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Starting Your First Bonsai Tree

I like to share my knowledge on bonsai and am a keen writer on bonsai art!

This article will help you care for you first bonsai tree.

This article will help you care for you first bonsai tree.

Starting your first bonsai is an exciting hobby to begin. This is a unique art form, because your canvas is alive and ever-changing. Mastering the art of bonsai is a never-ending journey, and knowing how to get started is the key to success!

When getting started with your first bonsai, it is essential to have a basic understanding of what bonsai is in order for you to make the right choice on what you would like to accomplish. Creating nature in miniaturized form, attending to its daily care, and shaping it in a beautiful art form is very rewarding and is the inspiration of many bonsai enthusiasts out there.

Below is a step-by-step guide to help you to get started on your first tree.

1. Choosing the Right Tree

Choosing the right tree can sometimes be difficult. There are many different varieties of trees that can be used, like deciduous, broad leaf types and evergreens.

I recommend starting with an evergreen variety for your first tree, such as a juniper. Juniper varieties are very easy to raise and respond well to pruning and other forms of training, like shaping with wire. They don't lose their leaves in the winter because they are evergreen trees. Other evergreen varieties include pine, spruce, and cedar varieties.

2. Decide Whether You Want an Indoor or Outdoor Bonsai

The growing needs of indoor and outdoor bonsai can vary a lot. Not all tree species are suitable for growing indoors, but all are suited for outdoors.

Growing indoors will mean you have a drier environment with less light. Tree varieties fit for indoor bonsai include: ficus, serissa, and boxwood. Note that some trees need to go into winter dormancy and cannot be grown indoors for long periods of time.

3. Choosing the Right Size Tree

I recommend starting with a small tree no older than five years old. These are common tree sizes in a nursery and are easy to work on and shape. Older trees are expensive and require an experienced artist to work on.

I would recommend getting a starter tree no bigger than 30 centimeters for your first one. Smaller trees requires very fine work and trained hands to work on, and large trees are very bulky and hard to work on.

Note: Growing your bonsai from seed is a timely process, and I would not recommend getting into the art this way. Although you can control every stage of growth of your tree, it will take a minimum of five years to reach a stage whereby it can be trained. I would grow a bonsai from seed as a side work.

4. Visualize the Finished Product While Selecting a Tree

There are many factors to look at when selecting a tree at a plant or bonsai nursery. Firstly, you need to identify trees that are healthy and have a vibrant green leaf color. Look at the branch structure of the tree, because it will give you different options of styling your tree later in its development.

You will also need to observe if the tree has any visual signs of pests and whether or not it has a good root system. One way to test whether or not a tree has a healthy root system is by wiggling it slightly—if it remains firm, you know it has a healthy root system. The tree will feel loose in the container if the root system is weak.

5. Selecting a Pot for Your Tree

Selecting a pot can sometimes be confusing at best. There are so many types and sizes to choose from. Ideally, you would like a pot big enough to allow sufficient soil for roots to grow in. A general rule of thumb in choosing the right size pot is that an oval or rectangular pot's length should roughly be 2/3 the height of the tree—and in the case of round pots, it should be 1/3 the height of the tree.

There is a large selection when it comes to bonsai pots and choosing one that best fits your tree's profile is crucial. According to Japanese artists, a pot should never be a stand out feature, as the tree should be the feature to attract the eye. But having a nice pot, either glazed or unglazed, is still important for the overall look of your bonsai.

Colorful glazed pots work well with deciduous and flowering bonsai, whereas your unglazed pots work well for evergreen varieties.

6. Potting Your Tree in Your Bonsai Pot

You have now selected the type of tree for your first bonsai and acquired a suitable bonsai pot. It is now time you to repot your tree in your bonsai pot. Styling and pruning should be done before the tree is transplanted (and I will cover this in a later article on styling and care of a bonsai tree).

Trees have seasonal life cycles, and only certain times of the year are best suited to repot trees. I advise you to research the best times in your region to repot your specific tree before going about it. Normally, most trees are best repotted just before and during the growing season in early spring to late summer. When in doubt, I advise this time of year.

  1. Start off by removing the tree from the current container and clean the roots from the old soil. This can be done with a chopstick by gently scraping the soil away from the roots. Start close to the trunk, scraping out towards the ends. Root rakes for bonsai also work well, but starting off with a chopstick will be more than sufficient at first. (In all my years of doing bonsai, I still work with a chopstick when cleaning off roots.)
  2. Work away all the old soil until you can clearly see the structure of the root in order to prune them.
  3. Cut away the taproot and any large roots that are not needed, leaving the feeder roots, which are the roots best suited for your bonsai tree. If roots are not regularly pruned, they can easily outgrow the bonsai pot and become root bound, which can lead to your bonsai becoming weak.
  4. Before placing your tree in the pot, ensure you have placed container mesh over the drainage holes and wire through the wire holes to keep the tree in place.
  5. Add a layer of soil before placing the tree in the pot.
  6. Place the tree inside the pot and secure it with wire over the roots, and gently tighten it as shown below. Ensure you keep the roots moist throughout the potting. If they dry out, they will die back and the tree might die as result.
  7. After securing the roots with the wire, start adding your soil to the pot. Work the soil in between the root with a chopstick, eliminating any air pockets underneath the root base. Fill up the pot until all the roots are well covered.

7. Aftercare and Maintenance

It is important to water your tree well after repotting it. Do not place the tree in full sunlight for a couple of weeks and be sure to water daily. Refrain from pruning and shaping until your bonsai starts showing signs of growth.

Research is your most valuable asset when starting out, and there are thousands of training programs and books to collect research from. Thorough research is the difference between good bonsai and great bonsai!

Happy planting!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Tyrone du Toit