A Beginner's Guide to Bonsai

Updated on September 14, 2018
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David loves to share his passion for gardening and help others delight in the wonders of growing and caring for incredible plants.

Though it definitely requires some patience and work, growing and crafting your own bonsai is more doable than you might think! This guide will show you everything you need to know to get started.
Though it definitely requires some patience and work, growing and crafting your own bonsai is more doable than you might think! This guide will show you everything you need to know to get started. | Source

Many people have a misconception of what bonsai really is. The typical question many people ask is: "Are bonsai their own species of trees?" The answer is "no." To understand bonsai though, we first have to understand the term, and there are various terms for the craft. For example:

In Japanese, "Bonsai" means a pot (bon) that holds a plant or plantings (sai).

In Chinese, "Penjing" means a pot (pen) that holds scenery.

And finally in Japanese, "Saikei" which means planted scenery.

Almost any tree or shrub can be turned into a bonsai. The key is to prune the roots and the foliage to keep the plant looking dwarfed.

Ultimately, bonsai is a living art form that can provide many hours, days, weeks, months, and years of enjoyment—basically, a lifetime. All that can be achieved by having just a little gardening knowledge, just a hint of creativity, and most importantly, an endless amount of patience. With the fundamental prerequisites, anyone can enjoyably practice bonsai.

How to Create a Bonsai in a Few Easy Steps

Though we'll get into the fundamental basics more deeply after this, here's a quick, little guide to starting your own bonsai:

  1. Choose a tree you'd like to start training. Make sure the tree is healthy and is suitable for your geographical location. If not, be prepared to make accommodations for the plant when the frost arrives.
  2. Decide on a style you would like your for your tree.
  3. Prepare soil mix based on whichever tree species you chose. Mix the additives together in a large container.
  4. From here, there are two possible paths you can follow. A) If you're satisfied with the size of the plant and the way it looks, prep the bonsai pot that you have picked out. Mix in soil, and place a small layer of soil on the base of the pot. B) If you're not satisfied with the way the tree currently looks, place it in a pot or leave it in the ground for further growth. If you don't put it in the ground, place it in a pot, add the free-draining soil, and allow the plant to mature for a few years.
  5. Once you're ready to begin wire training your tree, take the wire at both ends so that it can hold down the root ball. (Note: Depending on the season, you might need to wire the tree at a much later time after potting the tree.)
  6. Take the tree and dislodge it from the pot. Prune back the roots and use water to wash away any dirt left on the root ball.
  7. Situate the tree into your desired pot. Wire both ends to hold down the root ball.
  8. Fill in the soil and cover the root ball. Use a chopstick to probe the soil and force it into the root system. Keep on filling in the soil and pushing it into the root base.
  9. Water the tree and allow it to recover.

Note: Do not fertilize the tree yet, as repotting has stressed it quite a bit.

A trident maple planted in root over rock style.
A trident maple planted in root over rock style.

What Kind of Tree Should You Choose?

Selecting a tree is often the most enlightening experience for any bonsai hobbyist. No matter where a potential bonsai, or "Poten-sai," is acquired, the hobbyist can spend hours analyzing and designing the tree in their head, even before it's purchased or dug up.

Tropical vs. Temperate

Even before selecting a tree, the hobbyist needs to be aware of their geographical location. Knowing this will help them better gauge what to acquire. By understanding their geographical location, their tree selection can then be narrowed down to two categories: tropical or temperate.

Does it belong to the tropical category, where these trees need protecting from the winter and temperatures below 60 degrees Fahrenheit? Or is it a temperate tree that needs to go into a dormant sleep during winter until spring emerges once again? Knowing if your potential bonsai is a tropical or temperate tree can help you choose wisely, so that you won't have to provide extensive protection for a horde of tropical trees for the coming frost.

Choosing the right kind of pot for the style of tree you want is an essential part of cultivating your bonsai.
Choosing the right kind of pot for the style of tree you want is an essential part of cultivating your bonsai. | Source

How to Select the Right Pot for Your Bonsai

A majority of the time, a bonsai pot is not needed until it is ready to be displayed as a bonsai. So it is technically not a bonsai until it is in a bonsai pot. Many people choose to plant trees into a big plastic or ceramic pot to grow the tree to achieve denser growth, to get thicker trunks, to develop roots, or just to build up the overall health of the tree. But when you are satisfied with the overall look of the tree, then it is ready for the bonsai pot. (Before a hobbyist begins this process, it's best to understand the reasons as to why we repot bonsai trees in the first place.)

