How to Grow and Style Bonsai

Updated on June 8, 2020
Patty Inglish, MS profile image

An educator and researcher with advanced degrees, Patty has studied East Asian cultures for over 30 years, including arts and landscaping.


How to Grow a Bonsai Tree

A friend of mine always has at least two small evergreen trees in pots on either side of his front door, growing outside of his home and gaining strength in order to become future bonsai trees.

A bonsai tree is not, in fact, a dwarf tree that was bred to be small. It is a standard tree of any of numerous types or it is a shrub that is grown in such a way as to become short.

This growth takes patience, much time, and focused attention to the root base and trunk of the plant before the bonsai grower and artist can ever attempt administering wiring and pruning. It is a long process.

Click thumbnail to view full-size

How Does One Achieve Bonsai?

A bonsai tree can be developed from cuttings at home. These cuttings can be made from trees in your own backyard, including softwoods, hardwoods, and conifers (pine, evergreen, etc.).

Many believe that bonsai originated in Japan. However, this tree-growing art began in China, and was adapted by the Japanese after 1000 AD, a little over 1000 years ago.

These trees can be started from seeds, cuttings, immature garden nursery trees, and a few other methods. Here, we will look at the easy "cuttings" method.


Developing a Bonsai Tree From an Evergreen Cutting

In the spring or first month of summer, choose one of your backyard landscape's evergreen trees or shrubs. Next, look at the branches and "leaves" of the evergreen and notice where the new growth is for this current year. Have a nice shaded place ready to store this cutting that you will make, because otherwise, the sun will dry it out and destroy it.

You will plant the cutting in a large pot or some other appropriate contain, but you will not use topsoil, simple potting soil, or backyard dirt. Use a combination of equal parts of peat moss and sand or of peat moss and perlite (looks like Styrofoam pellets). Remove a new branch from your evergreen with a bit of bark and wood attached to it and take off the leaves or spiny growths near the bottom, where it was attached to the tree or plant.

You will need to have 4-5 leaves left at the top. Next, put the wounded end in a good rooting compound briefly and then place that end carefully into your mixture of potting element in your pot. Be careful not to place it so deep that it touches the bottom of the pot. Press the potting mix firmly up around the stem of the cutting and water it very well with a water mixed with an anti-fungal (ask at your garden nursery).

Make several cuttings and proceed with them as above, placing them all into the same pot. Place a clear covering over the pot, such as a clear trash bag. When several new growths appear on a cutting, you may feel free to transfer it into a smaller pot. If this does not occur until autumn, then leave the pot over the winter so as not to shock the newly formed roots with transplantation in cooler weather.

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A strong trunk on a Formal Upright style Bonsai.Upright Style bald cypress.
A strong trunk on a Formal Upright style Bonsai.
A strong trunk on a Formal Upright style Bonsai.
Upright Style bald cypress.
Upright Style bald cypress. | Source

The Trunk Is the Foundation of Bonsai Success

The most important part of a new bonsai tree is the trunk. While some folks want to get right to the wiring and pruning, perhaps because of what they may have seen in movies, these steps are far off down the line in bonsai cultivation. Bonsai tree trunks must be patiently attended for a lot of time.

Bonsai cultivation teaches the artist patience and can bring peace into a chaotic world. This is similar to the Japanese art of flower arranging, which is not simply to stuff flowers into a vase. That also requires time and Japanese police departments often require officers to participate in flow arranging weekly in order to reduce stress and bring perspective.

A bonsai tree needs to grow outside for quite a while before it is ever brought indoors. These trees, grown outside, must be reduced in size several times in order to develop into a strong, beautiful and short tree. They must not be allowed to become "leggy."

Dish gardens.
Dish gardens. | Source

Viewing a Bonsai or Dish Garden

A bonsai tree is sometimes referred to as a dish garden and such dish gardens often contain more than just one tree as an exhibit. However, you will see three elements to any bonsai, including:

  1. the tree;
  2. accents like a stone, a small cup, a figure; and
  3. the base dish or pot.

