A Beginner’s Guide to Bonsai

If you’ve ever considered cultivating a Bonsai tree, you might be surprised and delighted by what an interesting and involved practice this is. From choosing a tree to styling and pruning, Melissa Strauss walks through the basics of getting started with this fascinating art form.

beginner bonsai. Close-up shot of a gardener making Juniper bonsai in the garden on a wooden table. He holds a toothbrush in his hand. The gardener is dressed in a checkered shirt of beige and red shades, on his wrist there is a modern watch, and on his finger there is a gold ring. The Juniper bonsai features a distinctive and elegant appearance. Its small, needle-like foliage forms dense clusters along delicate branches, creating a refined and intricate silhouette.

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The art of bonsai is both an ancient and thoroughly modern form of gardening. Once an art form that was predominantly reserved for the very wealthy, bonsai is a time-consuming practice that requires a great deal of patience from the artist. 

It is with painstaking diligence that the most exquisite bonsai trees are cultivated. Decades and even centuries of earnest attention from the culturist are required to create these fascinatingly small yet entirely mature miniature trees. 

Unsurprisingly, bonsai is not an instant gratification type of gardening. It is, rather, a long-term commitment to an art form that dates back thousands of years. If you have decided to embark upon this journey of bonsai cultivation, you may have some questions that need to be answered. Let’s dive in and discuss the art of bonsai!

A Brief History

Close-up of different types of bonsais in the botanical garden. The Juniper bonsai is a miniature tree that exhibits a distinctive and captivating appearance. With its evergreen foliage, the needles are needle-like, arranged in a dense and intricate manner along the branches. The trees feature gnarled and twisted trunks, reflecting the effects of age and environmental conditions.
Bonsai, originally Chinese, became Japanese around 1000 years ago and gained global popularity in the early 1900s, with a focus on aesthetics.

The word bonsai is Japanese. However, the art form it describes originated in China between 2000 and 3000 years ago, during the Zhou dynasty.

By the 700s AD, the Chinese had begun referring to the art of ‘pun-sai’ to grow trees in small containers to create dwarf versions of popular garden trees. At this point, bonsai was mainly a practice for the elite and very wealthy of the society. The idea behind the miniaturization of trees was centered on the idea that magical properties could be found in an accessible specimen of a much larger object.

It wasn’t until approximately 1000 years ago that the art form was brought from China to Japan, where the Japanese people drew from the practice and Zen Buddhism to create their own version of miniaturization. In Japan, the art of bonsai grew to be a more common practice across the society. 

The word ‘bonsai” was not used for this practice until the early 1800s. At this time, scholars of Chinese art had picked up the art form. A gathering of these scholars saw the Chinese term pun-tsai replaced with the Japanese term bonsai.

Where Do I Begin?

Bonsai is an art form that has been studied and performed extensively, and much writing exists on specific techniques. Cultivating these trees has become accessible through the bounty of literature available. To begin, there are three areas to consider: care, cultivation, and style. 

Selecting Your Tree

Close-up of many potted Juniperus itoigawa Bonsai in a garden center under bright sun. Characterized by its lush, needle-like foliage, the vibrant greenery of the Itoigawa cultivar imparts a sense of vitality. The branches gracefully cascade and form intricate patterns, giving the bonsai a delicate and balanced silhouette.
Choose beginner-friendly trees like Ficus, Juniper, or Chinese Elm, to match your environment and skills.

When starting, the first step is to identify a tree that will thrive in your environment and match your skill level. Trees like Ficus, Juniper, and Chinese Elm make very good starter trees, as they tend to be easier to train and are typically more forgiving than more complicated trees like Spruce or Weeping Willow. 

If you intend to keep your bonsai outdoors, consider the cold tolerance of the tree you choose. Some trees may be fully tolerant of your climate in their full size, but the reduced size of the roots and reduced soil insulation surrounding the roots of a bonsai make them less cold tolerant than their full-sized counterparts. 

Some trees are more tolerant of shade and make better indoor specimens, while others require a great deal of sun and are better suited to outdoor living. Tropical trees naturally need to be kept indoors for a portion of the year, but many deciduous trees can survive entirely outdoors as long as they have protection from intense sunlight and freezing temperatures. 

