Keys Homes
Sunday, July 21, 2013
Bonsai, controlled gardening in miniature size

By ROBIN ROBINSON The key West Garden Club

TheKey West Garden Club has recently acquired 13 new bonsai trees from Terry Coveny. Bonsai is the reproduction of natural trees kept in miniature. This art form was first developed in China and later in Japanese cultures. In Japanese, the word "bon" means a low-sided tray and "sai" refers to plantings.

Bonsai gardeners use their ingenuity to produce graceful forms. Viewers meditate on the beauty of those forms. The Japanese of the sixth century believed that natural beauty only becomes true beauty when shaped by human hands. The oldest known bonsai is a 500 year old pine that is housed in the Tokyo Imperial Palace.

Many growers developed the low dishes holding the miniaturized tree into entire, to scale, landscapes with sand and rocks. In order to retain water, moss or grass is often planted on the soil surface.

Coveny found seedlings growing under the magnificent mahogany tree at 3630 Flagler. They inspired him to attempt to miniaturize what would normally be giant canopy trees. He planted six seedlings in a bonsai dish just a few inches high, watered them and waited. That was eight years ago. Now they are a grove that is two feet tall.

Mahogany trees are unusual choices to bonsai, but no more so than the newly acquired royal poinciana, jatropha and Ming aralia that were also donated to the Garden Club. Plants chosen for miniaturizations must eventually develop woody stems. Especially popular are varieties that have tiny leaves that enhance the scale of the small branches such as poinsettias or cassias.

Bonsai trees need special care because they do not have copious soil nutrients in which to grow. Water plants until the water runs out the bottom of the pot or submerge the entire pot in a bucket. Check the sides of the soil to make sure the water has spread out over the entire root ball. Wait until the plant is dry and water it again. This can be as much as every other day. Since there are few nutrients in the soil, liquid fertilizer at one-half strength should be applied once a month.

Established trees need pinching back when there is new growth, but not all of the new growth should be removed.

The art of creating beautifully sculpted trees is determined by choosing which part of the tree is to be pinched back. Sometimes gardeners evaluate their bonsai tree for days before making a decision.

Small low flat pots are used for bonsai plants and it is important to keep the roots from being pot bound. Examine the roots by pulling the plant out of the pot and brushing the soil away. No more than one-quarter of the roots should be removed from the tree. When re-potting, place a fine mesh screen over the drainage holes to retain the soil that might be lost while watering. Then put a thin layer of gravel over the screen for drainage. Put in new soil, replace the tree and water well.

Much art and literature is based on bonsai. One Noh play, "The Potted Trees", written in 1383 by Zeami Motokiyo, tells of a poor man who sacrifices his three bonsai trees to warm a traveling official disguised as a monk. Later the official rewards him with three parcels of land named the plum, pine and cherry. Like the unhurried growth of the bonsai trees, Noh drama is performed slowly where the deliberate act of burning the symbolic bonsai trees could take an hour or more.

Stop by the West Martello Bonsai Garden section to check out our new acquisitions thanks to Terry Coveny.


The Key West Garden Club welcomes volunteers to work on the historical fort, pull weeds, propagate plants and play in the sandy soil at the West Martello Tower from 9 am. to noon on Mondays.

Key West Master Gardener Robin Robinson was a columnist for the Chicago Daily News and syndicated with Princeton Features. Her books "Plants of Paradise" and Award Winning "Roots Rocks and Rain: Native Trees of the Florida Keys," can be found at the Garden Club and on This column is part of a series developed by the Key West Garden Club. For more information visit

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