Choosing a pot for your bonsai is not exactly an easy task. But a pot is a pot is a pot, right? Not exactly. In bonsai, a pot will finalize the tree, creating harmony between the tree and the pot. Bonsai pots are used purely for aesthetic reasons. Therefore, it is important to understand the guidelines of pot selection.

Dimensions

A general rule typically holds that the depth of the pot is equal to the diameter of the trunk after it's planted into the soil.

Masculine vs. Feminine

Just as trees can be said to display certain gender features, pots can also be classified into these two categories. Because pot shape and depth determines the gender of the pot, it is important to know how to pair it up with your bonsai.

Rectangular Pots—These are typically associated with masculine trees (featuring all the traits as listed in the table below). The main trees that almost exclusively fit the rectangular pots are conifers, as they typically have a more robust trunk and mature-looking bark.

Round Pots—These are commonly associated with more delicate and more feminine trees. This pot shape can suit both conifers and deciduous trees.

Oval Pots—These be generally associated with delicate bonsai as well. They are typically used in groups or to display a scene, due to the elongated pot and its ability to offer more depth.

Color and Texture

Bonsai pots come in an array of colors and textures. Combinations of colors and textures are used to, yet again, complement the tree. Though not as important as the shape of the pot, colors are a final touch to adding that final harmony to a tree.

As many pots come glazed or not, it is good to know how the glazing of the pot can further help define the prospective tree.

Glazed/Colored—Typically used for flowering trees to further accentuate the special feature of that tree.

Glazed/Earth-Toned—Can be used to suit any tree that is of the feminine quality.

Non-Glazed—Typically used for conifers and conveys a masculine quality.

A Little Personal Interpretation

A bonsai pot can mean a great deal when it comes to pairing it up with a tree. Therefore, the task of picking a pot is often not easy, and now we know why. But most importantly, picking out a bonsai pot is often a very exciting time, because you are picking the vessel that will house your tree. With a little bit of rational thinking and knowledge of the basic rules, a bit of personal interpretation can help with the selection process.

Gendered Characteristics of Bonsai Trees

Masculine
Feminine
heavily tapered trunk
delicate trunk
mature bark
smooth bark
angular branching
sleek and smooth branching
deadwood
some deadwood
very dense canopy
light and delicate canopy
This table breaks down the features commonly associated with the masculine and feminine characteristics of a bonsai tree.

What Kinds of Soil Do Bonsai Need?

To start literally from the bottom up, we have to start with soil, as it is one of the most important aspects of bonsai. A bonsai tree is bound to a pot, and the soil placed into the pot is the only medium to its existence. To say the least, many would agree that bad soil is the undoing of many bonsai trees.

What Is Bad Soil?

Any soil that does not drain well and leads to retaining too much water can be considered "bad." Allowing water to stay in the soil for an extended amount of time can cause root rot. A good example would be to imagine soldiers fighting in WWII who were hiding in trenches. After a good amount of time with constant moisture and a lack of proper aeration, the soldier's feet were vulnerable to various diseases. It's the same principle.

Good soil allows water to drain very quickly but is still able to retain water. Gritty and loose soil will also allow for roots to form more densely. Sharp particles like lava rocks—a soil additive—can help split roots, thereby causing the root system to get even denser. To help with drainage, many hobbyists add several other soil additives to help water drain away quicker.

What Soil Additives Can You Use for Bonsai?

Soil additives can be divided into organic and inorganic mediums. Organic matter like tree bark is generally used to help retain matter, whereas inorganic materials like rocks are usually there to facilitate aeration. Here are just a few examples of each.

Organic Soil Materials:

  • dead plant and leaf matter
  • potting mix
  • tree bark
  • peat
  • clay (often consisting of organic matter)

Inorganic Soil Materials:

  • akadama (naturally formed, clay-like mineral that is mined, typically dried, and does not require to be fired)
  • high-fired clay (such as Oil-Dri or Turface)
  • decomposed granite
  • coarse river rocks
  • kitty litter

For a more in-depth description of soil composition, check out my article on How to Mix Your Own Bonsai Soil.

Potential Soil Additives for Bonsai

Click thumbnail to view full-size
This is pine bark (with a quarter on the side for size reference).These are coarse river rocks, with a measuring spoon for reference.This is Oil-Dri material, shown in wet and dry form.This is decomposed granite, with a quarter for size reference.
This is pine bark (with a quarter on the side for size reference).
This is pine bark (with a quarter on the side for size reference).
These are coarse river rocks, with a measuring spoon for reference.
These are coarse river rocks, with a measuring spoon for reference.
This is Oil-Dri material, shown in wet and dry form.
This is Oil-Dri material, shown in wet and dry form.
This is decomposed granite, with a quarter for size reference.
This is decomposed granite, with a quarter for size reference.

