How to Create Bonsai Gardens Indoors

Bonsai expert Richard W. Bender explains how to use bonsai techniques for an indoor harvest of fruits, herbs and flowers.

Japanese Garden Juniper

Japanese Garden Juniper

Japanese Garden junipers are evergreen shrubs or trees commonly grown as bonsai and sold at nurseries and garden centers. "The size of the trunk is very important to a bonsai composition, lending character to this composition," says Schrader.

Photo by: Photo by Eric Schrader / Courtesy Bonsai Society of San Francisco

When you stop and think about it, author Richard W. Bender says, we're always shaping our plants—even if we never pick up the pruning shears. Choosing one container over another, forcing a bulb, transplanting a seedling or snipping herbs for a recipe means we’ve got a hand in how, when and where our plants grow. 

Bonsai is about deliberately and consciously shaping plants; Bender says the Japanese have been practicing it since 1300 C.E., when the art of training plants into sculptural forms was probably introduced by Buddhist monks.

The hobby apparently spread to the West after World War II with returning soldiers who’d seen it overseas. By the 1980s, Bender was working as a bonsai artist in various garden centers when children started coming in and asking about bonsai; they’d become fascinated with the trees they’d seen in the popular Karate Kid movies. 

Unfortunately, he says, a lot of plants that went home with this new generation of wannabe bonsai gardeners soon perished.

In his new book, Bountiful Bonsai: Create Instant Indoor Container Gardens with Edible Fruits, Herbs and Flowers, Bender sets out to teach us how to shape and enjoy bonsai houseplants so we don't keep killing all that greenery.

First, Bender wants to shape us—that is, to straighten out some of our common misconceptions about bonsai. Bonsai plants aren’t just tiny, tabletop specimens. They're classed by size and can range from a few inches to a few feet in height. And the plants he discusses aren’t limited to dwarfs or miniatures; he covers common nursery plants that can be controlled by pruning. One of the plants he features, for example, is a 70-inch tall lemon that's staked to hold up its amazing crop of 27 fruits.

Early bonsais were meant to come inside  for only a few days at a time before being moved back out again, into the growing conditions they needed to survive. Bender departs from the ancient Japanese style by growing indoor varieties, rather than only outdoor trees that require a period of cold dormancy such as pines, junipers and maples. Bender also takes credit for being among the first to write about using herbs as bonsai—his 1996 book Herbal Bonsai remained in print for 15 years.

Today’s gardeners, he says, will have more fun—and success—with varieties meant to be kept indoors and he's enthusiastic about shrubs, fruits and other plants.  He recommends planting in bigger containers and using supplemental lighting, among other techniques, to help your modern-style bonsai thrive.

These kinds of departures from tradition might bother traditionalists. But like many gardeners, I can’t resist something new and Bender’s book inspires me to give bonsai a try. 

His list of potential "instant" houseplants is enticing. He describes growing luscious cherries, pink lemons and bright yellow limequats, and he cultivates ornamental peppers, and jalapenos and cayennes. 

For the kitchen he recommends bonsai rosemary, bay laurel and thyme, and gardeners who love flowers and fragrance are encouraged to try jasmine, hibiscus and natal plums (Carissa macrocarpa). 

One of the biggest concerns most of us have about growing bonsai is handling the pruning. I’d like to have read more about that here, although Bender explains how to "carve" an instant edible bonsai from a nursery specimen in a five-gallon pot. 

But this isn’t a book about using wires to train plants into the miniature, elegant forms most of us associate with bonsai. You’ll also need to look elsewhere for information on specialized bonsai pruning tools, such as leaf cutters, butterfly shears and bonsai turn tables. 

Bender’s aim is to teach us how to quickly grow ordinary varieties with modern techniques and everyday garden tools. We may have to do some regular or even heavy pruning on some of these plants; bonsai edibles kept in a sunroom, for example, may grow faster and much taller than their tiny, wired counterparts confined to small containers. But the payoff in fruits and fragrance—plus the pleasure of living with a bit of nature in your home—is surely worth the effort.

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