The three of these elements make up a triangle and you may need to stand back in order to see that triangle the first time you look.

Notice that the top of the bonsai tree itself is the upper triangle point. The accent piece will be off to the left or right as another triangle point, and the opposite end of the dish will be the third triangle point. Indeed, once you see the first triangle, you may notice many smaller triangles possible within that picture, much like puzzles you may have seen in magazines and mathematics books. For example, the top of the tree and lowest two branches can make another triangle.

Bonsai Styles and Stylings

Two Fundamental Styles Produce Five Basic Stylings

Two traditional umbrella cultivation styles exist, including

  • Classic Koten Style
  • Informal "Comic" Bunjin Style or Literati or Chinese Style

For Koten, the trunk is wider at the base and pointed at the top.

With Bunjin, the tree is wide at the top, with the point at the bottom. So inverted, the tree is comic in attitude and may remind one of old relatives wearing a wide hat.

Formal Upright Examples of Koten

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Informal Upright style.
Informal Upright style.
Informal Upright style.

Nanga painting was also called "Bunjinga"

in Japanese and proliferated throughout

the Late Edo period among artists

who thought themselves to be

intellectuals or literati

as well as painting masters.

Literati Style (Bunjin)

Modern Styling Varieties of Bonsai

We have 5 modern stylings recognized by many, listed below with examples.

  1. Formal Upright: Larches, some evergreens, maples;
  2. Informal Upright: Japanese maple, some conifers, crab apple.
  3. Windswept (Slanting): Conifers are most successful.
  4. Semi-Cascade: Any that does not stand up straight.
  5. Cascade: Cedar, juniper, flowering crab and cherry.

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Windswept style Key LimeSemi-cascade style Mugo PineCascade style Virginia Creeper
Windswept style Key Lime
Windswept style Key Lime | Source
Semi-cascade style Mugo Pine
Semi-cascade style Mugo Pine | Source
Cascade style Virginia Creeper
Cascade style Virginia Creeper | Source

Miniature Landscapes

From ancient times as far back as 1000 BC comes the Land and Water Chinese Penjing style of bonsai that includes six elements:

  1. The Implied or Suggested. One must read between the lines to grasp what is truly there. Emptiness in the tiny landscapes symbolizes water.
  2. Movement. As in a Japanese sand garden, one should look at the penjing and ffeel energy moving through.
  3. Opposites. Yin and yang types of combinations like black and white, tall and short, wide and slim. A tall tree can be made to curve gracefully. A curving tree may be trained to stand up straight.
  4. The Void and Matter. Empty spaces are meant to stimulate the imagination of the viewer and to create energy.
  5. Relationships. No tree stands alone in penjing. You might notice the slant of a bonsai branch reproduced in a design painted on a small accent cup or in the pattern of the grain of a rock formation in the dish.
  6. Harmony. The whole is much greater than the parts. A penjing balances the opposites and the contrasts and creates more power and energy in so doing.

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Miniature Landscapes or Penjing
Miniature Landscapes or Penjing
Miniature Landscapes or Penjing | Source

Extreme Bonsai

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Large topiary bonsai.
Large topiary bonsai.
Large topiary bonsai. | Source


  • Bonsai Empire. This organizations maintains information on clubs in English-speaking countries. Retrieved October 2, 2018.
  • Ikebana International, Washington DC Branch. Personal expression in flowers. IKEBANA is Japanese artistic flower arranging. A disciplined art form involving a living thing. Mankind can beomce closer to nature in this art. Retrieved October 1, 2018.
  • National Bonsai Foundation. The United States National Arboretum. National Bonsai and Penjing Museum. Retrieved October 2, 2018.
  • The Ohio State University courses on Japanese arts and culture: JAPANSE 2231 - Elements of Japanese Culture; JAPANSE 5400 - Performance Traditions of Japan; JAPANSE 5454 - Japanese Literature: Classical Period.

© 2007 Patty Inglish MS


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    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      11 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      One really needs a Bonzai sitting service for such ancient entities. Thatmight be a good busienss! Thanks for your comments; you made me smile, but I'm sad for your Bonzai lost.