Acquiring and Cultivating Your Tree

Close-up of young potted Ficus microcarpa plants in Bonsai pots with thick trunks for further possibility of forming a Bonsai tree. Its glossy, dark green leaves are densely arranged along the branches, creating a lush canopy that contrasts with the smooth, pale bark.
Consider purchasing a mature pre-bonsai for styling.

Locating and purchasing your tree will depend on the type of tree you’ve selected. More common types may be widely available in many different growth stages, whereas the rarer or more costly trees will take more work to find and will be more expensive to purchase. 

Native or local trees and seeds can be collected and cultivated, but you must wait three to five years before your tree is ready to begin styling and training. I highly recommend purchasing a pre-bonsai or one that is already mature enough to begin the styling process for your first bonsai. Once you have acquired your tree, you are ready to work on potting your bonsai. 

Containers

Close-up of several bonsai containers on a concrete surface in a greenhouse, with a blurred background of various bonsai trees. These bonsai containers come in different sizes, rectangular, oblong, low, ceramic, blue with gold-plated borders.
Choosing the right bonsai pot is crucial; materials vary, but ensure there are drainage holes.

The meaning of the word bonsai is ‘plant in a tray.’ Choosing your tray or pot is nearly as important, stylistically, as choosing a type of tree. Your tree does not become a bonsai until it is joined with the pot. A classic bonsai pot is made from porcelain or ceramic and finished so that it does not hold or absorb moisture. 

Pots can be made from ceramic, metal, stone, concrete, or any material you choose. The vital elements the container must have are holes for drainage and anchoring your tree to the pot with wire

Utilize aluminum or copper wire to anchor your tree into the pot. Because a bonsai pot is shallower than other pots, there is not enough potting material to firmly anchor the tree in the container. Wiring the plant gives you a lot more flexibility in training and manipulating the branches without pulling the tree out of its planting location. 

Container Size

The size of your container is another consideration to make. Unlike traditional container planting, a bonsai tree typically begins its journey in a larger pot. As the plant develops and establishes a sturdy root system, you can repot it in smaller and smaller vessels. 

If you start your tree in a very small vessel, the tree is likely to survive but unlikely to develop any new shoots, and the trunk is unlikely to thicken to a desirable circumference. For this reason, plant your tree in a deeper, larger container for its first several years so the trunk thickens and branches out. 

As important as it is to not underpot your tree, it is equally important not to overpot. In other words, don’t fall prey to the idea that larger is better. A larger container will hold more moisture, which can lead to root failure. The ideal container dries daily. This means watering your tree nearly daily, but that is part of the process. 

As your tree establishes an intact rootball, it will become more efficient at using resources. Over time, you can trim the root system to fit into a smaller pot. However, initially, it is better to give your tree more space and a larger vessel to encourage strong root development, which, in turn, leads to more substantial growth of the trunk and canopy. 

Soil

Close-up of a woman adding fresh soil to a Rosemary Bonsai Tree on a white table. The Rosemary Bonsai Tree, a fragrant and herbaceous delight, presents a charming miniature representation of the aromatic herb. Its needle-like, evergreen leaves are small and slender, creating a dense and finely textured canopy. The tree develops a gnarled and twisted trunk.
Select bonsai soil carefully—ready mixes or a homemade blend for optimal drainage and aeration.

The right soil composition is very important to the success of your tree. Your soil needs to retain the right amount of moisture while still draining properly and providing the right amount of aeration for the roots. You can find ready-mixed bonsai soil in most places that sell the trees, as well as online. 

If you prefer to have more control over your potting mix, it is a great idea to create your mixture at home. Factors that have the greatest influence on the success of your tree include drainage, water retention, and aeration. 

The issue of over and underwatering is one of the more complex and important factors in cultivating a healthy bonsai tree. Your soil needs to hold enough moisture to supply the roots with the necessary water. It also needs to drain immediately so that no excess water pools in the container to rot a bonsai’s delicate root system.

Another important factor is compaction. Since your tree’s roots need to develop and strengthen as much as possible in the early years of cultivation, you want to give them soil that their roots can move through freely. Compacted soil can damage a bonsai tree’s root system and cause the tree to fail. 