How Often Should You Water Your Bonsai?

Though all trees require well-draining soil, different trees have different water requirements. Some may like more moisture than others. It is best to do a little research on your tree to help with understanding its moisture requirements.

Unlike a house pet who will whine and grab your attention if their food bowl is empty, a bonsai tree will not come to you for help when their soil is dry and needs watering. Therefore, once it is out of the ground and into a pot, the hobbyist should develop a tentative watering schedule and should tend to the trees religiously.

Summer seasons will require you to pay extra attention to the moisture level, as soil can dry out very quickly—and with well-draining soil, the tree will need extra attention. To check on the moisture level, it's best to insert a chopstick into the soil as a gauge of how wet it still is.

Note: There are two ways to water a bonsai. You can either shower the plant, or immerse the whole pot in water so that the holes on the bottom of the pot will allow water to find its way up into the soil.

What Kinds of Fertilizer Should You Use?

The key to significant growth is fertilization. When talking about bonsai fertilization, we run into the term organic and inorganic again. When fertilization is being used in bonsai, it's important to know that the tree is unaware of what its receiving, organic or inorganic. The plant will take what you give it and will thrive. That being said, there are some important differences between the two.

Organic Fertilizer

These fertilizers are derived from decayed plant or animal matter. They are typically the safer route, because they generally do not harm the environment. They do have their drawbacks though. Organic fertilizers tend to take a very long time—sometimes multiple weeks—to release. This is because they require heat to activate and rely on organisms to break down organic matter and release its nutrients.

Inorganic Fertilizer

These are synthetically made and artificially manufactured fertilizers. They can be somewhat dangerous if they leach into the ground water, potentially causing harm to surrounding organisms and the larger environment. They can also cause a lot of damage to the plant itself if not diluted properly, as they can burn the root system and weaken the tree tremendously. Inorganic fertilizers do come with some unique benefits though. They often come ready for immediate use, can disperse their nutrients faster, and can yield tremendous growth due to their potency.

A conifer tree before and after styling.
A conifer tree before and after styling.

How Should You Style Your Bonsai?

When deciding on a design, it is best to remember that styling a bonsai tree is a practice that captures natural features of life-sized mature trees and replicates them in miniature scale. Here are just some ideas of how to style your tree:

Formal Upright—Tree has a straight, upward-growing, tapering trunk. Branch thickness is styled accordingly, with the thickest on the bottom forming a triangular-shaped tree.

Informal Upright—Trunk has slight curves. The apex is generally located in line with the trunk base. Branch thickness is similar to formal upright.

Leaning—Similar to the formal upright style, this tree emerges from the soil at an angle with the tree canopy developing opposite of the base.

Cascade—The apex of the tree grows downward, reaching well past the pot base.

Semi-Cascade—The apex of the tree does not go any further down past the pot.

Root Over Rock—Roots are exposed and allowed to be wrapped around a rock.

Double Trunk—Two trunks that arise from a single root base, typically slightly above the soil line. The branches are positioned out in all different directions except towards each other.

Windswept—A tree styled to appear to have grown in an environment of strong and harsh winds.

Raft—A tree styled to mimic a tree that has fallen but is still growing on its side to produce multiple trunks.

Group Planting—This style has an odd number of plantings of loose, single-trunked trees. The goal is to convey a dense forest.

Here is a helpful visual illustrating a handful of the potential ways to style your bonsai.
Here is a helpful visual illustrating a handful of the potential ways to style your bonsai.

How Do You Wire Train Your Bonsai?

If you ask people what is one of the most interesting things about bonsai, one of the most common answers refers to the wires wrapped around the trees. Tree styling is made possible by wrapping wire around the trunk and branches, and wires can be used to achieve some of the more complex styles mentioned above.

Wires come in many gauges. They range from anywhere as thick as a pencil to as thin as a needle. The most important rule about wiring is that a healthy tree is the only tree that should receive any wiring for bonsai training. Wire training an unhealthy tree is pointless.

Why can't an unhealthy tree be wired? Because wiring a tree will cause some tears in the cell structure of the branch or trunk. With damage, the tree will ramify due to the tear and will stay in that shape. Bonsai training is all about ramification. Because an unhealthy tree is in poor condition, any training done to it may stress the tree, causing more harm to it. You wouldn't train your body by running in the cold and rain when you're sick. Thus, you wouldn't want to train a tree that isn't healthy either.

How to Use Wire to Train Your Tree

Wiring can be tricky, as miniature trees can be fragile. You will typically leave wire on a tree for as long as it takes for the tree to ramify and stay in that position. Wire is commonly applied in the late spring all the way to late summer. During that time, the plant is growing and is active. Anytime after that is not recommended.