      A friend lost a small one a while back and simply planted it among the ranches of a new one not yet trimmed, to act as mulch. So it was not completely lost.

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 

      11 years ago from East Coast, United States

      patty, thanks for the cool hub on beautiful Bonsai, fascingating little creatures, aren't they, so mysterious, i so admire anyone who can create and maintain a Bonsai having failed miserably myself - got a lovely beach tree going for a while but when i went on vacation the girl who promised to water it forgot. glad it wasn't 350 years old haha

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      12 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      Thanks for the compliment, enlightenedpsych2. The textbook publishers I have approached so far on science/math subjects wish me to have a PhD in order to accept my work. However, further higher education is expensive. In addition, my particular specialty does not offer any coursework for the PhD, only an assistantship to a prof that requires long ours for about $800/month pay. I'll try other publishers, though. Thanks for the comments and ideas.  

    • enlightenedpsych2 profile image


      12 years ago from n.e. portion of U.S. on Planet earth

      Have you considered writing for a horticultural textbook for college classes, this was chock full of valuable growing, maintaining and nurturing information. Thank you so much

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      12 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      Agreed! I am going to start finding out where to get birch samplings for a start. This will be fun. I will ask gamergirl if she has ever done a birch bonsai...

    • Zsuzsy Bee profile image

      Zsuzsy Bee 

      12 years ago from Ontario/Canada

      Why not! Birch Bonsai it is! Next spring you and me Patty... we'll do it together then compare notes Okay??

      regards Zsuzsy

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      12 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      Yes, try again. If they die, we can put them in the compost pile so they are not wasted, except I think Pine makes a strange thing happen if the compost is used in a a garden....Anyway, I accidentallykilled a birch tree when I was about 8 or 9, so I want to do a birch bonsai now.

    • Zsuzsy Bee profile image

      Zsuzsy Bee 

      12 years ago from Ontario/Canada


      I really love the bonsai-trees. I still feel guilty about having killed several of them. Do I dare again?????

      Great info in your HUB as usual Thanks.

      regards Zsuzsy

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      12 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      Thank you Sunseven, I love trees. My favorite is really the birch.

    • SunSeven profile image


      12 years ago from Singapore / India

      Beautiful hub Patty.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      12 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      Thanks very much for the comment, GreatTattoosNow. I'm glad you like these pcitures too, I could look at them all day.

    • GreatTattoosNow profile image


      12 years ago from San Jose

      Great hubwith lots of great pictures and your information is spot on!

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      12 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      Hmm, well, in the film Bruce Almighty, God took a vacation. :)

    • Kenny Wordsmith profile image

      Ashok Rajagopalan 

      12 years ago from Chennai

      Yes, Patty, there's always something to look forward to. How horrible it will be if we know everything!

      How do you feel, God?

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      12 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      Thanks Kenny...I have found in life that everything is only the top of an iceberg, and we never can get to the complete bottom of it. Makes life fun and never boring!

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      12 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      O gamergirl, you are so friendly and engaging! Your Hub is very lovely as well. There are very thick bnooks devoted to bonsai, none of which I have read more than partially! I am thinking of joining one of the Bonsai societies.

      In Korean arts and other pursuits, which I learned in connection with martial arts, each artistic understaking - as well as many others - is awarded a belt ranking and the top person in the country in the field is made a National Living Ttreasure and supported by the government so that they may devote their whole life to their art or study. There are these living treausres in bonsai, flower arranging lacquer sho making, some martial arts, poetry and many more. I will never get to that level, but I love to look at and hear these things.


    • Kenny Wordsmith profile image

      Ashok Rajagopalan 

      12 years ago from Chennai

      Great hub, I didn't know there was a proper way to look at Bonsai!

      Thanks to you both, Patty and Charlotte for these hubs. I'm getting ready for some pruning!

    • gamergirl profile image

      Kiz Robinson 

      12 years ago from New Orleans, Louisiana

      Well sheesh, you covered all my bonsai information, and in a flat out, no nonsense, here it is fashion. Kudos!


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