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How to Create a Proper Nebari – Bonsai Surface Roots

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A good Bonsai specimen demonstrates a balance in its component roots, trunk, branches, and leaves, all of which are integral to its design. The roots and basal trunk are considered key to achieving a superior bonsai.

It is impossible to achieve a great bonsai tree with inferior rootage, above or below ground. Whatever method you use, it takes several years to grow a good Nebari, and the only way to get one quickly is to pursue it from the start or when buying new plant stock.

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Introduction to Growing Exceptional Surface Roots (Nebari)

Create a Proper Nebari
Create a Proper Nebari

One component of bonsai cultivation that hasn’t changed much over the years is how the trees are styled. Different bonsai styles will appeal to different people.

Still, they should all share age, beauty, and maturity – a reflection of nature’s stately, character-filled tree.

A bonsai tree must appear old, and a well-styled tree will make you wonder how old it is since it simply looks that old. A bonsai should be stunning and aesthetically pleasing, an embodiment of maturity, uniqueness, and ancient stature.

The most common part of a Bonsai that people associate with age is the Nebari surface roots.

We must understand that Nebari is more than simply surface roots; it also considers how a tree bursts out from the base and clings to the soil. Nebari gives the Bonsai stability and significantly affects how old a tree appears.

When roots develop too quickly, they appear youthful, extend out from the trunk, and even look artificial. Good Nebari only comes with time.

The Nebari should look to grip the ground as they extend out from the trunk’s base at the same level.

There shouldn’t be any spaces between the soil and the roots, and the thickness of the roots should generally be uniform.

By this, I mean that there shouldn’t be two or three incredibly thick roots and, let’s say, two very thin roots, all of which taper.

Achieving a nice taper may be accomplished by “feathering” the severed area along its transition into the soil. In addition, a tree should have stable rootage, which means that it should be endowed with sufficient size, arrangement, and a number of roots to help it appear anchored in the soil.

How to Create a Good Nebari From Cuttings

Good Nebari around the trunk
Good Nebari around the trunk

If you are growing trees from cuttings, then you have the ideal opportunity to create a good Nebari from the beginning. I start with stacks of cuttings that I pot up, but not all of them will be any good.

While it is best to root quite a few, so you have a selection to choose from, sort out the rubbish early so that you aren’t wasting time and space once they are underway.

Select cuttings that have roots growing all around the base of the cutting and not just on one side, as is often the case.

The best Nebari grows from a cutting base, developed from adventurous buds found along the trunk or branch.

Growing trees in large training pots or on the ground will produce much better Nebari than in a Bonsai pot. See my article on Growing a Bonsai – From Tree Cutting to Bonsai in 12 Years.

The ideal time to work on the Nebari is when you are repotting the tree or transplanting it from the ground or a training pot. In nature, Nebari is a result of the tree growing both vertically and in girth.

The tree pushes upward while the roots around the base expand, developing a flared platform. Over time, the soil around the tree’s base gradually erodes, exposing the surface roots so we can see them.

If there is no visible Nebari on our trees, we can remove the topsoil around the base of our trees to expose the roots close to the surface, a simulation of years of erosion.

I’ve often been quite surprised at what’s right under the soil’s surface, often discovering an attractive Nebari already present.

On the other hand, there might only be a few fine surface roots that will need to be encouraged to grow. The challenge is to view your tree as a whole, paying special attention to Nebari’s development.

Good Nebari is developed over time, but by just paying close attention to the detail now, we can vastly improve our trees in a much shorter time.

Sometimes this will require major work, or as I mentioned before, it can be as simple as wedging two roots apart that are growing too close together.

Developing Nebari with Regular Root Pruning

Refining Nebari while repotting
Refining Nebari while repotting

Every time you repot a tree, you should cut out the huge roots developing vertically to direct growth to the sideward-growing roots.

By doing this, the roots will become thicker over time and eventually produce a Bonsai Nebari that looks natural.

When developing new material, I set my stock trees on a tile to force a tree’s roots to grow sideways. The same result can be obtained by cutting back on vertically expanding roots and directing energy toward horizontal roots, promoting Nebari development.

Developing Nebari Using Air Layering

Air layering involves converting aboveground growth to a rooting system. This can happen when a plant’s branches are buried underground. An example is a fallen tree.

The Raft, or Netsunagari style, depicts this well. A woodland tree is blown over, shattering the branches on the downhill side, in the realistic scenario that this style aims to imitate.

The remaining branches (growing vertically from the undamaged side of the trunk) eventually grow to seem like new trees joined by the old trunk as roots form from the trunk lying on the soil.

In creating Nebari, we wrap a copper wire around the base of the trunk, partially blocking the stream of nutrients from the roots.

When the trunk grows thicker, the stream of nutrients will decrease incrementally, forcing it to grow new roots just above the wire. The process is best done in the early growing season – spring.

Developing Nebari Using Air Layering
Developing Nebari Using Air Layering

Tachiagari

Tachiagari means the lowest part of the trunk without branches, referring to the section of the base of bonsai trees from which a plant grows to become a trunk.

This portion in bonsai trees is important from the standpoint of Nebari (visible roots of a tree) firstly and tachiagari secondly. It is considered best for the trunk to emerge from the Nebari.

Bonsai Basic Fundamentals

Bonsai is an art; to become good at bonsai, you must master the fundamentals. These include the following but are not limited to. Click the links in the table to learn more about each subject.

PlacementPruningStyle / Form
WateringWiringBuying Bonsai
FertilizerDefoliationNursery Stock
RepottingDeadwoodGrowing from Cuttings
SoilSurface RootsGrowing from Seed
Pot SelectionTrunk
The fundamentals of Growing Bonsai

In Closing

Next time you look at a picture of a Bonsai, look closely at the Nebari, use a magnifying glass if you want, and have a closer look.

When you are in nature, look at the surface roots of trees growing around you and take note of the difference between the really old trees and the young ones.

Observe the detail of the roots of a slanting tree and how it anchors itself on the opposite side. Get inspiration from nature and then work out how you will achieve it.

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Manjari

Thursday 18th of August 2022

Hi, I could use tips on how to successfully shape and style a bonsai. Thanks.

Tony O'Neill

Friday 19th of August 2022

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