Wire should be wrapped around the tree in a slanted, 45-degree angle and should be spaced according to how much bending is needed. By changing the distance between wrappings, the strength of the wire is changed. More will allow the wire to bend more and hold its shape. Less and the wire will lose strength and will not support the bend as efficiently.

You always want to start with the thickest and work your way up to using thinner and thinner gauge wire. Do not cross wires though. This will damage the tree, and wire marks are not aesthetically pleasing.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
This is a bonsai wire rack with varying levels of wire thickness.This illustration shows how multiple wires should be situated.
This is a bonsai wire rack with varying levels of wire thickness.
This is a bonsai wire rack with varying levels of wire thickness.
This illustration shows how multiple wires should be situated.
This illustration shows how multiple wires should be situated. | Source

The most important rule about wiring is that a healthy tree is the only tree that should receive any wiring for bonsai training. Wire training an unhealthy tree is pointless.

How to Prune Your Bonsai

Pruning is essential to maintaining the shape of the tree—though the term is loosely used, as it is a broad concept in the hobby of bonsai. By not pruning a tree regularly, however, the tree will slowly disappear, and the shape will be hidden in the dense foliage. Other types of pruning neglect can lead to the tree producing long, stringy branches that will grow in all directions, which is also very unsightly.

Pruning still follows the styling rule, in the sense that you would not want to prune a tree if it was not healthy. Doing so will also stress the tree and cause harm.

Here are a few of the different kinds of pruning when it comes to bonsai:

Maintenance Pruning—This type of pruning will remove those long growths to keep the tree shape in check.

Twig Pruning—This kind is used to thin out a thick pad or a thick canopy. By doing so, more light will be let in and thus reach other leaves within the tree.

Pinching—This type of pruning does so without the use of scissors. You literally pinch off buds to stop growth. Typically used on conifers where the bud (end of the growth) is pinched off to encourage growth elsewhere on the branch.

Leaf Pruning—This kind, also known as defoliation, is typically used on deciduous trees where the whole tree is stripped clean of leaves. This type of pruning is commonly done once every two years, as it can be very stressful for the tree. When conditions are perfect though, a complete defoliation can be done twice a year. The goal of a complete defoliation is to reduce leaf size. Typically, a complete leaf pruning is done three weeks prior to bonsai tree competitions.

Illustration of a ramification.
Illustration of a ramification. | Source
Illustration of maintenance pruning.
Illustration of maintenance pruning. | Source
Illustration of twig pruning.
Illustration of twig pruning. | Source
Illustration of pinching pruning.
Illustration of pinching pruning. | Source
Illustration of leaf pruning.
Illustration of leaf pruning. | Source

Interpretation and Support Are Key

Bonsai is a very rewarding craft. It can calm the mind and bring endless amounts of pleasure to those who like to see their actions rewarded with beauty.

It doesn't have to be scary, however. We tend to fear what we don't understand. I hope that I've helped clear the air a bit and coax you out of the cave of fears. Because although bonsai can cause a bit of frustration, this can often lead to the kinds of challenges that are fun to tackle. Like any hobby, interpretation is key. And in the end, your bonsai will be something you created. Your time, sweat, and blood will have gone into this wonderful organism.

Find a Support Group

My last piece of advice to anyone who is interested in bonsai is to join a forum or a group, because doing so will help tremendously. Should any questions arise, there will always be someone there who can help you get those questions answered.

I wish you good luck! And may you enjoy every moment you spend with your trees!

How would you rate your gardening skills?

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All it takes to grow your bonsai skills is a little gardening knowledge, just a hint of creativity, and most importantly, an endless amount of patience.
All it takes to grow your bonsai skills is a little gardening knowledge, just a hint of creativity, and most importantly, an endless amount of patience. | Source

Questions & Answers

    Comments

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      • profile image

        Jim 

        7 months ago

        The wiring diagram for wiring is not done correctly. One wire should do two branches. Should look at Colin Lewis` video on this topic.

      • profile image

        Herman Dekker, hermande@iinet.net.au 

        14 months ago

        Love your explanations. Did you publish a book? If not, can you recommend a book for me. I love gardening but have always been in awe of bonsai experts as I have never had to courage to try it. Until now. I am 83 but still full of life and intent to live another 10 years. For starters. Thank you so much for your clear explanation. I live in Perth West

      • profile image

        Choon Mah 

        19 months ago

        I am relocating to Nevada and would the climate there be unsuitable for bonsais either indoors or outdoors?

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