Traditionally, bonsai soil contains a combination of organic compost mixed with lava rock, pumice, and Akadama, which is a hard-baked Japanese clay that retains moisture. Fine gravel or grit also helps to aerate the soil and promotes good drainage. Deciduous trees will benefit from a higher ratio of Akadama to the other elements, whereas coniferous and evergreen trees can handle a more balanced formula.

Watering

Watering a Japanese bonsai plant from a large metal watering can. Close-up of a gardener in a gray striped apron watering a rosemary bonsai tree indoors on a wooden table. Bonsai plant in a beautiful rectangular ceramic pot in dark black and gray color.
Irrigate your bonsai based on soil moisture, adjusting frequency according to the tree type.

How you water your bonsai will prove to be the most important factor in its success. Watering a bonsai tree is not as simple as developing a regular routine. The amount and frequency of watering a bonsai depends on the type of tree and the composition of the soil more than any schedule. 

The key to watering your bonsai is to allow the soil to become slightly but not completely dry. The amount of moisture your tree takes in will vary throughout the year, as most trees have dormant and growing phases. When a tree is dormant, it requires far less water.

If you are tending more than one tree, it would be easiest to water them on a similar schedule, but as I said, each tree is an individual, and so are its watering needs. As time goes on, you will get a feel for the way your soil holds water and what it looks like when it is time to water your bonsai. 

How to Do It:

The best type of water for a bonsai is rainwater, but that is not always available. Normal tap water works well unless it is heavily treated. It is important to water your tree’s roots thoroughly. 

Water from the top down, and make sure to water your tree until the water runs out of the drainage holes in the bottom of the pot. Repeating this after a few minutes have passed is a good idea, as you want to drench the entire root system fully.

Placement

Small Ficus retusa Bonsa on wood table at window. The Ficus retusa Bonsai, also known as the Ginseng Fig, boasts a distinctive and captivating appearance. Its glossy, dark green leaves are often oval-shaped, creating a dense and lush foliage canopy. The tree features a characteristic grayish-brown bark that develops interesting fissures and textures. The soil is covered with a layer of moss.
Position your bonsai in a sunny spot, adjusting for indoor or outdoor cultivation.

Once you’ve got your tree in its container, it is important to find a good spot where it will get the right exposure. Most trees need full sun, and some can tolerate partial shade, but too much shade and you won’t get much development. 

A south-facing window is a good spot to place your indoor bonsai tree. If you are cultivating your tree outdoors, consider the needs of the individual plant while also considering that its small size makes it more vulnerable to the elements than a full-sized tree. Protection from the wind and a spot that gets full sun early in the day with afternoon shade will be ideal for most trees.

Fertilizing

Close-up of granular fertilizers in a bonsai container on a blurred background of a green garden. The soil is moist and dark black in color. Granular fertilizers are small, round in shape, and orange-yellow in color.
Feed weekly in spring-fall for growth; decrease in winter.

Fertilizing your bonsai is vital to its growth and health. Because of the limited amount of soil available to your tree, it also has a limited amount of nutrients available. During your tree’s growing period, which is usually spring through fall, you should fertilize it weekly. As the weather begins to cool, your tree will need less water and fertilizer. 

Don’t fertilize deciduous trees during their dormancy. Coniferous and evergreen trees will also slow their growth in the winter. You can decrease their fertilization to once monthly until spring when rapid growth resumes. 

The optimal fertilizers for a bonsai vary throughout the year. In spring, it is best to use a formula with a higher nitrogen content to help keep up with the rapid rate of growth. In the summer, switch to a balanced formula; in the fall, when growth slows, switch to a low nitrogen formula.

Care and Styling

A bonsai needs to have regular care and maintenance, which includes styling the tree in a particular form. Your tree will need far more pruning and maintenance than other types of plants, and the way you prune and train the tree will heavily influence the type and style of tree you end up with.

Pruning

Close-up of pruning the leaves and branches of a Chinese Elm Bonsai in a sunny garden. Women's hands are dressed in bright yellow rubber gloves. She trims the branches of the plant using yellow-green scissors. Characterized by its small, glossy, deciduous leaves, the Chinese Elm forms a dense and intricate canopy that transitions through vibrant shades of green. The tree's bark exudes a mottled pattern of gray, orange, and brown, creating a textured and visually appealing trunk.
Regularly shape bonsai with specialized tools, consider defoliation for ramification, and perform annual structural pruning in early spring.

