How to Prevent Bonsai Beginner Mistakes and Help Your Plant Thrive
Bonsai cultivation, a therapeutic pastime commonly associated with middle-aged individuals and retirees, is now enthusiastically embraced by the younger generation, according to Han San Chong, co-founder of Bonsai Inc., a bonsai plant supplier and specialist firm. We spoke to Han San to learn more about what to look out for and how to prevent rookie mistakes when cultivating a bonsai tree.
Name: Chong Han San
Company: Bonsai Inc.
Specialization: Bonsai plant supplies and Bonsai Appreciation Workshop
Base Country: Singapore
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Q: Can you tell me about yourself? How did Bonsai Inc. come about?
Han San: Bonsai Inc. really came about to solve many problems that exist in this industry. The market is opaque about prices and many bonsai shops charge based on who the customer is. The shops don’t manage their inventory well, and so, prices can vary a lot. It might be $10 today and $15 tomorrow.
My business partner saw a chance to improve the industry and make it more open. He wanted to start a transparent, customer-friendly retail business that offers a special experience for both bonsai enthusiasts and beginners.
We launched Bonsai Inc. in 2021, the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic. At that time, more people became interested in plants and buying plants for homes was a trend.
Q: What sets Bonsai Inc. apart from other bonsai stores?
Han San: Bonsai tree prices are determined by objective factors like size, age, and rarity. However, a significant part of the valuation also depends on subjective components like the artistic appeal to the customer. That makes it hard to be very sure on how much a bonsai tree is worth.
At Bonsai Inc., we try to make pricing clear and transparent. You can find out about the price of our bonsai plants on our website and decide whether that’s suitable for you.
Second, we have a unique bonsai showroom that is a hybrid of indoor and outdoor spaces. Our outdoor garden allows you to appreciate bonsai trees in nature, while our indoor gallery offers a comfortable air-conditioned environment where you can learn about different types of bonsai, their history, and how to identify them before making a purchase.
Next, our bonsai collection is diverse. While popular Japanese species like black pine and juniper are available, we also offer rare options like the silverberry, pepper plant, Korean Hornbeam, and olive, which aren't commonly found in the Singapore market. Our range includes bonsai from Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia.
Q: What challenges do you encounter in the bonsai industry?
Han San: Entering the bonsai market in Singapore is challenging because suppliers must meet specific requirements and obtain a special license for importing bonsai.
We also had to personally visit nurseries in Japan and other Southeast Asian countries to find bonsai trees. This became even harder during the COVID-19 pandemic when travel was restricted.
For example, Japanese providers often prefer to focus on their domestic market, making it tough to convince them to export bonsai. Nonetheless, we managed to overcome the challenges posed by the pandemic and successfully brought Japanese bonsai to Singapore.
Q: Who is bonsai cultivation suitable for? What makes bonsai interesting?
Han San: Bonsai is suitable for people of all ages.
Bonsai has a rich history spanning centuries. While it used to be associated primarily with the older generation, it has evolved to become a hobby embraced by people of all ages. Many, especially the younger generation, find bonsai to be incredibly therapeutic.
Bonsai allows individuals to bring a piece of nature into their homes. Unlike the typical potted flowers or herbs, bonsai trees are miniature versions of real trees that can thrive for many years.
Many corporate clients have also shown interest in bonsai, using them as gifts for important clients or as office decorations to improve feng shui. Some bonsai types are believed to have spiritual meanings, attracting those who believe in feng shui and want to create spaces with positive energy and conducive for success.
Lastly, bonsai offers a canvas for creativity. Enthusiasts can sculpt and trim bonsai to achieve their desired shapes, allowing for artistic expression and personalization.
Q: What are some important aspects about bonsai that people may not be aware of but should keep in mind?
Han San: One common misconception is that people believe bonsai is easy to care for.
Since bonsai are miniature trees, they often think that they can simply purchase one, take it home, and let it grow on its own. While it's not overly complicated, it does require dedication.
Bonsai requires daily care, including regular watering in the right amounts, and ensuring the plants receive adequate sunlight. It's somewhat akin to having a pet dog – you must feed and walk it regularly.
Another misconception concerns whether bonsai can be kept indoors, as trees are typically associated with outdoor settings like gardens or roadsides.
