Bonsai agriculture

Can bonsai orchards be the new way we grow our fruits?

Photo by Luciano Guimarães on Pinterest

The lockdown imposed by (almost) every country all over the globe to contain the spreading of Covid-19, has also led many of us to re-discover the delight of reading, start new hobbies or venture ourselves into new and unlikely activities to speed up the passing of time. For me, this has been attempting (with 0 success rate so far) growing a bonsai avocado tree, using seeds coming from a natural-size avocado plant. After weeks spent looking at the seeds hanging from three toothpicks over a glass full of water all lined up on my desk, I am still waiting for the smallest sign of awakening from my lethargic friends. However, during the wait, I started thinking if bonsai could become something different from just a “hobby”. Could bonsai orchards be feasible?

This thought came from the fact that, at present, 80% of suitable land for agriculture has already been used. At the speed at which the world population is growing, there will not be enough land to feed the 9 billion people expected (according to the Population Division of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affair) to be living on Earth by 2050. Besides improving our cropping systems via plant breeding to obtain high yield varieties, extending the agricultural production to marginal lands or growing our crops in stacked trays in vertical farms, we dont have many other options to make the best out of the land we have. Assuming that cutting down more forest areas to clear up room for crops is not an option, we need to be creative…so why not thinking if bonsai plants could actually bear our fruit supply? After all, they can definitely save much more space than normal trees right?

Avocado seeds, photo by the Author (Mattia Bradley)

Bonsai agriculture might sound like a good idea…

Besides allowing for a much higher planting density, the fact that the plant is small doesn’t affect the fruit: the plant size derives from a constant pruning of the branches and not from a genetic modification, so they bear normal fruits, which have the same taste of those coming from “proper” trees. Given the small size, also pruning and harvesting could be managed in a much easier, cheaper and faster way, as compared to normal orchards. Crop protection from agricultural pests, could be easily carried out by just covering the “trees” with nets, as we do to protect carrots in vegetable gardens. Probably the biggest problem we would face if we managed a bonsai orchard, would be having our trees overgrown by weeds taller than the tree itself! However, if we moved the bonsai system into a controlled environment, like a greenhouse, also the weeding problem could be more easily managed. Growing trees in a greenshouse is actually not uncommon, especially for varieties which flower in Spring (in the Northern Emisphere) and are therefore more prone to frost risk.

…but it is most likely irrealistic

However, growing a bonsai tree takes a really long time and probably even more care than a normal tree. From seedling to a “full bonsai” there is a time span of at least 10 years (it depends mostly on the species) of constant care: pruning and “training” to keep the tree small, require much more effort than the pruning to give trees the proper shape in a normal orchard. Bonsai trees also seem to be more prone to abiotic stress (mostly drought stress), so growing them on the field would become irrealistic, especially considering the extreme precipitations and drought events caused by climate change. We coud theoretically still grow them in a greenhouse, paying attention to humidity parameters and water supply, but the truth is that growing a bonsai is an art which requires a lot of patience and skills. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any information on how many fruits each bonsai tree grows compared to a regular tree, to see if having a higher planting density could at least make up for the lower individual production.

So far, bonsai agriculture remains an idea and bonsai trees are just a hobby. If I will ever succeed in making an avocado bonsai plantation, I will write a post about it in a 20 years time!


Agronomist and traveller. Passionate about sustainability and philosophy. Admin of blog

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