You can perform maintenance pruning year-round for indoor bonsai trees and during the growing season for outdoor bonsai trees. The objective of this regular pruning is to achieve the shape and size you want for the tree’s canopy. For conifers, you can prune by pinching, and small pruning shears are preferable for hardwood trees. 

A set of tools designed specifically for bonsai training is a good investment if you intend to continue cultivating even one tree. Not all trees need the same care, but they all need some light pruning two to four times per year

Prune off any branches that have outgrown your preferred canopy shape regularly. This will force the tree to grow more evenly and develop denser foliage. 

Defoliation is a common technique in training deciduous or broadleaf evergreen bonsai trees, which involves removing leaves from the branches. This forces the tree to produce new foliage, and over time, this will increase ramification and decrease the size of the leaves. 

Ramification is the dividing of tree limbs into smaller branches. This creates more dense growth, giving your bonsai the look of a much larger tree. Defoliation helps to increase ramification at midsummer when the leaves will regrow but not have time to enlarge. 

Perform structural pruning or pruning of larger branches to determine the overall shape and size of the canopy once per year. Do this in early spring before the tree re-enters an active growth period. 

How to Do It:

Close-up of woman's hands pruning a bonsai in spring using large black scissors. The bonsai tree has a graceful twisted trunk with branched branches on which young shoots are visible.
Prune a healthy tree up to ⅓ annually, removing low branches for visibility.

You can prune a healthy tree back by about ⅓ without causing extreme stress. This doesn’t mean that you need to remove ⅓ of your tree’s branches every year, but it is a good rule to keep in mind regarding your tree’s survival. 

Do this type of pruning when no leaves are on the tree, and its branches are fully visible. Remove any suckers near the base of the tree, as well as any low-growing branches that impede the appearance of the trunk. Remove any dead or broken branches and branches that are growing inward toward the trunk.

Using a pair of concave cutters is a good practice. This tool reduces the scarring effects of cutting to remove branches. Sealing off larger cuts with cut paste will aid in healing, minimize scarring, and protect the tree against infections.

Wiring

Close-up of branches of bonsai with twisted wire on a blurred background. The graceful, curving branches have layers of wire wound around them. Small, round-shaped, smooth leaves of bright green color with a glossy surface grow abundantly on the branches.
Wire dormant deciduous trees to avoid scarring during growth.

One of the more effective methods of training your bonsai tree is wiring. By wrapping branches with aluminum or copper wire, you can manipulate the shape you want them to grow into. Leave the wire on the tree for several months until it naturally begins to grow in the desired way.

Some types of trees are more effectively trained in this way than others. Wiring is not appropriate for maples or other trees that have similar, fragile bark, but it is very effective on many types. 

Do not wire deciduous trees while they are dormant to avoid interfering with foliage growth. Exercise caution when wiring a tree during a growth period, as the branches can outgrow the wire and end up with scarring as the wire cuts into the expanding branches. 

Repotting

Close-up of a gardener's hands transplanting a Juniper bonsai tree into a new clay container in the garden against a blurred background. The Juniper bonsai is characterized by its enchanting appearance, featuring needle-like leaves arranged in dense clusters along gracefully branching limbs.
Change your bonsai container every two years for young trees, annually for fast-growers, and 3-5 years for mature ones.

The limited amount of nutrients in such a small container means that you will need to repot your bonsai tree regularly. Your young bonsai tree will likely need repotting every two years, and if it is a fast-growing variety, you may need to repot every year for a few years. You can repot older, more established trees every three to five years. 

Repot in the early spring. To determine whether it is time to repot your tree, gently loosen the root ball from the container and lift it so that you can see the way the roots are forming inside the pot.  If the roots have begun to wrap around the central root cluster, it is time to repot the plant

Final Thoughts

There are many different aspects to cultivating a bonsai tree. There are too many to cover in one article, but stay tuned because we have more to share about this fascinating art form. While time-consuming and intricate, caring for a bonsai tree can be an incredibly fulfilling and exciting adventure for the committed gardener. 

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