In the past, growing bonsai indoors was impractical because they require water and natural sunlight, like any other tree. However, with the advent of artificial grow lights, it's now possible to cultivate bonsai indoors.
Lastly, some people mistakenly view bonsai as an expensive hobby. While there have been reports of extremely valuable bonsai trees selling for millions of dollars, beginners can start with a budget of less than SG$100. This affordability is why we initiated our Bonsai Appreciation workshop – to help individuals understand what to look for when selecting a bonsai and how to create their own without having the need to break the bank.
Q: Could you share some of the key topics you cover during your Bonsai Appreciation workshop?
Han San: Our Bonsai Appreciation workshop begins with a tour of both our indoor and outdoor galleries. Following this, we provide a brief introduction to various bonsai species, essential bonsai knowledge and care guidelines.
The primary focus of our workshop is teaching participants how to avoid inadvertently harming their bonsai. Many beginners struggle because they don't have the right guidance or knowledge. For instance, they may have difficulty figuring out how much water to give, which can lead to overwatering (suffocating the bonsai) or underwatering (causing it to dry out), or not giving proper amount of sunlight.
Another crucial aspect we emphasize in the workshop is the choice of soil for bonsai. It's important to understand that various bonsai species need specific soil formulations.
Over years of practicing bonsai cultivation, we've created distinct soil formulas tailored to the diverse bonsai species. For instance, bonsai originating from temperate regions like Japan require a specific soil mixture, while local bonsai, which are of tropical origin, demand a different type of soil.
Furthermore, we stress that a bonsai is not solely about the tree itself - it includes the pot that it is placed in. The term "bonsai" finds its roots in Japanese, originating from the fusion of two Japanese words: "bon," signifying "tray" or "pot," and "sai," denoting "planting" or "cultivation." In Chinese, it is referred to as "盆栽" (pronounced as "pen zai"), which literally translates to “pot cultivation".
Many people mistakenly assume that when they visit a nursery, they're acquiring only the plant, which is often housed in a cheap plastic pot.
Bonsai must be designed, and that includes selecting the appropriate pot. Thus, we teach participants on how to design a bonsai, transforming a natural element into something unique. While you can't alter the core appearance of a bonsai, as you gain familiarity, you'll learn what to look for and how to adapt its design to your preferences. It's akin to collecting wine. At first, you may have little knowledge, but as you delve into it, you begin to distinguish better options.
Q: What are the drawbacks of owning a bonsai?
Han San: In the end, a bonsai is a living thing. It requires regular care and attention, just like taking care of a pet. You need to water them appropriately, provide the right amount of sunlight, and groom and trim them to keep them healthy and aesthetically pleasing.
This commitment can be challenging for people with busy lifestyles. So if you travel a lot, this can be a big problem. Leaving your bonsai alone for days could result in your bonsai being infested with pests or diseases, and it might even die.
Q: Are there any interesting new trends happening in the bonsai community?
Han San: One noteworthy trend that has caught our attention is the increasing number of young newcomers embracing this hobby. Historically, bonsai-keeping was often associated with middle-aged individuals and retirees. However, there is a growing phenomenon of youngsters in their twenties enthusiastically adopting bonsai as a pastime. Many have expressed how cultivating bonsai gives them a pleasant mental state of mind in today's fast paced world.
On social media, we've also noticed a growing trend where people are showcasing unique bonsai creations. For example, there's a Taiwanese artist who excels at making super miniature bonsai, often called "bean-sized" bonsai, which can be as tiny as 1-3 inches tall.
This interview has been edited for length.
Are bonsai easy to take care of?
While it's not excessively challenging, there are some important considerations to keep in mind. Bonsai demands consistent care and attention, which includes providing the correct amount of water and ensuring they receive sufficient sunlight. It's somewhat comparable to the responsibilities of having a pet dog – you need to provide regular nourishment and exercise.
Is growing bonsai expensive?
While many believed that bonsai are costly, there are budget-friendly choices options for beginners, with prices starting at around SG$100. If you're interested in delving into the fundamentals of bonsai, such as various species and proper care, you can explore these topics by attending a Bonsai Appreciation class offered by Bonsai Inc. here.
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