophylla), or pinyon nut pine (Pinus edulis).

If evergreens don't excite you, try arid-adapted plants with smaller leaves, like the pyracantha (Pyracantha sp.), dwarf pomegranate (Punica granitum var. nana) or the little leaf cotoneaster (Cotoneaster microphylla). You could also use woody herbs like rosemary or germander.

A number of desert trees make lovely, slightly larger bonsai. These are caudiciform, or swollen-trunked trees, which gives them an ancient look even when barely six months old. Try Baja or Sonoran figs (Ficus palmerii and Ficus petiolaris), or the burseras (Bursera microphylla, B. linheimerii, and B. hindsiana). From Africa, the Karoo rose (Adenium obesum) makes an exotic flowering bonsai.

To begin your bonsai, you need to select the plant(s) you want to work with, and to find a shallow container that will harmonize with the shape, color and texture of the plant.

Soil for bonsai should be fast draining, since you will water frequently (even daily) and yet do not want the soil to become waterlogged. Ideally, use potting soil mixed with about one-third sand, or use a cactus mix. The desert trees especially need well-drained soils.

Patience is required for shaping your new bonsai as it grows. Pruning must be done gradually to help the plant find the shape you envision for it. Patience is a great virtue to cultivate, and cultivating bonsai can help you cultivate patience as well.

The landscape around your home can become a pleasureful space with lush, desert-adapted plants. To find out which plants to use and where, call for a private consultation. If you prefer, a five-week landscaping class starts in February. For more information, contact me at 292-0504. Please leave a voice message.

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